Massage, Courtney Molino explains, works by manipulating the soft tissue, compressing muscle fibers against bones and spreading those muscle fibers apart,. This increasing circulation, removing metabolic waste (lactic acid) and allowing healthy nutrients (like oxygen) back into the muscles. Massage can also release endorphins, which lowers pain response. With the help of a Quarter Horse dressage competitor named Sebastiani, Molino talked to us about massage and showed us a few moves.
Why should we have our horses massaged’
Just like us, horses can injure their muscles in a variety of ways. About 60% of a horse is muscle — just running in the field, it’s amazing what they can do. They get weekend-warrior syndrome, where people don’t ride all week and then go for a four-hour trail ride.
With poor saddle fit, I see a lot of sore backs. Then there are problems with conformation, lack of proper warm up and cool down, [and] lack of proper turnout. Muscle injuries can also stem from incorrect training and poor footing. And the biggest benefit of massage is prevention. A lot of clients will call me because they have a certain issue, and then sometimes we will go to a preventative maintenance program so we can find and fix small problems before they become big, and the rider starts to notice performance problems.
There are a lot of ways you will see muscle tension. A horse gets stiff, or has shortened strides, or girthiness. I see a lot of horses that all of a sudden will become girthy because of the withers and back. Girthing really pulls the saddle down on those muscles. Your horse may all of a sudden show a lack of forward impulsion, excessive head tossing or tight jaw, or not pick up the correct lead.
Most horses enjoy massage. They will yawn, or lick or chew. Their eyes start to close a bit, their heads drop. Many of them turn around to massage me.
What can I expect from that first massage’
On the phone or via email, I ask for a detailed health history, past injuries, and past sicknesses. Then I conduct a gait analysis by watching the horse move to get an idea if there is something wrong, and get an idea of the horses’ normal way of going. Everything I do is full body. Why do the full body if only the horse’s shoulder is sore’ Horses are great at compensating and it’s important to treat the cause, not just the symptoms.
It takes about an hour to an hour and a half. The sequence is the same but the time I spend in certain areas is different depending upon what I feel. You have opening strokes where you’re loosening the muscles, palpating locating strokes where you’re feeling for certain spasms, treating strokes to actually treat the spasm and then you close off the muscles.
There are three levels of pressure, and light on one horse is very different from light on another. I can maybe use a lot more pressure on the gluteus and then on his back. And they tell you. My physical limit in a day is six. Watch your horse for positive feedback signs during the massage. You should also walk your horse for several minutes after the massage. The massage is really a workout for the muscles, and walking helps prevent stiffness. Also know that your horse may drink more water than usual following a massage. This is a good thing, as it helps flush toxins, released during the massage, out of the body and prevents stiffness.
How can owners massage their horses safely’
They can use percussion, where you use the side of your fist, like on the gluteus muscle. You usually just bounce it, and the more you do it, the more jiggle you will see, and that is a good sign, especially for horses that tend to get tense in the hind end. It’s also good if your horse is ever tying up. I do a lot of racehorses, and they need it.
Another one is called compression, and you can use your palm to push down and turn, almost like opening a childproof medicine bottle. I like to have people use that on the tricep or deltoid, you’re kind of compressing muscle against bone and freeing some of the restrictions. And the important thing is even if only one shoulder is sore, do things on both sides for balance. Then there are back rub and back circles, where I have people rub from withers to back hip. That is going to create some friction and really loosen the back muscles. By drawing some small circles forward and back, you can really feel the horse’s back relax.
Always be sure to stay alert when massaging your horse. Even though you may trust your horse, any horse can jump when scared or kick when hurting. I always keep my hand on the horse’s shoulder when working on the front end, and on the horse’s thigh when working on the hind end. This enables me to feel the muscles tightening for a kick or spook before it happens.
What are a few things I can do to get my horse to calm down when he’s tied’
There’s a couple things you can do, and it works on some horses, and not on others. There is a spot on the neck where you can rub and make small circles, which is something you can do while your horse is colicking and you’re waiting for the vet. That will help increase salivation and you’ll see that licking and chewing. And then another one is neck spirals, and you’re pressing as hard as you would curry. You’re staying with the base of the mane and making circles all the way up and all the way down, and that really relaxes the muscles and the horse.
Stretching can really help prevent injuries because a tight stuff muscle will tear a lot easier than a loose one. Always do leg stretches after a massage or after the horse has been worked, because you never want to stretch a cold muscle. Carrot stretches are OK before you ride, because the horse is in control of how much he stretches. Between his legs is a great stretch to really stretch and lift his back.
What are the benefits of massage for the equine athlete’ For the aged horse’
The biggest benefit is prevention, and improving athletic performance. Most of the competition horses benefit most from a massage every four to eight weeks, depending on age, discipline, workload, etc. I have a lot of higher level dressage/eventing horses who get suppled up a couple of days before the show. And then post event is great, because massage can help the muscles return to normal quicker, and it helps trailer stiffness. I do a lot of arthritic horses and massage has shown that increases the body’s production of synovial fluid, and joint mobility. There is a whole lot of compensation going on with older guys.
All horses, no matter what age or competitive level can benefit.
How can owners find a professional massage therapist’ Is there a certification process’
I was certified by Equissage in Round Hill, Va. (http://www.equissage.com/, 800-843-0224), and I had studied equine anatomy at Virginia Tech. There were people in my certification class that were vet techs, or human massage therapists. I talk to a lot of people that have a friend that is a human massage therapist but know nothing about horses, and I really caution against that.
You really need to understand the relation partnership between horse and rider, and what is being asked of each horse, and the ensuing performance problems that can occur. Different breeds, different body types. Different riding disciplines place different amounts of stress on different muscles.
A lot of it is word of mouth, but there are two organizations — the IAAMB (International Association of Animal Massage and Bodywork 800-903-9350, http://www.iaamb.org/) and the IAAMT (International Association of Animal Massage Therapists, http://www.iaamt.com/, no phone available). There are no federal or state regulations. State regulations vary.
In some states, you need to be a veterinarian to massage or work directly under a vet’s supervision. It’s not the case for Maryland. For me it has been constant education. I have gone on rounds with the vets and attended seminars. When you are actually looking, you want to work for someone willing to work with your vet, farrier, and dentist. You want someone who is getting an accurate history, willing to answer any of your questions.
At the first massage a horse can be nervous, so you really want somebody who’s going to be patient and not going to force the horse. Owners like the evaluation form. I will go back over things and talk about what I can do and give them homework — certain strokes and stretches they can do to focus on their horse’s problem areas.
I have liability insurance. I think it is important that horse owners ask about the insurance because it indicates a certain level of commitment to the industry, and shows that the therapist understands that there is an inherent risk in working with horses.
What is the biggest mistake people make when massaging their own horses’
It is hard to hurt your horse, and I do show people certain strokes to do. The biggest caveat is to stay away from bone. You don’t want to be banging on the bones. A lot of people will use the incorrect level of pressure. Too heavy, and the horse is tensing up. Too light and the horse thinks you are a fly and you aren’t pressing hard enough to affect the muscles anyway. I do like to show people strokes because it does make a difference.
Any horse can be massaged, no matter how old or how young — I’ve done pregnant mares — but there are times not to do it. A horse with a fever, because the body is fighting infection and you are releasing toxins out of the muscles — too much for body to process. Horses that are in shock, because it lowers blood pressure.
Some believe that massage can spread certain cancers. My feeling is if you’re just trying to keep the horse comfortable, then it can’t hurt. Stay away from areas of heat and swelling. To do deswelling, kind of draw lines away from the area of swelling, almost like drainage ditches. Scientifically, that is not proven to work, but I have seen it work. No open wounds and fractures, obviously. Skin disease, you don’t want to spread it. I disinfect between horses.
The biggest thing for people to realize is that massage therapy does not replace vet care. So understand that massage works in conjunction with routine vet care.
People will buy a book on massage and think they can do it all, but the thing to remember is that massage therapists have gone through training to feel muscle spasms and know what they are feeling. I think owners can do a great job keeping the muscles loose and relaxed, but when it comes to freeing restrictions and releasing spasms, get a professional. I have had people tell me their regular massage cuts down on their vet bills, and that is a good feeling.