massage therapy performance

It’s not just for recovery and rehab! Equine massage therapy can also help your horse perform well by maintaining better health.

You might think massage therapy or bodywork is just for accident recovery and injury rehabilitation, or that it’s simply a way to make your horse relax and “feel good”. These are common applications, but equine massage therapy does even more. It not only helps prevent injuries, but also enhances an athlete’s performance through the assessment and treatment of pain, restriction and imbalance.

During the daily rigors of schooling, your horse experiences post-exercise soreness, pain and chronic tension resulting from the general progression of training and an increase in workload with the changing seasons. Many riders are not made aware of these physical restrictions until a significant training issue develops, such as a reluctance to engage the hindquarters, difficulty maintaining bascule over fences, or perhaps even refusals, bucking, spooking or rearing. One of the greatest benefits of massage therapy is its ability to isolate and address the cause of these issues, allowing the horse to perform restriction-free and at his utmost potential.

Soft tissue and joint injuries occur on a regular basis, and seemingly at the most inconvenient times. What causes an injury? Most of us associate injuries with trauma. Though trauma is one of the leading causes of soft tissue injuries, right alongside it are overuse, repetitive strain, muscle weakness or imbalance, shortening and contraction of tissues, and chronic tension.

Neglecting to address these issues leaves our horses open to injuries such as bowed tendons, suspensory injuries, check ligament tears, sacroiliac sprain (better known as hunter’s bump), and vertebral misalignment, to name just a few.

Myofascial pain and trigger point therapy

One of the most common causes of soft tissue pain and restriction is the development of trigger points within the skeletal muscle and/or the connective tissue fascia that envelops all soft tissue. A trigger point is a hyper-irritable point that is painful or tender upon palpation. The development of trigger points leads to muscle weakness and a limitation in range of motion and flexibility. In humans, we often recognize trigger points as “knots” commonly found in our neck and shoulders.

Trigger points are a direct result of heavy work, overuse, muscle fatigue, overstretching, chronic tension, or allowing the muscles to become chilled. In the horse, trigger points are often found throughout the thoracolumbar region of the back, around the sacroiliac joint, through the hamstrings, the muscles of the chest and shoulder, and around the poll.
The equine massage therapist’s approach to the deactivation of trigger points involves a very specific application of digital ischemic compression, stretching, and hydrotherapy. Note that the longer a trigger point exists without proper deactivation, the more treatments will be required to fully treat it, and the more likely it will be to return without proper maintenance treatment. Each horse requires an individual assessment by a qualified massage therapist to determine the best treatment plan.

Pre-event massage

The purpose of pre-event massage is to ready the neuromuscular system for quick reaction and heightened coordination. The techniques used in a pre-event massage routine are vigorous, stimulating and non-specific, with a focus on the major muscle groups to be used in the event. The goal of this type of massage is to increase circulation and nervous input to the muscles. This provides greater endurance and flexibility, and encourages rapid firing of the nerve fibers leading to a quicker reaction and greater proficiency of movement. Pre-event routines prepare the tissues for the task at hand while avoiding muscle fatigue caused by a long under-saddle warmup.

Competitors often use massage in conjunction with warmup before a speed or power event such as show jumping, barrel racing or reining.

Post-event massage

At the end of a long, hard day of showing, your horse gets cooled down, hosed off, and tucked nice and cozy in his stall with a large load of hay and water. Perhaps you’ve applied some poultice, and maybe taken him for another hand-walking or two before everyone shuts down for the night. The post-event massage is used to decrease recuperation time after an event, and reduce the possibility of muscle spasm or post-exercise soreness.

The by-product of cell metabolism is metabolic waste. During exercise, when the muscles are working hard, metabolic wastes and lactic acid build up within the tissues. This is the major cause of muscle fatigue and soreness. Post-event routines are designed to increase venous and lymphatic circulation, reducing the buildup of these waste products. This results in less pain and congestion, leaving your horse ready for the next day of showing just as physically prepared as he was on the first day.

Massage on the Road: During a weekend of showing, the demands placed on a horse’s body from trailering, multiple daily rides, intense warmups and a hectic environment become a major stressor to the soft tissues and joints. Having a massage therapist for him is important to helping maintain his soft tissue health and prevent onsite injuries.

What can you do?

Even before you suspect your horse may be suffering from body pain issues, having a qualified equine massage therapist assess him is advantageous to his training advancement. The therapist will be able to isolate and address your horse’s individual restrictions, and develop a treatment plan best suited to his and your specific requirements. He or she will provide you with home-care stretches, exercises, and hydrotherapy techniques to use between treatments so you can help to maintain your horse’s overall health and keep him performing at his best.

How it helps

Through the proper application of massage therapy techniques, stretching, and joint mobility exercises, your equine massage therapist provides the tools your horse needs to maintain optimal health and greatly reduce the likelihood of injury. Massage helps achieve this by:

  • Increasing the pliability and flexibility of soft tissues
  • Increasing circulation, thereby enhancing the delivery of nutrients to the tissues and assisting in the removal of cellular waste
  • Bringing balance to areas of weakness or hypertrophy
  • Locating and addressing chronic tension and muscle shortening