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.
Once you’ve decided your horse needs massage sessions, you might say, “Now what?” How do you decide who to choose to provide this service? Here are some tips for selecting the right equine massage therapist for you and your horse.
Where to Find Equine Massage Therapists
Probably the best to find an equine massage therapist is through word of mouth. Ask around your barn, consult your trainer, or call some of the top stables or the racetrack in your area to see who they use. Ideally you want to find someone who knows your breed and riding discipline, but most seasoned practitioners will have experience with a wide range of both.
Other places to find or inquire about equine massage therapists include:
What to Look for in an Equine Massage Therapist
You want to find a therapist who has completed a formal training program in equine massage because this isn’t something one can learn on one’s own. Ask any prospective therapist where they studied, were they certified or accredited in some way, and do they still perform that particular type of massage and what continuing education they have completed.
Styles of equine massage and bodywork vary greatly, just like with humans, and you may feel one type is better than another for your horse’s physical and emotional needs. Therefore, you also want to ask about what type of massage/bodywork the therapist performs.
Do they do myofascial release working on key points on the horse’s body, or do they use more of a Swedish massage technique that vigorously rubs all the major superficial muscles? Do they incorporate stretching into massage sessions? Some therapists combine techniques they have learned from several schools or add things they pick up in continuing education (another thing to ask about).
Ideally, you want an experienced massage therapist, but it’s perfectly okay to select one right out of school too, provided they have had lots of hands-on practice with horses, either as part of a formal program or as part of their own self-study.
Ask your prospective equine massage therapist about the types of cases they’ve treated, to see if they have knowledge of your horse’s particular problem or training needs. Your horse’s workout as a jumper is going to differ radically from a dressage or driving horse. It’s also worth asking about the therapist’s general experience with equines, such as riding, training, or grooming.
Other Questions to Ask a Prospective Equine Massage Therapist
Once you’ve narrowed down your favorite practitioners, there are still a few more questions you should ask:
If you like what you hear, schedule a trial session and see how it goes. With any luck, you’ll have met your horse’s new best friend and will want to schedule regular appointments from there on.
Your normally docile and eager-to-please gelding seems out of sorts and reluctant to train. Something feels off to you, but you can’t put your finger on it, so you call out the vet. After a thorough examination, your veterinarian can’t find anything wrong with your horse. “Get him a massage,” she says, as she packs up the truck.
Wise words from that equine doc. While it’s always good to have a professional check over your horse if it’s behaving abnormally, there are numerous situations that can be improved by equine massage therapy. If your horse doesn’t seem quite right and your vet has ruled out any serious causes, a massage may be just the remedy. Here are some classic scenarios where a massage may be indicated.
If your horse is normally an angel and suddenly doesn’t want to work, it’s a sign something is amiss. Typical behaviors include:
Your horse may have some stiffness or muscle pain that is causing it to act in an unusual manner. Even a little bump (and we know horses do stupid things when we’re not looking) can start a pain feedback loop that results in more stiffness and guarding.
Low Energy, Easily Fatigued
If the usual amount of exercise winds your horse easily, or if your horse is just dragging, it could be due to a number of reasons. But if you know it’s not diet or illness, a massage may be a good pick-me-up for your horse. In addition to relieving body pain, equine massage stimulates circulation and energizes the horse, often the next day or the day after.
It’s easy to get in the habit of training more to one side than the other. Did you know horses have left or right preferences just like humans do? But if you continually favor one side when running through your exercises, your horse can become imbalanced. Likewise, certain conformational discrepancies can cause unevenness in a horse. A massage can help rebalance the horse by eliminating one-sided stiffness and by improving suppleness on the horse’s “bad” side.
Depressed or Cranky
In addition to being lethargic, your horse may seem sad or crabby--definitely a sign something is going on. If there are no known causes for your horse’s mood, a massage can perk up the horse. Equine massage encourages the production of endorphins, chemicals the horse produces in its own body to relieve pain and boost mood.
Chronic Health Conditions
If your horse has chronic health problems that may cause pain, decreased mobility, or imbalance, a regular massage is a must. Recurrent bouts of laminitis, navicular disease, and arthritis, for example, can all benefit from massage.
Post-Illness or Surgery
As long as your veterinarian allows it, equine massage is almost always ideal for horses recovering from illness, including colic, or surgery. Because it stimulates the circulatory system, massage helps speed healing cells to areas of injury. And as mentioned above, massage also treats pain and stiffness. For horses that are confined to stall rest, equine bodywork may also help maintain muscle tone and let the horse relax to continue healing.
Your horse doesn’t have to have anything wrong with it to warrant a regular massage session. Just like human athletes, horses that are training heavily and competing regularly do well with frequent massages. Equine massage helps work out muscle spasms, improves range of motion, and facilitates the removal of waste products, like lactic acid, from muscle tissue. Remember: your horse is an athlete too!
Have you taken in a rescue or just brought home a horse you purchased? A massage can be a great way to help your new arrival settle in. It allows your horse to associate pleasure with its current surroundings, and it will work out any kinks from trailer travel too.
Click on contact us if would like set up a consultation to see if your equine partner needs a bodywork session.