Massage therapy has become an important aspect of horse management following the lead of human athletes. Being natural and alternative therapies that can be used instead of therapeutic and surgical interventions has increased the popularity of these techniques. A pleasure horse and a high-powered athlete horse can benefit from massage therapy and bodywork. Equine massage therapy includes a number of techniques that were used in humans. During the therapy, firm pressure is applied to muscles and underlying connective tissue (fascia) surrounding the muscles. There are specific anatomical locations that are used to apply pressure during massage therapy. Bodywork is a broad aspect that includes stretching exercises, acupressure, and positioning. Most of the time, bodywork and massage go hand in hand to improve performance, prevent possible disease risks, and rehabilitation.
Massage therapy or bodywork can be recommended to your horse if the animal gets involved in highly stressful situations or shows general discomfort and pain signs. This includes gait deviations, behavioral problems, and other signs of physical pain. A regular maintenance massage is usually recommended once a month in one animal. But this frequency may vary depending on its workload, age, and overall health. However, massaging your horse is contraindicated when discharges (mucous) are coming out from the eyes or nose and in case of labored respiration (indicative of restricted airways, massage can induce swelling or spasms in airways). Massage therapy helps to uplift the physical as well as mental health of a horse. It is more advantageous as a preventive measure that helps your horse to be in good health status than being done after any deviations from the general state of wellbeing.
Bodywork and massage are said to enhance the blood flow to different areas of the body while bringing in oxygen and other nutrients. Also, it helps to eliminate the lactic acid and other metabolic wastes from the body. This will lead to rapid healing of injuries and will prevent the animal from future injuries. Massage can loosen the scar tissue gradually and thereby enhance the healing of existing wounds. Also, it helps restore the animal’s mobility by post-traumatic healing and re-aligning of collagen fibers. Enhanced blood supply will improve the hair coat and muscle tone and facilitate lymphatic drainage as well. And most importantly, these techniques will boost the immune system of the animal and reduce the possible risk of catching various diseases.
Bodywork will provide relief from muscle spasms, thereby minimizing associated issues like having tender areas in the body, showing more flexibility on one side of the body than the other, etc. Electrical signals generated by the stimulation of the nervous system in a massage can be used to train the muscles for efficient movements and nerves to recognize ideal postures. Moreover, bodywork and massage can reduce the animal’s recovery time from a workout, improve endurance, relax the animal, increase flexibility and range of motion.
If your horse is anxious or severely stressed, a massage will calm its nerves and help it to adjust to a new environment easily. In addition, the effects of massage on the nervous system benefit your animal by; providing pain relief, relief from restlessness and sleeping issues, and improving proprioception (body’s ability to sense movements and action). A massage will cause the release of endorphins from the horse’s body, which helps in pain relief and generates a general sense of wellbeing. Pain, stress, and emotional breakdowns are all known to affect the hypothalamus function and thereby have negative effects on the Autonomic Nervous System (ANS). Massage therapy can minimize these conditions and cause positive chemical changes within the animal’s body, enhancing the function of ANS.
There are various techniques to be followed in equine bodywork and massage. Some of them are; kinesiology taping, craniosacral therapy, cold laser therapy, acupressure, sports massage, etc. Selecting which technique is best for your animal is important to gain quicker and more effective results.
Equine kinesiology taping is a rehabilitative physiotherapy technique often used by veterinarians and therapists to promote the natural healing process of the body by the manipulation of soft tissues. It mimics massaging and supports the bones and muscles. Also, it stabilizes the joints and does not restrict their normal range of motion. The tape is wrapped around the injured tissue so that it adheres lightly to the tissue while stabilizing the area. Also, it applies pressure to the tissues to which it adheres. Kinesiology tapes support injured and weakened muscles by reducing muscle cramps, fatigue and by facilitating normal contraction and relaxation of muscles. Also, it improves both lymphatic and blood circulation of the surrounding tissues, thereby removing congestion. Anti-inflammatory effects (reducing pain, swelling, and heat) are brought about by removing lactic acid and other metabolites and bringing in the components needed for healing. Furthermore, it helps to correct joint problems by stabilizing ligaments and tendons, by reducing joint swelling, and promoting proper positioning of the joints while healing.
Equine Craniosacral therapy is a gentle and subtle technique in which the membranes and movement of cerebral spinal fluid in the central nervous system are examined and optimized with extremely light finger pressure. It is specifically focused on the skull of the horse. Craniosacral therapy is a holistic treatment option (which considers the whole animal; body, mind, and emotions together) that heals many pathological conditions of the animal by calming the nervous system of the animal. It is an effective way to maintain the biomechanical balance of the animal and for skeletal and muscular health. It will also be used to treat equine-specific conditions such as imbalances of the temporomandibular joint, paralysis of the facial nerve, and headshaking. In addition, this technique is successfully used in treating behavioral problems, teeth grinding, problems in masticatory muscles and temporomandibular joint, head traumas, acute and chronic injuries (especially in the head area), respiratory difficulties, lameness, and transition difficulties, problems in joints like stifle joint and hock joint, etc.
Other than that, there are other important techniques like acupressure and cold laser therapy. Acupressure is a technique that was used earlier in traditional Chinese medicine. Unlike acupuncture, which uses needles to puncture various places of the horse’s body, this technique only uses non-invasive pressure to treat the animal. Applying pressure on specific acupressure points helps to release endorphins and cortisone, which helps relieve mild pain, reduce inflammation, and influence the animal's mental health. Equine cold laser therapy, which is also called therapeutic laser, is a safe and non-invasive technique used in treating horses. It accelerates the healing process of damaged tissues. It is recommended in poor wound healing, arthritis, muscle pain, tension, spasms, nerve injuries, tendon and ligament injuries, etc. Procedures like sports massage and Magna wave therapy will help the horse to train to its maximum potential. Those techniques will assist in recovery and help the animal to recover from injuries faster.
Overall benefits of most of these bodyworks and massages are similar among most of the techniques. They will enhance the physical and mental health of the animals, thereby improving the performance and protecting the animals from possible risks of disease in the future.