If you’re at all serious about riding, you probably know about the benefits of equine massage therapy for your horse. Equine massage is ideal for keeping fit horses supple, increasing range of motion and helping injured horses rehab faster. It can also release endorphins that improve the mood of a horse, encourage circulation to speed healing from colic and calm nervous horses.
Sometimes, however, a professional equine massage session isn’t possible for a variety of reasons. Here’s a look at some techniques you can do when a session with your pro isn’t on the calendar.
Why DIY equine massage?
A formal equine massage session may not be practical because of numerous factors:
• massage must be scheduled in advance (you may not always be able to predict horse’s needs)
• time (full massage sessions take about 45 to 90 minutes)
• availability of equine massage therapist in your area
• the necessity for a full massage every session (may desire mini-massage after a heavy training session, during rehab or before a farrier visit)
Therefore, being able to do a few massage techniques on your own between professional appointments will be a boon to both you and your horse. However, DIY massage is not a substitute for regular, longer sessions.
If your horse is typically groomed and tacked by someone else, DIY massage sessions give you an opportunity to bond with your horse and to learn your horse’s unique anatomy, so you can recognize any changes that could portend a health issue in the future.
How do you set the stage for a successful equine massage?
If you’re going to spend more than just a few minutes rubbing your horse, you want to create an environment for a relaxing massage session. Remember, horses are prey animals and are naturally on guard virtually all the time. If you were tense and ready to flee imminent danger, how easy would it be for you to relax for a massage?
First, find a quiet space away from horse traffic and loud noises. Instead of the stable grooming station, try your horse’s stall, if it’s in a relatively out-of-the-way location. Or head to a corner of an unused arena or even a pleasant spot outdoors. If your stable is noisy, you can try using a little white noise, like a fan, or music on a portable player to screen out unwanted sounds.
If your horse is good at staying put for you, you can leave it at liberty. Otherwise, use a lead rope to keep your horse from wandering off. You can tie it off or have someone else hold the horse for you. Cross ties are not recommended, though, since they don’t allow the horse the freedom of movement required for massage.
If your horse is fidgety, you can offer a flake of hay, a little grain, or a snack like an apple on a string as a distraction. You can also let your horse graze on natural grass outside. Allowing your horse to eat during the session, even if it’s just 15 minutes, will keep it from mouthing you and help it associate massage with pleasure. This is especially useful if your horse is on the nervous side or very young. Permitting your horse to eat also ensures that the horse’s neck will relax and that the head will be lowered enough for you to rub the neck.
What professional massage techniques can you employ to help your horse?
Behind the ears. Start by gently rubbing the small spot directly behind the ears with just two fingers. This helps the horse relax and allows you to gauge the level of tension in your horse at that moment. Give this a good 60 seconds behind each ear.
Neck, along the mane line. A horse’s neck, along with its legs, is a major miracle of anatomy. Just keeping the head upright at liberty asks a lot of the neck muscles, but the demands of riding with a bridle can increase load there. Add in over-repetition to one side, “hands-y” riding, and the horse holding tension in its neck (like humans do in their shoulders), and you have the potential for chronic neck strain. This can influence both performance and disposition. Use your thumb or two fingers to rub along the neck just under the mane in a back-and-forth motion, working slowly down the neck from the poll. This cross-fiber friction can help release tension and increase neck suppleness.
Poll-to-tail check. At the poll, place your thumb on one side of the mane and your forefinger on the other, so your fingers straddle the spine. With a medium-light touch, run your hand down the length of the horse’s spine, all the way to the tail. Watch for any flinching on the horse’s part, and feel for any spots that feel hard where the flesh should be softer. Trouble spots can indicate a spasm that needs professional attention, a vertebra (bone of the spine) that is out of alignment, or a place where the saddle or tack is causing discomfort. Make a note of the exact location and let the appropriate professional know; usually that’s your veterinarian, but if you are currently working with an equine chiropractor, it may be time for an adjustment. Your vet may recommend a longer massage session, a visit from the chiropractor, equine acupuncture or a professional saddle fitting.
Shoulder/upper arm grooves. Horses bear a lot of weight on their shoulders and front limbs. This is particularly true if you jump, if you tend to ride on the forehand or if you get a lot of “more uphill” comments on your dressage tests. Run your forefinger down the shoulder from the shoulder blade, and feel for the grooves between the large muscles at the top of the forelimb. If you feel any knots in the grooves, use your thumb to relieve them by applying light pressure on the spot for about 15 seconds. You can move the thumb in a slight circular motion, the way you might to ease a charley horse in your own leg.
Serratus thoracis muscle. The serratus thoracis muscle is located where the shoulder and the latissimus dorsi muscles meet the rib cage. This muscle is responsible for several functions, but perhaps most importantly, it helps the horse remain properly positioned when standing upright. Since most horses stand almost all the time, naturally this muscle is nearly always in use. If your horse tends to favor one side when turning, this muscle may also be unbalanced between the horse’s right and left sides. Use the heel of your hand to apply medium pressure to the muscle, and stroke towards the rib cage along the length of the muscle to help it relax.
Kidneys/lumbosacral joint. If you ride a discipline that requires a lot of collection, like dressage, this can put stress on the horse’s lumbosacral joint, where the back and the hip meet. The kidneys are in that area too, at the end of the back, quite close to the surface of the body. By simply cupping your hands and placing them over the kidneys and the lower back for a minute or two, you can provide heat that both relaxes the lumbosacral area and sweats the kidneys to help expel waste in the urine. (When doing this, you may notice your horse sweats between the legs. Some horses like it so much they hang their heads with a deep sigh.)
Leg check. Did you know there are no muscles below the knee in your horse’s legs? It’s all tendon and bone down there, so there’s not much to massage. What you should do, though, is wrap your hands lightly around each of your horse’s legs and run them from top to bottom. Feel for any swelling, abnormal lumps, excessive heat or cold spots, and report any adverse findings to your vet right away. If you do this every time you see your horse, not only will you help your horse get used to being touched more (great for the farrier, groomer and vet), you’ll be able to notice minute changes before they become big soundness issues.
Point of the hip. The hip is a complex joint where many anatomical structures come together. Just like with the lumbosacral area, cupping your hand over the point of hip provides heat and relaxation for your horse. If your horse is older or has overall degenerative joint problems, you can also sweat the stifle for the same results. Know that it’s normal for some horses to become restless after about 15 seconds of heat over the point of hip.
Large muscles of the thigh. Those big muscles on the outside of the thigh contribute to impulsion in all movements, and like your thighs, are prone to stiffness and discomfort after hard training. Starting at the hip and working towards the back of the thigh, run the heel of your hand along the large muscles of the thigh with medium pressure, just stroking the muscles and fascia repeatedly to help loosen them. Your horse may respond by shifting its weight or resting a hoof as you do this, and most horses find this massage most satisfying.
Tail stretch. This is a stretch that should only be performed on horses that are comfortable with people standing behind them, and it’s best if you’ve done other massage elements, so the horse is relaxed and used to being touched all over. Stand facing the side of the horse in front of the hind leg, and wrap a section of the tail around your backmost hand once. With your front hand pressing lightly on the thigh, gently pull on the tail towards you and hold it in a stretch for about 15 seconds. Move so you are at about 45 degrees to the horse and repeat. Stand directly behind the horse and repeat again; then, do the same three stretches on the other side.
Barrel stretch. This is a great way to wrap up any session with your horse, be it for massage or training. Stand at your horse’s shoulder and offer a favorite treat. Make the horse bend towards you, stretching the opposite side, to reach it. Step further back, so you are parallel with the barrel and repeat. Don’t allow your horse to move a front foot to get the treat; it only gets the reward if the front feet stay planted and it stretches its neck to get the food. This stretch is often very telling of horses that are much tighter on one side than the other.
Are there cautions you should take when massaging your horse?
While equine massage is generally a wonderful way to maintain or improve your horse’s health, it’s not always right for every horse. Always consult with your vet before attempting more than a quick neck rub on an injured or sick horse, a horse that has recently colicked or a pregnant mare. Equine massage is almost never performed on horses with cancer because the increase in circulation can speed up the growth of aggressive tumors.
Whenever you perform a massage technique on one side of the horse’s body, remember to do the same thing on the opposite side. This helps the horse stay balanced, which is one of the additional goals of equine massage. If your horse is starting out unbalanced (not unusual, as horses have preferred sides, and riders tend to favor movements in one direction), you may have to work a little longer on the weaker or tighter side.
Until you have been taught by an equine sports massage therapist or veterinarian, it’s best to leave stretching your horse’s limbs to a pro. There are many ways to increase your horse’s flexibility all the way to the hoof, but when not done properly, these stretches can put your horse’s fragile limbs at risk. If you have, however, been instructed in how to stretch the limbs and have been doing it on your horse without incident, you can continue to do so during your massage sessions.
Be careful, as always, with young horses that are still not used to so much bodily contact and with touchy stallions and mares in season. If your horse gets restless or irritable during your massage session, give it break for the day, and come back at it another time. Some horses need to build up to longer sessions, and just like with training, you always want to end on a positive note and make the entire experience rewarding for all involved.