One of my clients has recently started studying to be an equine masseuse. Not physiotherapy or osteopathy or anything, but straight forward muscle massage.
Firstly, what’s the benefit of having your horse massaged? Well, do you enjoy a massage? I would have thought the answer would be yes!
in short, a massage eases any post workout aches in the muscles, helps dissipate any lactic acid, can help ease anxiety related tension, improve circulation, help to move lymphatic fluid around the system, reduces stiffness and swelling after working hard, improves muscle tone, prevents adhesions and stretches connective tissue. As well as the fact that it is mentally relaxing.
A lot of owners, especially with competition horses, have regular visits from chiropractors and the like to ensure that there are no skeletal problems like a dropped pelvis, but I think the benefits of a general post work massage is often overlooked. I mean, if you’ve been to an event then the next day you usually give the horse off or a gentle walk and then the next couple of days is light hacking, so you appreciate the physical recovery time needed by the horse. But a general massage could enhance this recovery, or at least speed up the recovery time. If you think about it in human terms then after working in the garden on the first spring like day of the year nothing is better than a back massage from your other half … hint hint!
An article posted by my client last week made me realise that actually a massage would have benefits for horses for reasons I hadn’t thought of. We all know that horses have very sensitive skin as they can feel a fly land anywhere on their bodies. This has implications if you think about tack, and not in the obvious ways. Obviously a badly fitting tack puts pressure on the back muscles and creates muscle tension, leading to a change in the gait and stresses the rest of their body. But did you know that if a horse wears a fly veil then the pressure caused around the headpiece and browband can cause asymmetry in the knee joint movement? So a general massage in conjunction with tack fitting and tack improvement will reduce the tension in those pressure points, which will correct and improve other areas of the body, which we don’t automatically connect together. You can read her blog here.
So what are the other benefits of an equine massage? Let’s look more closely at the circulatory benefits to begin with. A massage increases circulation to all body parts, which increases the oxygen and nutrients taken in by cells and improves the functions of the cells. Which means better removal of waste products, including lactic acid and carbon dioxide. It means cells are more efficient so a horse will perform at a better level and be less prone to tying up and stiffness. The lymphatic system works in conjunction with the circulatory system, so the more efficient circulatory system will improve lymphatic drainage, so reducing the likelihood of legs becoming filled.
The benefit of massage which we’re all aware of, is the muscular benefits. Knots of muscle fibres are physically broken down and realigned, which means they can contract more efficiently so improving athletic performance. Straightened muscles are of a better quality so are less likely to tear, or put undue stress on surrounding connective tissue and joints. Additionally, these muscles will be more efficient as they aren’t working against their own resistance so the body will work more efficiently; using less energy to reach optimum performance.
In the same way that we feel relaxed and stress free after a massage, horses will have the same experience. You often see it when the chiropractor is at work; horses will yawn or chew when an area of tension is released. Being mentally stressed affects performance; yes a certain degree of stress will enhance performance but too much stress will have a negative impact, which means that actually you want to create as positive an environment for a horse as possible so that they are able to perform to their best for you.
All this research made me realise that whilst it’s great for a horse to be physically checked out by chiropractors and there will be massage benefits from this visit, if you have a naturally tense horse or one who does a lot of travelling to competitions then it would be worth investing in regular massages for them, particularly after an important competition, when they may be physically and mentally fatigued. This should leave a horse in better health – less prone to injury or catching diseases. Which means more fun time for you both! A relaxed horse is a happier horse, so they’ll be more willing to work for you and perform better.
I’ve signed Phoenix up to be a case study when I start riding her, and it will be interesting to see the effects of a massage particularly after she’s been to her first off site clinics or competitions. Judging by last weekend her behaviour will be faultless, but she will be mentally fatigued by the experience and multiple new stimuli and as we want her to enjoy getting out and about, ensuring that we “reset” her at home afterwards will mean that she is more likely to enjoy the experiences.