Equine Massage FAQ

  1. How does massage work?
  2. Who is “The Team”?
  3. Do I need vet approval before massage?
  4. What are the results and when will they show?
  5. What is a typical session and how long will it take?
  6. Do I need to be there?
  7. What is a good time of day for my horse?
  8. What if my horse doesn’t like it?
  9. My horse has a sore shoulder, can you come and work on just that?
  10. How often should my horse be massaged?
  11. When NOT to massage your horse

1. How does massage work?

A little functional background is required to answer that question fully. How the muscle works: Movement is the result of a series of muscles contracting and relaxing.

A muscle contraction requires energy (nutrients such as oxygen, proteins, glucose, lipids, etc). If there is insufficient energy available to meet the demand, the muscle will spasm, go on strike, shout “tools down!”.

When provided with the correct tools (nutrients) to do the job, the muscles will hungrily use them up, and like all living beings, will create waste. The efficient body takes care of flushing these wastes away. If the muscles are working extra hard, and produce wastes faster than the disposal systems (lymphatic and venous systems) can handle, some waste remains in the muscle cells. This decreases the efficient functioning of the muscle at a cellular level, and is believed to contribute to soreness and stiffness. (Note – it is no longer thought that lactic acid is a waste product, or a cause of soreness.)

Soreness and stiffness is generally caused by damage to the muscle fibres – a routine occurrence during training and conditioning.
The muscles are repaired stronger and more able to meet their work load. Massage increases circulation, which is the nutrient supply, and waste flushing system. It works out muscle spasms and knots, allowing the cells to function efficiently, and regain their elasticity once again.

Stretching and other bodywork aids the above, and helps strengthen and lengthen the muscle fibres and connective tissue, which helps to prevent injuries from occurring.

2. Who is the Team?

The Team is the collection of people who provide care for your horse – it is headed by the horse owner, who is guided by the veterinarian. Working with these two primary caregivers are the equine bodyworker, farrier, equine dentist (if services not provided by the vet), nutritionist, trainer, groom, saddlefitter, and other specialized practitioners that you choose to bring on board, such as a chiropractor, or acupuncture provider. If you board your horse, your barn manager will also be a part of the team.

3. Do I need vet approval before massage?

Your vet knows you and your horse, and can advise you when massage will be beneficial to your horse, especially when in rehab for any injuries. (See When Not to Massage Your Horse). Your Bodyworker is NOT a veterinarian, cannot diagnose problems, and relies on your vet’s professional opinion and guidance when working with horses in rehabilitation. We work with your vet to enhance your horse’s overall care and comfort.

4. What are the results and when will they show?

Results such as an enhanced, lengthened, looser and more energetic gait (or relaxed gait, depending on the horse!) may show immediately after the massage. Other benefits, such as improved tactile defence, resistance to injury, increased stamina, and other improvements become evident after several sessions. Massage can also help to assess your training and conditioning program as small changes in the muscle can be felt with regular sessions. Small problems can also be detected and brought to you and your vet’s attention before it grows to become a bigger issue or lameness requiring rest time. Small spasms, if not released, can grow to become knots – causing other muscles to compensate by overworking, which sets the cycle in motion again until it shows in a lameness or inablity to move or bend in a certain way, and in irritability on the horse’s part (and sometimes on the rider’s part as well!)

5. What is a typical session and how long will it take?

In the initial session, we go through some basic info on the horse’s history and current lifestyle; if appropriate, the horse’s gaits and transitions are assessed to help inform how he (or she) is using their body; and a general conformation check is done as this can also give information on where he might be experiencing tightness. The gait assessment can be either with a rider or in hand. If a horse’s job is primarily under saddle, then it may be useful to see the horse move under saddle. This section can take from 20 – 45 minutes. Following the assessment, we proceed with the massage and stretching, which can be from 45 – 90 minutes, depending on the horse’s condition.

For subsequent appointments, the duration is usually from 50 – 90 minutes, but can be longer depending on the horse’s issues. After a massage, unless on stall rest, the horse should be lightly exercised, or at least hand walked for minimally 10 minutes. An easy trail ride would be ideal.

6. Do I need to be there?

For the initial session, someone who can answer detailed questions about the horse, and who can either lead or ride him/her for the assessment is required. For the massage portion, and for subsequent sessions, you are welcome to be there, but are not required.
Often an owner will attend at the beginning to report any changes or concerns, then will go off, checking back in occasionally.
After the massage, the horse should be walked out, and preferably lightly ridden.

7. What is a good time day for my horse?

Feeding time is probably the only time that would not be ideal, primarily because the horse is too anxious that he is missing out on his meal, and someone else may get it!

8. What if my horse doesn’t like it?

Some horses are very sensitive to touch, or are defensive and lack trust. Touch therapy can be a very effective method to calm a horse, promote a trusting relationship, and encourage a horse to allow and enjoy massage. Sometimes it can take a few sessions for the horse to learn to trust and relax. My own mare was in this category – in fact there are still times in her cycle that she won’t allow a full massage, but will accept specific light moves and touches. We have to respect what the horse wants and not impose our agenda on them!

9. My horse has a sore shoulder, can you come and work on just that?

Not unless the vet specifically requests work on a particular region. Perhaps this will explain why: every movement engages two opposing sets of muscles – one contracts while the other one extends to create motion. If any piece of either muscle is not working to its full potential, it inhibits the opposing action, thus restricting movement. In locomotion, if something is restricted, another area must work harder to compensate. This places a stress on the overworking compensatory muscle, which then causes yet another muscle to compensate for that muscle, and so on – you can see where this is going – it’s a domino effect. Because of this cycle, very often a lameness you observe may not be the original cause of the injury, but will be a series of compensating muscles tripping over themselves in an attempt to maintain a functioning balanced system. Massage helps to rebalance the muscles’ workloads by releasing contracted (spasmed or knotted) muscles. Working on just one section may not be helpful at all if the complimentary muscles aren’t doing their equal share of the workload.

10. How often should my horse be massaged?

In all cases, this will depend on the demands on the horse, the horse’s condition, living conditions, work environment, tack fit, rider balance, and the horse’s conformation. As a very general guideline:

  • High performance: every 1-2 weeks for deep massage. Several times per week would be appropriate for the professional athlete, however deep tissue massage is not recommended more than three days apart.
  • General riding (4-5 times per week): Depending on the horse’s job and demands – every 2-4 weeks.
  • Weekenders and backyard horses: every 4-6 weeks. (every time your farrier comes out!)
  • For horses in rehab, per your vet’s instructions.

11. When NOT to massage your horse:

You should not engage in activities that promote increased circulation, which includes massage (and riding!), under the following conditions:

  • If your horse has elevated vital signs (temperature, pulse or respiration rate), is off his feed or is behaving unusually lethargic, has an undiagnosed lameness, swelling or heat. In these cases, your vet is the first person to call. Generally, massage isn’t recommended for about seven days after an injury, but your vet will know your horse and the specific situation, and can advise when it is safe and beneficial to proceed with massage.
  • If you are entering a show, a full massage is not recommended within three days before an event. This is for two reasons:
  1. massage can increase your horse’s stride length, and this may cause horse and rider to be out of synch for a brief period of re-adjustment. ie: number of strides required between jumps may change.
  2. As with humans, a massage may cause some horses to be more sensitive for a day or so while their bodies get reaccustomed to certain muscles that may have been knotted up for some time, and are now in use again.

If your horse is used to regular bodywork, and you and your bodyworker know how your horse reacts to it, a light massage may work to relax and focus your horse prior to a show. The last thing we want is for a massage to mask a pain just before competition. A pain is there for a reason, and unheeded, could cause further injury. If you are booking a massage for the first time, allow a week before your next competition to be on the safe side.