I will admit, I was a little bit leary when I first heard about massage for horses. I mean, I’d never had a massage, why would I pay to have my horse massaged?
However, I started to become more interested in massage as part of my journey with my chronically not-quite-right mare, Lucy. I went through the normal stuff – vet, chiropractor, and farrier – but none of it seemed to fix the issues. Lucy was still cranky when touched and seemed to have a difficult time coming through her back in work.
That’s when I started down the rabbit hole of equine body work.
I started with Equine Craniosacral Therapy, which I had had success with in several of my other horses. It was difficult to work on Lucy because she would become quite explosive during the treatment. However, I stuck with it and started to see some really positive changes in her overall demeanor and movement. She started to be less anxious and was moving a little bit more freely through her hind end. The Equine Craniosacral Therapist I was using was constantly drawn to Lucy’s cranium and intestines. Although the therapy was helping, it bothered me that the therapist wasn’t finding much through Lucy’s sacrum, which was where I was noticing most of her stiffness.
That’s when I started looking into Equine Sports Massage Therapy. After all, if the “lameness” isn’t treatable by a vet or farrier and doesn’t respond to chiropractic or craniosacral therapy then the next thing to look at is the muscular system. As I found out more about massage for horses, I became very intrigued and found myself wanting to not only try it, but learn how to do it. I ended up signing up for a course in Equine Sports Massage Therapy through Equissage to learn everything I could about massaging horses.
I have since completed the course and could not be more impressed with how well massage works on horses. I gave Lucy a complete massage and she went from pinning her ears at my touch to yawning and snorting. Since then she has been noticeably kinder in her interactions with people and has been more willing under saddle. She is moving freer from behind and is starting to collect.
I wish I hadn’t been so doubtful of equine massage because I wasted a lot of time and money before finally trying it, which is why I wanted to share some information on it here.
What is Sports Massage?
Before we go any further, let’s make sure we are all on the same page. According to Jason Brummitt, sports massage is “a collection of massage techniques performed on athletes or active individuals for the purpose of aiding recovery or treating pathology” (1). To put that simply, sports massage is massage used to improve athletic performance or aid in healing an injury. This differs from the type of massage that you may receive at a spa, which is aimed to relax your muscles and make you feel good.
The Benefits of Equine Sports Massage Therapy
According to Scott and Swenson preliminary research, anecdotal effects, and case studies have shown equine sports massage therapy to have positive effects. Massage is reported to “increase range of motion and stride length, reduce activity of nociceptive pain receptors, and reduce physiologic stress responses. Additional preliminary research indicates that massage therapy also may improve some aspects of exercise recovery” (2).
Unfortunately, there is little research done on equine sports massage. Since sports massage should have a similar effect on horses as it does on humans, we can look at the numerous articles on the effects of human sports massage to get a better idea about how this technique can impact our horses.
The American Massage Therapy Association claims that massage “acts to improve performance, reduce pain, prevent injury, encourage focus and shorten recovery time” (3). Massage works both mechanically and psychologically to attain results. Mechanical pressure helps relieve stiffness and increase blood flow. Massage also promotes relaxation and reduces stress, tension, and anxiety. This increases focus and can lead to improved performance (3).
A study by Cambourn et al showed that sports massage may increase blood pressure, leading to increased circulation (1). Increased circulation can helps prepare muscles for exercise, indicating that sports massage may be an effective warm-up routine.
Leivadi et al shows that sports massage is more effective than relaxation therapy at improving mood, reducing anxiety, and lowering cortisol levels (1). This indicates that sports massage may be useful for horses to mentally prepare them for competition. It could also be utilized during stressful situations such as when an injury requires stall rest or layup.
A study by Hopper et al showed that sports massage therapy has a significant short term effect on the flexibility of the hamstring muscles in a group of female athletes. However 24 hours later the effect was insignificant (1). This study supports the hypothesis that sports massage may be an effective warm-up before performance, but fails to support claims that massage increases range of motion over time.
Brooks et al proves that massage can be used to greatly speed up muscle recovery after muscular fatigue (1). This shows that sports massage may be especially useful post-performance and in instances when the horse is needed to perform multiple times in a short time frame. For instance, it could be useful to massage a horse after his first class in a show so that he is ready for his class the next day. Especially during shows horses frequently get tired and fail to perform at their peak the entire length of the show, which requires multiple back-back performances.
Mancinelli et al also showed that sports massage in the middle of a strength training program can lead to increased performance (1). This is especially relevant to horses because of the need for many riders to rapidly increase a horse’s fitness after a break in the winter season. Mancinelli’s study shows that administering a sports massage in the middle of such a training program can help the horse quickly recover from the fatigue and build muscle.
Multiple studies have shown that massage does not help in muscle recovery after extreme exercise, although it can lead to immediate increases in performance (1). This is particularly relevant in the application of sports massage indicating that it is not effective post-performance and cannot prevent regular muscle soreness that occurs 24-72 hours after extreme physical activity. Although previously mentioned studies prove that massage in the middle of a show week may be effective at increasing performance, there is no value in massaging at the end of the week. The horse will still require adequate rest for his muscles to recover from the exercise.
Overall massage has been shown to improve athletic performance, speed up recovery, improve conditioning, and maintain peak performance through relieving muscle tension, decreasing stress, increasing circulation, and increasing temporary range of motion (4).
Although massage may not be the cure-all of problems, it can certainly have a big impact, especially for horses with short, choppy strides or those pushed to performance at a top level. Massage is priced competitively with other body work and is virtually risk free. After the first massage, you should see a big difference in how your horse moves and feels, which is reason enough to continue. I encourage you to reach out to your local certified Equine Sports Massage Therapists and give it a try. I’d love to hear your stories about massage in the comments below.
1. Brummitt, J. (2008). The Role of Massage in Sports Performance and Rehabilitation: Current Evidence and Future Direction. North American Journal of Sports Physical Therapy : NAJSPT, 3(1), 7–21. (linked here)
2. Scott, M., & Swenson, L. A. (2009). Evaluating the Benefits of Equine Massage Therapy: A Review of the Evidence and Current Practices [Abstract]. Journal of Equine Veterinary Science, 29(9), 687-697. doi:10.1016/j.jevs.2009.07.017 (linked here)
3. Frey, K. A. (2013, February). Benefits Of Massage For Athletes. Health and Fitness Magazine. Retrieved March 29, 2018. (linked here)
4. American Massage Therapy Association. (2011, October). Massage Therapy for Those Who Exercise. Retrieved March 29, 2018. (linked here)