An expert guide to massaging your equine athlete

Regardless of what discipline you practice with your horse, he can benefit from regular massage therapy. Here’s a few things to know about this modality and how to apply it in the most effective way.

Timely restoration of the physiological state of sports horses plays a key role in the training process. As physical demands increase during performance season, the importance of restorative measures also increases. Relieving fatigue in the body after exercise and preparing it for the next session is crucial for successful performance – and for the horse’s well-being. Massage is one of the most popular and effective ways to accomplish this. As many previously used pharmacological means of recovery are now considering unacceptable from the point of view of anti-doping control, this modality is more useful than ever.

A deeper understanding of massage

Massage has a therapeutic effect on the skin and deep-lying tissues. The use of this modality for the treatment and prevention of various diseases is well-known and, if performed correctly and in a timely manner, offers numerous benefits.

The two main types of massage are:

  • Active massage – intense manipulation of tissues, ideal for horses with chronic joint, muscle or tendon-ligament issues
  • Passive massage – gentle manipulation of muscles, induces relaxed state, helps improve circulation to surface tissues

Massage can be used for muscle fatigue, bruises, muscle atrophy, muscular rheumatism (after the acute stage), myositis, paresis and paralysis, contractures, bursitis, and diseases of the joints and tendon-ligamentous apparatus. Massage is also an indispensable treatment for sports injuries, and in combination with thermal treatments it has a high therapeutic effect. It’s important to note, though, that the effectiveness of massage depends on many factors, including the knowledge of the basic rules of preparation and execution technique.

Basic massage techniques


This method is carried out with sliding movements, mainly in areas where the lymph nodes and large saphenous veins pass. It is a gentler technique used when deeper massage is unadvisable due to severe pain. Stroking is often considered a preliminary or preparatory technique.

There are three types of stroking:

Palm – mainly used for massaging flat surfaces (thigh, neck, shoulder, lumbosacral and gluteal).

Cross-shaped technique – work with both palms with bent fingers, massage body surfaces that have a rounded shape (lower leg, forearm, wrist joint, etc.).

Pincer-like technique – the tissues should be between the index and middle fingers, and the thumb. Used to massage the flexor tendons.

Stroking, regardless of its type, is performed in a central direction, slowly and rhythmically (10–12 massage movements per minute) while gradually increasing the pressure.


A technique in which the skin and deep-lying tissues are rubbed firmly in a circular direction with several fingertips of one or both hands. The ends of the fingers should move the skin, not slide over it. The skin may gather in small folds. To increase the efficiency of rubbing, you can use a cloth mitt or a soft rubber brush. Rubbing can be combined with stroking along the lymphatic vessels and use of warming, anti-inflammatory ointments.


Kneading consists of shifting, lifting, pressing and squeezing muscles, and is performed using the following techniques:

Felting – often applied on the lower part of the limb. Place your hands on both sides of the area and move the palms in opposite directions. One hand can be lowered or directed forward while the other is raised or moved backward.

Squeezing – this kneading movement between the thumb and the rest of the fingers allows the muscles or tendons to be massaged by means of sliding non-stop pressure. This method is similar to squeezing the contents out of a toothpaste tube.

The ideal duration of kneading depends on the size of the massaged area and the reason for massage. Kneading is a passive exercise for the muscles, so this technique should be carried out as a preventive measure after prolonged, intense work.


A massage technique that consists of very small and rapidly repeated oscillatory movements performed by the fingers or an electric massaging device. The movement should be carried out along the muscle towards the nearest lymph node. This technique is often used for muscle fatigue, paresis and muscle paralysis.

Getting started 

A massage procedure consists of three stages:

  1. Introductory (1–3 minutes) – use gentle techniques to prepare the body
  2. Main procedure (5–20 minutes or more) – perform a deeper tissue massage on entire body or areas of focus
  3. Cool down (1–3 minutes) – reduce the intensity of the massage to return the horse’s body to a state of complete relaxation

The techniques used will vary depending on the horse’s health and areas of focus, but as a general rule of thumb can be distributed as follows:

10% – stroking and vibrating

40% – rubbing and squeezing

50% – kneading

Massaging your horse can be an effective way to help him recover in periods of intense training, or a way to promote relaxation and prevent injury. If you’re unsure which techniques to use, get in touch with an equine massage therapist who can teach you more about this modality, and offer your horse professional sessions when needed.