Equine massage: Hands on for the competitive edge

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Feeding, training and exercise are only part of the equation when working with elite equine athletes. These days, the best care includes complementary medicine similar to that used in human health care, writes John Hawthorne.

One of the best therapeutic modalities you can employ with your horses is equine sports massage. You can bet that when you watch the likes of the Cox Plate or the World Cup Dressage final, for example, the equine athletes are getting massaged pre and post-performance.

A typical massage session starts at the poll and works down the neck.
A typical massage session starts at the poll and works down the neck.

While equine massage techniques vary depending on the training of the therapist, many massage sessions resemble Swedish sports massage for human athletes. During the course of about an hour, the horse is given a full-body massage of the exterior muscle system and fascia.

Equine sports massage therapy helps well horses maintain their range of motion and suppleness, and it improves circulation in ill or injured horses – an ideal way to supplement conventional veterinary treatment for conditions such as founder and colic, where increased perfusion to the lamina or digestive tract are beneficial.

For horses experiencing mild tying up (“Monday Morning Disease“), gentle massage can be a welcome relief. Gross hematuria, however, should be ruled out first, so as not to push the kidneys with a sudden influx of blood flow.

For horses on the way up the competitive ladder, massage can give them the extra boost they need to surpass their counterparts. Equine massage therapy relieves muscle tension and spasms brought on by heavy workouts. It also helps uncover early tendon swelling or areas where a chiropractic adjustment might be needed.

Horses will often get into pain feedback loops, where they hold tension in one area of the body because of pain in another. The neck is often a place where equines become stiff, but it may not be anything remotely close to the neck causing it – at least at first.

Neck pain could originally stem from a hoof or leg issue that causes the horse to brace itself during certain gaits. Once the behavior has set in, it appears that the horse has a neck issue (refusing to go in certain directions, head tossing, balking at jumps, etc.). This is correct, but it has now become an ingrained problem long after the precipitating limb concern has been resolved.

That hits the spot!
That hits the spot!

Massage therapy helps break pain feedback loops by its physical action, as well by the secondary release of endorphins to block pain. Because of its endorphin-enhancing properties, equine massage is also well suited for the cranky or high strung horse, which is definitely in larger proportion among show and racehorses.

The racecourse shedrow and show barn all too often produce aberrant (and abhorrent!) behavior in horses. Reduced herd interaction, little turn-out time, and constant travel cause some equine athletes to take out their dominance issues with people instead of other horses or to resort to unhealthy stall vices. Massage can help relax jittery and overly charged horses, while still keeping them on the muscle for competition – something drugs can’t do.

A typical massage session starts at the poll and works down the neck, addressing the splenius, brachiocephalic, cervical trapezius and rhomboid muscles, as well as the nuchal ligament. The crest is rolled to further stretch the neck.

The neck groove is worked next, frequently a place where dressage horses will show tightness or knots from maintaining the head and neck within a specific frame or even having been overtrained with aggressive Rollkur-like flexion. Racehorses that have been trained in only one direction will also show signs of pain or stiffness on the other side.

The forelimbs and shoulders are massaged next, as well as the descending pectorals. This includes the thoracic trapezius, deltoid and brachial triceps muscles, plus the carpal and digital extensors. Knots in the upper forelimbs from the scapular area to the origins of the extensors can indicate a horse that is being ridden too heavy on the forehand. They are also common in jumping horses that absorb landing impact with the front legs.

The elbow groove is an important area for massage in numerous riding disciplines. Horse that lift the front limbs to clear jumps are often tight in this location. Racehorses often win by only a nose – next time a big race such as the Melbourne Cup or Caulfield Cup is on, take notice. Keeping the elbow groove loose allows them to achieve that extra bit of reach with the forelimbs that may make the difference in the final results.

A massage therapist will ask the horse to pick up its feet to check for flexibility.
A massage therapist will ask the horse to pick up its feet to check for flexibility.

Massage of the withers and latissimus dorsi often reveals saddling issues, while tenderness or flinching in the serrated thoracic and ascending pectoral muscles may be a sign of girthing problems.

A good massage therapist works all the way down the limbs to feel for any excess heat or coldness (signs of impending tendonitis or circulatory problems) and asks the horse to pick up its feet to check for flexibility there.

The barrel is massaged next, gently releasing the intercostal muscles. The topline is rubbed as well, from the withers to the hips. This can reveal spinal issues or replicate “cold backing” if the horse is averse to saddling. The lumbosacral junction is another spot where dressage horses will typically show tightness or even discomfort due to the demands of collection.

Extra time may be spent sweating the kidneys to release toxins there. It is common for the horse to urinate soon after this part of the massage, and the horse should be encouraged to drink water freely throughout the session.

Like with the forelimbs, the back limbs are similarly addressed, covering the semitendinosus and semimembranosus muscles, as well as the gluteals, the femoral quadriceps, gastrocnemius, femoral biceps and the tensor fascia lata. The digital extensors are also massaged and the point of hip and stifle sweated for heat therapy.

Percussive strokes may be added to improve suppleness in the gluteal area. The hamstrings should be nicely tight to indicate good impulsion and working through (versus being pulled by the forelimbs). The massage ends with an assessment of the lower hind limbs and feet and a stretch of the tail, which lengthens the spinal column and relieves compression in that area.

Optional stretches of the limbs are sometimes included at this point, and the neck can be further loosened by offering the horse a carrot or peppermint at the side of the barrel and asking it to reach around to retrieve the treat. Calmly walking for a few minutes post-massage can help enhance its circulatory effects, as does keeping the horse from being chilled.

Whether it’s a better race finish or a competition result you want to improve, equine massage therapy can be a key ingredient. Ask your veterinarian for a recommendation (some vets even do massage themselves), and if you have horses at a major racecourse, there are probably already massage therapists at your disposal.

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John Hawthorne
John Hawthorne

John Hawthorne is a travel and sports writer from Canada. He writes for www.2015caulfieldcup.com.au and when he’s not writing he enjoys researching his next destination.

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