If you have your first equine bodywork session scheduled for your horse, you may have questions about the process. Here are my tips for making any bodywork session successful, as well as answers to the three questions I’m asked most by clients about equine massage therapy.
How do I create the best environment for my horse’s massage therapy session?
Just like with a human massage at the spa, you want the environment to be as calm and comfortable as possible. Try to find an out-of the-way part of the stable for the session with as few distractions as possible.
If your horse’s stall isn’t in a high-traffic area, that may work best. If your horse can be loose in the stall, that’s even better. However, if your horse is nervous or might get into mischief, having someone hold it on a lead rope is a good alternative. Ideally, you don’t want your horse in cross ties because it limits flexibility of the neck and makes it difficult for the horse to relax.
You can ask your equine massage therapist what they prefer, but typically you do not want your horse getting treats or eating during the bodywork session. This alllows the horse to “connect” with the therapist and focus on the session.
Your horse may need a drink during the massage, so be sure to have fresh water nearby. Also, some horses need to urinate or manure as their circulation is stimulated, so plan for that too.
Be sure your horse is clean and dry before the bodyworker arrives. Removing dirt and water allows the therapist to get down to the skin without interference, and it makes the massage more comfortable for your horse.
Untack the horse, except for a halter, and if flies are a problem, use a fly repellent product or set up a fan to prevent twitching, tail swishing, and stomping. Fly masks and sheets should be removed for the massage session.
Some owners and therapists like to use essential oils to help quiet a horse during massage. Unless your horse is allergic or doesn’t like it, lavender is a calming scent that I use in most of my session. Rubbing a little on the hands and holding them cupped under the horse’s nostrils may be all you need to elicit a deep sigh and dropped head.
What information does my equine massage therapist need to know?
Under normal circumstances, you will have already had a conversation with the equine massage therapist about your horse’s unique needs. If you haven’t had a chance to do this yet, your therapist will ask about why you scheduled the massage, as well as:
Be sure to tell your equine bodyworker about anything that might affect their safety, such as if your horse doesn’t like to have a particular body part touched or if it has a history of kicking or biting.
Your equine massage therapist will do their own assessment on the horse. I like to watch the horse both untacked and under saddle, preferably in person, although sometimes show videos are helpful for issues that come up primarily in competition or when the horse might be anxious.
I also offer ride evaluations, where I work the horse under saddle to see how it feels to me. Sometimes owners get so used to their horse’s anatomy and quirks that they don’t even notice imbalances or gait inconsistencies.
Most equine massage therapists will also do a quick hands-on full-body check of the horse to see how the muscle tone feels, to look for knots or spasms, and to see if the horse flinches or reacts in any way.
How much time should I allow for the massage?
Massage sessions vary in length depending on the horse’s size, needs and attention span. A pony generally doesn’t take as long as a draft horse simply because of the amount of area that must be covered.
If stretching is being added, that will add a few more minutes to the session.
A horse with injuries or very tight muscles usually takes a bit longer to massage. Also, plan on your first session or two taking a little longer, since your therapist needs to get to know the horse and vice versa. Horses that are completely new to massage may need a slower approach until they get used to it.
Your massage therapist will tell you specifically, but budget between 45 to 90 minutes for the session itself. Make sure to allow time on either end for the above mentioned preparation and for unwinding post-massage.
What should I expect afterwards?
Your horse will probably want to drink, urinate, and manure after the massage, sometimes more so than normal because of the stimulatory effects of massage on the horse’s blood flow.
The equine massage therapist may also recommend calmly walking the horse for a few minutes after a session to keep the circulation enhanced a little longer. If it’s cold outside, it’s a good idea to blanket your horse to keep it warm and prolong the effects of the massage.
Your horse will want to relax after the massage, just like you would, so don’t schedule a training session immediately afterwards. It’s best if you can give your horse the rest of the day off after a massage.
Some horses can be a little stiff a day or so after their first few massages. But the more your horse receives equine massage therapy, the more it will get used to it. Be careful, though; your horse may want a spa day every day once it realizes how good it feels from a nice session!
If you’ve never had an equine bodywork session for your horse, you might be wondering exactly what it entails. Read on to learn the three basic components of a session and what happens during each one.
Chances are when you book an equine bodywork session, the therapist will ask about why you’re calling and issues particular to your horse. But there’s nothing like a detailed evaluation prior to massage to inform a bodyworker about what’s going on.
You may be asked to send any video footage you have of the horse, especially if your horse has a problem that shows up when you show or go to clinics. The therapist may also want to watch your horse move through different gaits or movements to see if there are any noticeable anomalies. This can be done immediately before a session or a week or two in advance, depending on the situation.
It is helpful for equine massage therapists to see the horse moving both at liberty and under saddle. This helps indicate if certain problems are related to the saddle, tack, or rider technique. I also offer riding evaluations, where I climb into the saddle on your horse to see how it feels and perhaps notice subtle imbalances or inconsistencies you may have missed or grown used to.
At the start of a session, most equine bodyworkers like to perform a quick hands-on assessment over the horse’s body. This not only identifies any areas of potential pain or stiffness, but it lets them know how a regular equine client feels on any given day.
Once you’ve set up the perfect environment for bodywork, the session can begin. Every equine bodyworker is different in their technique. Some use a style similar to human sports massage, while others do some specific massage techniques combined with manipulating precise spots on the horse’s body related to performance.
When pressure is applied to these spots, like with the Masterson Method that I employ, the horse experiences a release of tension, and muscle tightness and spasms can be relieved. This also helps maintain range of motion and suppleness in equine athletes. Pain is relieved, and the horse’s mood may even improve.
Many equine massage therapists also utilize stretching to further keep muscle and connective tissue responsive and joints healthy. You can ask your equine massage therapist about stretches you can do with your horse between sessions to preserve range of motion and eliminate stiffness.
In addition to stretching the legs, your equine bodyworker may elect to stretch the neck and the barrel. The tail, which is connected to the spine, can be gently pulled too, in order to relieve pressure on the dock and help lengthen the topline.
Post-Massage Follow Up
Your equine massage therapist may have specific instructions for care after your horse’s bodywork session. While the horse is doing a calm post-massage walk or getting a welcome drink of water, it’s a good time to discuss the therapist’s findings.
Often, an equine bodyworker will have a checklist or anatomical diagram that they use to mark any areas of concern where they felt tightness or noticed imbalances. They will also make note of any reactions from the horse, whether positive or negative, which might help pinpoint pain or release of a previous spasm.
After the massage, your therapist can recommend the next course of action, such as regular massage sessions or a visit from the equine chiropractor to check out any spots that feel out of alignment and can’t be improved with massage.
Because I offer comprehensive bodywork for both horse and rider, at this time I also like to examine other factors that can influence the horse’s physique. These include equitation skills, training regimens, saddlery, and rider fitness. Once I am familiar with the horse and rider as a system, I can develop a plan with my clients that meets their unique needs for ongoing service.