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Equine massage

An endurance race horse receiving a post-race massage

Equine massage is a topic of increasing importance in horse care. Professional and recreational horse owners use it to improve performance, increase mobility and range of motion, and free up the horse's poll, neck, shoulders and back to improve jumping, bending, turning, and stopping. It is used in treatment of specific maladies such as Equine Exertional Rhabdomyolysis.

Owners who learn equine massage can also learn how to use touch, and the horse's response to touch, to open a new avenue of communication with the horse.

Equine massage is a small investment in the horses health. Massage causes the muscles to fill with rich oxygenated blood flow and increases circulation; which hastens the elimination of wastes and toxic buildup from fatigued muscles. Alleviation of muscle tension and spasms can naturally increase the horse's efficiency. Removing harmful toxins from muscles and joints increases the flexibility, muscle tone, range of motion and enhances competitive performance. By using a consistent massage therapy regime, you can improve your horse's performance, confidence and over all quality of life. There are several mechanical high quality products designed and tailored specifically to the horse industry which provide beneficial massage through non-invasive deep tissue response ancillary therapy.

Not only does massage improve its performance and health it can also be used to help the horse relax. If a horse is very stressed out or jumpy, massage normally will help relax the stressed horse and it helps improve the confidence of a jumpy one. Massage can help the horse and handler bond.

Massaging a horse before competition can result in as much as 20% increase in the animal's efficiency.[1]


The massage itself

Before beginning a massage, practitioners should first check the horses health, by checking vital signs, and cleaning the horse of any dirt and checking for injuries. They should work in a large, clear, quiet space that is free of any obstacles and small animals. The horse should either be held by a handler or secured so that it has a full range of head motion for relaxation. The massage should start out with light, gentle pressure and move slowly to deeper strokes. A record should be kept of all treatments, with schedules for what will come in the future.

Four T's

The Four T’s to remember while massaging are temperature, texture, tenderness and tension.

The horses body temperature is about 38 degrees Celsius or 99-101 degrees Fahrenheit. If there is a body temperature fluctuation that may mean that there is some sort of muscle soreness or injury. Texture is how the skin “feels” which basically the elasticity and the density of the skin. Is the skin healthy or does it feel a bit softer or kind of puffy, which could mean that it is swollen. Tenderness means is the area that you are working with is sensitive to the touch which may be severe or not. Tension means have certain muscles been overworked when this happens the muscle is receiving less blood, nutrients, and oxygen, which can cause a toxic build-up and trigger stress points.

Massaging the head

Massaging the head of the horse requires a light touch, since you are working on bones, muscles and nerve endings that are small and close to the skin. Some horses are not comfortable with having their faces touched, and so practitioners must be extra careful when working in this area. Some spots on the head, such as the upper lip/gums, lower jaw, around the eyes and the ears, will trigger strong responses.

Various massage moves

  • Stroking - This is used to help relax and sooth the body by affecting the central nervous system. When doing this you want to go with the direction that the hairs lay.
  • Effleurage - This is one that you will be using most often, and it emphasizes proper drainage. This is a simple gliding movement that has an even stroke. This is supposed to have draining affect on the body fluids, such as lymph and blood.
  • Petrissage - This is the foundation of other movements that are used for equine massage. Most of these movements are for soothing the animal, but it can also be stimulating too if done more quickly.
  • Kneading - This is a rhythmic circle, just like kneading dough. This helps boost circulation and oxygenation to the muscles. It also helps to drain fluids from the muscle by separating the muscle fibers. When doing this it helps point out the stress points and also helps you to feel scar tissues.
  • Compression - This is made with the palm of the hand with a lightly clenched fist. This is used over a larger area of muscle, most likely in the hindquarters.
  • Muscle Squeezing - This is mostly used on the legs, crest of the neck, and the tail of the horse. This is to help decongest and help the muscles to relax. This also helps to increase circulation.
  • Picking Up - This is done with the legs, it’s a simple motion of gently picking the muscle up with both hands at a right angle.
  • Wringing - This helps to increase blood circulation and also helps to fight circulation. This is mainly used over the back, shoulders, and the hindquarters.
  • Skin Rolling - This is used to maintain a healthy coat and helps with the skin elasticity. It is a gliding movement over the skin in a slow manner.
  • Vibration - This is used to reach the deeper muscles. When doing this you use the whole lower arm (Elbow to the hands). The vibration is flat handed and when starting you want to use light pressure.
  • Shaking - This is a step up from vibration where you just lightly touch the skin but with shaking you are trying to make the skin move a little but not a whole like. With this thought you should watch how the horse reacts.
  • Friction - Supposed to help break down adhesions that have formed over the muscles. This can be done either gently or a bit more strongly, but it all comes to what you were expecting to get out of the motion.
  • Nerve Manipulation - This is the foundation of Nerve Stoking, which helps to relax the animal. It is a simple stroking action. Nerve Pressure, which is knowing where the pressure points are and applying a little pressure to restore a bit of feeling to the horses legs.
  • Tapotements -This is different types of patting the body. Some of the different types are clapping, which you use the palms of the hands. Cupping which is when you cup your hand. Hacking which uses the side of the hand with the pinky finger and just let your fingers hang. The last of the different types of patting the body would be Beating which you have a closed fist, though when doing this you should remember to have a relaxed fist.

Massage treatments

File:Equine massge.JPG
Equine massage back pack
  • Hydrotherapy - Basic water treatments which helps to receive pain that is either acute or chronic, and also in inflammatory disorders in both humans and animals
  • When using Cold - This helps to stop bleeding when used right after the trauma has happened. You can also use this method when there is inflammation in the legs or you could apply to an old injury that’s acting up. When using cold, it first chills the skin, which makes the blood vessels constrict. This also helps to reduce swelling and helps by decreasing pain by numbing the sensory nerve endings.
  • Using Heat - Heat is used at every level in medical practice, so it is used with heat lamps, ultrasound, lasers etc.… When using heat it helps to sooth the sensory nerve endings. With this it dilates the blood vessels and helps by bringing in more oxygen and nutrients to the tissues. Using heat helps to loosen muscle fibers, tendons, and ligaments. This helps to dislodge toxins that have built up and helps prepare the muscle for the massaging. It also helps with the relaxation and with it, it lowers blood pressure, while it raises the bodies temperature, and increases metabolism.

Kinesiology of the horse

Some kinesiology terms that are important in massage are:

  • Abduction - To draw away from the midline of the body or from an adjacent part or limb.
  • Adduction - To draw inward toward the median axis of the body or toward an adjacent part or limb.
  • Agonist - A contracting muscle that is resisted or counteracted by another muscle, the antagonist.
  • Antagonist - A muscle that counteracts the action of another muscle, the agonist.
  • Concentric Contraction - Contraction that occurs while the muscle is shortening as it develops tension and contracts to move a resistance.
  • Eccentric Contraction - Negative contraction Sports medicine Muscle contraction that occurs while the muscle is lengthening as it develops tension and contracts to control motion by an outside force.
  • Isometric Contraction - muscle contraction without appreciable shortening or change in distance between its origin and insertion.
  • Protraction – The motion of the legs going forward
  • Retraction – The motion of the legs going backward

Kinesiology is basically the study of how different structures are able to move. So when we start to learn this we have to know the basics of how the muscles, tendons, ligaments, bones, and the joints are put together. As everyone should know the front legs move totally different from the hind legs.


  • Equine Massage A Practical Guide


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