Knowing When Your Horse Needs Massage

Did you know massage therapy can help your horse? He could be pinning his ears, swishing his tail or you may have noticed that his back is sore. Massage can improve your horses’s flexibility, responsiveness and overall performance. Some problems have been looked at as mental resistance when in fact they were muscular in nature. Keep in mind massage is not a substitute for treatment by a veterinarian if your horse is lame. It is an adjunct to good veterinarian work and proper training.

Photo courtesy of Sue Kyllonen

Your horse may seem heavy in the bridle or not bending as easily in each direction. A sore poll ( area behind the ears ) could be the issue. This can happen from dental work when the mouth is held open or from unbalanced riding. A sore poll affects both the ability to stretch and ease of collection. A horse will not be willing to extend his head down or raise his head if this area has pain and tenderness. The poll tightness can also affect the neck which may in turn cause the back to not remain limber.

You may have noticed that your horse shifts his weight and pins his ears when you tack him up. Is his back tender when you palpate the muscles along each side of the spine? He may shrink away from the pressure or you might notice e few spasms along the saddle area. The primary back muscle in the horse is the longissimus dorsi. It is the longest and largest muscle in the body consisting of interconnected muscles reaching from the middle of the neck along the spine to the lower back where it joins the medial gluteal muscle. The longissimus dorsi is the muscle the rider sits on. A balanced rider allows this muscle to remain relaxed so the horse can move easily for rounding up and bending laterally. Whereas an unbalanced rider or poor saddle fit will impede this.

The opposing muscle to the longissimus is the long abdominal muscle known as the rectus abdominus. This needs to contract to support the spine and raise the center of the horses’s back. When one muscle contracts the other relaxes. Alternating contraction and relaxation creates efficient and strong movement and smooth collection. If these muscles are tight the horse won’t be able to bring his hindquarters underneath tilting his pelvis forward and flexing his hindquarter joints. If there is a problem, with these muscle groups eventually it may lead to more serious lower back and sacroiliac joint problems. The hock and stifle joints will also be impaired because they become overloaded and not functioning efficiently.

Massage involves working the whole horse not just the top line and problem areas. This allows the blood to flow and remove toxins. While working on the horse other areas of sensitivity show up. Watching the horse’s responses while working on them helps the therapist know where certain areas may need to be addressed. Each muscle has 3 sections. The visible part of the muscle you see under the skin is the belly of the muscle. This is the engine and provides the power and action for your horse’s movement. There are two ends to each muscle. One attaches to a bone and is called the “anchor” or the “origin”. The other end attaches to another bone and is called the “insertion” where the motion occurs. Massage can also help reduce the risk of injury. Tight shoulder muscles for instance can affect the forearm muscles which connect to the superficial and deep digital flexor tendons behind the cannon bone. Muscles tightness can lead to a loss in elasticity in those tendons and resulting in a tendon injury.

Be careful of muscle repetitive exercises and think of your training program as cross training. Use your jumping, caveletti, and lateral work on different days. This will not only keep you and your horse mentally fresher it will also allow muscles to heal. Finish your work out with a proper cool down by walking your horse for enough time until his breathing is normal.

Horses are athletes and will always have some aches and pains form working hard. Maintenance massage therapy helps to find where a horse hurts before it becomes a problem.