Equine massage, performed directly on horses in order to improve their health, athleticism and overall performance, is often viewed as a spinoff of human massage since many of the techniques employed by equine massage therapists were first performed on humans. Although the practice of massaging horses is sometimes viewed with skepticism, it is becoming increasingly popular, especially in competitive equestrian sports.
What Is Equine Massage?
Equine massage involves the application of hands-on massage techniques designed to relieve muscular pain and tension, assist in recovery after an injury, and enhance the physical fitness of a horse. Though equine massage is considered a relatively new field of massage therapy, the practice dates back to ancient Greece, when horses were massaged prior to battle and during the Olympic games as a means of improving their performance.
The general practice of equine massage began in the United States in the 1970s when Jack Meagher, a massage therapist for NFL athletes, was asked to provide therapy for the United States Equestrian Team. He worked along with the team at the Montreal Olympics in 1976, and equine sports massage, the method he developed, is one of the most popular forms of equine massage today.
Equine massage is most often performed on horses involved in equestrian sports such as dressage and horse racing. However, horses used only for recreational riding can also benefit from massage.
What Happens in an Equine Massage Session?
Before engaging in any form of massage, the therapist will perform a thorough evaluation to determine the specific needs of the horse. This normally involves consultation with the owner or trainer, observation of the horse at rest and while walking or trotting, and a physical examination of the horse.
The massage techniques used will vary depending on the unique needs of the horse and the therapist’s particular approach to massage. However, all therapists are likely to employ a series of hand movements designed to manipulate soft tissues, particularly muscles. These might include stroking, rubbing, kneading, pounding, clapping, and other application of pressure. In addition to using one or both hands, therapists may also use their fingers, knuckles, elbows, or vibrating equipment to stimulate body tissues.
Equine massage sessions typically last 1-2 hours and can be conducted outdoors or in a barn or stable. The horse might be secured with cross ties during the massage. After each session, the therapist may suggest exercises the owner or trainer can perform to further assist the horse. Significant benefits can often be gained from a single session, but regular treatments are usually needed to promote and maintain optimum performance.
Benefits of Equine Massage
Equine massage is both restorative and preventative. It assists in restoring functions lost due to strain or injury so the horse can function optimally while also helping to develop and maintain the physical health of the horse to prevent future injuries from occurring.
Specifically, it produces these effects in the following ways:
- The physical manipulation of muscle tissue reduces pain and tension, allowing the horse to move with greater ease and fluidity. Massage also stimulates the release of endorphins which reduce the perception of pain. Since massage helps to keep muscles relaxed and supple, it lowers the risk of injury significantly.
- Equine massage improves muscle tone and elongates connective tissue. This results in an expanded range of motion—longer strides, faster speeds and increased endurance, all of which enhance the athletic capability of a horse. Massage also helps to prevent muscle atrophy during long periods of inactivity resulting from illness.
- By increasing the flow of nutrient-rich blood to muscles, massage helps to speed up the healing process after an injury, reduces recovery time after competition or strenuous exercise, and flushes out toxins as well as excess fluids that have accumulated in muscle tissues. Massage also stimulates the lymphatic system, which is essential for fighting disease.
Horse owners often note an improvement in the emotional health and behavior of horses following massage, in addition to the physical benefits massage often yields. For example, massage therapy can induce relaxation in stressed, agitated and anxious horses, including those with a history of abuse. A reduction in muscular pain, stiffness, and discomfort also means the horse may be less fearful and more willing to perform.
Equine massage is also credited with improving learning and training, which may be due to increased blood flow to the brain as well as the mental relaxation induced by the massage. Further, massage performed by the horse owner can help strengthen the bond and trust that exists between horse and owner.
Precautions for Equine Massage
Despite the many benefits of equine massage, the practice is not recommended as a substitute for veterinary care. In the United States, equine massage therapy is not allowed without referral or consent of a practicing veterinarian surgeon.
As is the case with human massage, equine massage may actually be harmful in cases of severe injury or muscle tears. Sufficient time must be allowed to pass between an injury and a massage: If the horse’s blood vessels do not adequately heal, massage could lead to muscle bleeding, which might delay the healing process. Similarly, if the horse has an open wound, it is best to wait until the wound has healed completely before performing massage.
If a horse is pregnant, it is recommended the massage therapist avoid massaging the abdominal region to reduce risk of injury to the developing fetus. Given that massage increases metabolism, it could also make an existing fever worse and is therefore best avoided until the fever has gone down. If a horse has been engaged in intense physical activity, such as competition, exercise or training, it is recommended therapists wait between one and three hours before initiating massage.
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