With over sixty percent of their body weight being muscle, it’s no surprise that many horses enjoy, and benefit greatly, from being massaged. While there are professionals available to maintain equine soft tissue, there’s also some easy massages you can do at home to help keep your horse feeling good and performing his best.
Benefits of massaging your horse can include:
Improved circulation - by dilating blood vessels, allowing more oxygen and nutrients to reach cells, while waste is carried away. This can help speed recovery.
Improved movement - by releasing adhesions, improving muscle tone and reducing stiffness. Massage can increase range of motion and stride length, creating better and more efficient movement.
Lower stress - by creating a sedative effect through the nervous system and offering release of tension.
Preventing injury - by breaking down scar tissue and promoting healthy and elastic muscle that is less likely to tear.
There are three main massage strokes you can use on your horse. While the whole body can be massaged, the examples below will focus on the horse's back, which contains many of the large and important muscles. Movement, saddle fit, and carrying the weight of a rider, make the back a common area for soreness, and a good starting point for massage.
Effleurage is usually the first stroke used. Its lighter pressure and smooth gliding action helps warm and relax tight muscles. Working from behind the shoulder with a cupped hand, use the side of the palm and fingers to apply light pressure. Move with the direction of the coat down the horses back in long, sweeping strokes to relax the back muscles and begin to smooth the fascia. Spend a few minutes on each side of the back.
Compression can vary from light to intense pressure depending on the part of the body and the state of the tissue being worked. Use the base of the palm and heel of the hand against the back, your other hand can provide additional support and pressure if needed. Again, starting behind the shoulder, press gently but firmly into the muscle, and then release. Upon release blood flows back into the compressed area, increasing oxygen, removing waste products, and promoting tissue healing. Repeat the compression as you move down the horses back on each side, taking care not to compress the spine, ribs or any bony surface directly.
Cross fiber friction is a deep massaging technique used to separate and muscle fibers and breakdown knots, adhesions, or scar tissue. Unlike other techniques, cross fiber friction is applied against the grain of the coat, and the muscle. Using either two or three fingers together, place them on the large muscle in the horses back behind the shoulder. Your free hand can be used to support or add additional pressure to the stroke as you get a sense of what your horse enjoys. Move the pads of your fingers back and forth over the area of muscle within immediate reach. The goal is to have the skin remain still under the fingers so that the deeper tissue beneath it is being massaged. The movement should be slow and begin with a light pressure that can be gradually increased while being mindful of the horse's reaction. Once each section is complete, lift the fingers and move to the next area, working down the horses back on each side.
Never use more pressure than your horse is comfortable with and be prepared to decrease it if he shows signs of discomfort. Watch the horse constantly throughout the session, observe the feedback provided to help direct your efforts and identify areas of soreness, and which techniques he enjoys. Licking and chewing, sighing, gut sounds and soft facial expression are all good signs that the horse is enjoying, and benefiting, from your work. Massage is not recommended for pregnant mares or horses with acute illness or injuries. Always talk to your vet before making any changes to your horse’s program.
Demo Horse: Dartagnan SBA (Om El Al Azeem x Dubravka by Padrons Psyche) Bred by Stella Bella Arabians, owned by Emma Kersey-Doherty