Written by: Donna Marie West

Massage is one of the oldest forms of therapy, used and enjoyed by humans for thousands of years. Over the past few decades, massage therapy for horses has also become increasingly popular.

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Massage has many benefits. It warms up and relaxes stiff muscles, improves movement and balance, improves circulation, and helps ease muscle spasms or soreness after exercise. Some claim it even improves digestion! Problems such as a sore back, muscle discomfort caused by prolonged stall rest, swollen legs, and stiff joints can all be treated by massage therapy.

Before putting your horse on a massage therapy program, talk to your veterinarian and a qualified equine massage therapist. Massage is best used along with traditional treatments and does not replace diagnosis or treatment by your vet. Do not massage your horse if he has a fever over 39°C; large open or healing wounds; colic; inflammation such as lymphangitis; skin problems or infections; or infectious diseases such as influenza or strangles.

Here are some basic skills that will allow you to give your horse an enjoyable and beneficial massage:

Peace & Quiet

First, find a quiet, spacious area where you can work, free from noise and distractions. Make sure your horse is clean. Have someone hold him on a lead shank rather than putting him in crossties. Dress comfortably (short or rolled-up sleeves are best), and remove any jewelry or rings that might get in the way. Trim your nails if they’re long so you don’t stab your poor horse with them!

With flat hands, gently go over your horse’s entire body, feeling for unusual heat, soreness or bumps. Be careful of the ticklish areas under his stomach and around his hind legs.

Light-Deep-Light

Now go back and rub any sore areas you found with a flat hand in light, circular motions. After a minute or two, use deeper pressure with your fingers or the heel of your hand for about 30 seconds. Don’t be afraid to lean your weight in and work up a sweat; then go back to light pressure. When you’ve finished working on one area, finish up with long, soft strokes. Then move on to the next spot.

Do the same thing on your horse’s neck, on areas about the width of your hand, from poll to shoulder. Light rub – deep pressure – light rub, followed by long, soft strokes. (Note that the cervical vertebrae run along the middle/lower part of the neck and as you get closer to the shoulder/chest they can be felt under the neck muscle and mistaken for knots.)

You may find your horse has one or more tender spots, called “trigger points.” These areas, which may be tight muscles, knots, or old scar tissue beneath the skin, will relax and soften under the pressure of your hands. Your horse will tell you you’ve hit the right spot by yawning, licking, or chewing. He might even fall asleep! However, do talk to your vet if your horse shows signs of serious pain, or if you have reason to suspect an injury.

Back Basics

The most common complaint massage therapists see is a sore back, so you’ll want to check if your horse has a tight or tender back. Beginning at the withers and going all the way to the croup, press down with your thumb and fingers on either side of the spine, using about as much pressure as you would in a really firm handshake. At the same time, keep your other hand under your horse’s stomach. If you hit a sore spot, your horse will let you know by flinching or dipping his back or croup. Work on these areas using the technique previously described – light rub/deep pressure/light rub, followed by long, soft strokes. Be sure to massage both sides of the spine.

While you work, talk quietly to your horse, especially if he’s not used to being handled this way. Use a bench if you find you’re working with your hands higher than your shoulders – otherwise you’ll be the one needing a massage when you’re done!

Safety First

To massage your horse’s legs, squat down and clasp your fingers around the leg (photo D). Rub with the heels of your hands and palms upward, toward his heart, to improve circulation and reduce swelling. If your horse is a kicker or doesn’t like his legs being touched, you may not want to do this, or do only his front legs. Remember, your safety always comes first.

In cold weather, leave a blanket folded from front to back on your horse his front, leave the blanket over his loins and quarters. Bring it forward over his neck and shoulders as you work on his hindquarters.

Keep a record of your horse’s treatments and anything you might observe, such as his ‘trigger points’ or that special spot where he loves you to rub him!