"The career of an athlete, whether human or horse, requires talent, hard work, a methodical approach, and the provision of a prophylactic and therapeutic medical environment." – Jean-Marie Denoix and Jean-Pierre Pailloux
Size, finesse, and power: we celebrate horses among the premier athletes of the animal kingdom. So it is normal and predictable that in a lifetime of work, play, and occasional inactivity, most horses encounter obstacles that hinder their best movement and comfort. Competent care skills means minor injury itself should not be of great concern to the average horse owner. But once tissue has been compromised, how to head off the associated patterns of compensation and imbalance? Simultaneously preventative, maintenance oriented, and restorative in nature, massage can be instrumental not only in restoring normalcy to areas of tension and asymmetry, but also in ensuring that tissues are more resilient to future insult. Horses who receive massage enjoy a noninvasive method to promote a wide array of benefits that include pain reduction, increased range of motion, and relaxation. Owners enjoy the resultant improvements to disposition, performance, and career longevity. Perhaps above all, the ongoing attention to and discussion of their horse’s body provides an owner with unique familiarity to the many moving parts of her extraordinary friend. Just as humans athletes know that achievement depends upon appropriate preparation, horse owners respect that their charges’ greatest success is fostered within a finely-tuned balance of challenge and comfort. For any athlete, massage presents a proactive and empowering adjunct to a lifelong training plan.
How does massage work?
Simple touch promotes a cascade of positive physiological, chemical, and psychological change to benefit the whole horse. Superficial techniques influence nerve endings to interrupt muscle spasm and the transmission of pain impulses, and can selectively sedate or invigorate. Deeper strokes stimulate circulation to oxygenate blood, hydrate muscles, lubricate joints, and support lymphatic drainage. Targeted work releases adhesions and remodels irregular muscle fibers to restore mobility. Massage ensures optimal comfort in and freedom of movement, maximum muscular efficiency, reduced recovery time after injury, and a musculoskeletal system prepared to bring horse and rider to their highest athletic potential.
How long will my horse's massage take?
Though the duration of your horse's session depends greatly upon him—his needs, condition, and day-to-day caprices—an average appointment lasts approximately one hour total, from my arrival to departure. This time includes roughly 45 minutes of hands-on work , plus allowance for observation, discussion, and note taking. Please allow an additional 15 to 30 minutes for your horse's first session, which includes an in-depth discussion of your horse's health history, as well as a series of initial dynamic observations and assessments.
How often should my horse be massaged?
While regularly scheduled sessions yield the greatest benefit for any horse, specific indications for massage depend upon your horse’s workload and your goals for his performance. The following is a guideline for horses of varying levels of activity:
Elite athletes (horses in specialized training programs and/or regular competition): Horses trained 5-6 days a week and those who participate monthly in high-intensity activities (e.g. clinics or competition) benefit from massage 2-4 times a month. Frequent massage ensures regular muscle development, maximum efficiency, and shorter recovery time after exertion. Just as importantly, a consistent massage regimen keeps you and your horse’s wellness team informed of any irregularities in your horse's musculoskeletal system. In this way, adjustments can be made so that your horse may safely perform at his highest athletic potential and enjoy a long and comfortable career.
Athletes (horses in moderate training programs and/or periodic competition): Horses ridden 4-5 days a week and those who participate in monthly clinics or events will benefit from massage 1-2 times a month.
Pleasure horses and weekend warriors: Horses ridden lightly 2-4 days a week benefit from an initial massage and a tuneup every other month thereafter, and/or surrounding particularly rigorous events.
Horses resuming work after time off: If your horse is coming back to work after a period of inactivity, regular massage serves as a wonderful circulatory aid as he gets those creaky joints working again! After vet clearance, plan to schedule your horse’s first massage about a week into his new training program, and continue with regular massage once every two weeks for three months. Once a work routine has been established, continue with massage based upon need and workload.
Horses on medical lay-up, stall rest, or in rehab: Ask your vet if massage is appropriate for your rehabbing horse! For horses who are unable (or unallowed) to move freely, gentle, weekly massage provides a vital service by stimulating circulation to help reduce fluid retention, support the lymph system, and deliver vital nutrients to tissues. Above all, massaging your horse during his downtime will help reduce the anxiety and depression that often afflicts stall-bound horses, as well as help him feel engaged and especially well-attended to during his convalescence. Providing bodywork for your rehabbing horse will help to ensure that his transition back into work is as comfortable and positive as possible.
When Will I see results after my horse's massage?
The short answer: sometimes immediately, sometimes imperceptibly over time—and in most cases, both! You will almost always notice visible improvement in the tone of your horse's musculature, overall posture, and ease of movement by the end of every massage. A more nuanced answer depends on the particulars of your horse's needs. Horses who are seen for the restoration of mobility after old injuries will, understandably, require a gradual course of therapy before significant change is noticed. The tissues of horses coming back after acute issues often respond rapidly with massage to facilitate the healing. Your horse's age, condition, receptiveness, and the goal of the treatment all play into to the result of each massage. Because the benefits of massage are holistic and cumulative, a regular, ongoing regimen will yield the most stable results over time. Many clients find it rewarding to take before-and-after photos on either end of their horses' massages. In this way, they can track both short- and long-term changes to appreciate the value of their investment.
How can I get the most out of my horse's massage?
Six tips, pared down, for ensuring your horse receives the maximum benefit from every massage:
Learn your horse's "normal." When you know how your horse operates in his usual state of being, you've also honed the awareness to perceive when something's off. With your input, your horse's massage can be more finely tuned in order to guide him towards his optimal state of equilibrium.
Schedule during barn down-time. With fewer stimuli to distract him, your horse will be better primed to achieve the state of relaxation that enhances the global healing properties of his massage.
Have him cool and dry. If you ride your horse before his session, please allow him ample time to cool down and dry off before his massage. It is difficult to assess the varied layers of tissue on a hot, damp horse, which could mean I miss important aspects of his condition that day.
Take your horse through the motions. Following your horse's massage, get him moving–gently! The time immediately following bodywork is a valuable period of recalibration. An easy workout or hand walk will assist in helping your horse to repattern the musculoskeletal changes facilitated by his massage. Strenuous activity should be avoided for at least 24 hours.
Do your homework. Between sessions, I provide a customized follow-up plan for you to explore with your horse. This plan may include a targeted massage technique or a gentle stretching routine and is designed to complement your training goals. Working with your horse between sessions will extend the benefits of his massage exponentially.
Think prevention before cure. Benjamin Franklin famously stated that "An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure." Like all health adjuncts, massage is most effective as a preventative- and maintenance-oriented therapy. Think of it this way: if your horse's massage regimen makes him resilient to injury, you've gained months or even years of progressive training time that may otherwise have been spent rehabbing. Schedule regularly before issues arise to ensure that your horse is always at the top of his game.