Equine massage therapy is a bodywork modality that involves the systematic manual manipulation of a horse’s muscles and soft tissues to alleviate muscle tension and promote overall well-being. It’s an increasingly popular component of holistic veterinary care and equine management.

Horse owners may seek out massage therapy to enhance their horse’s performance and mobility, or as a preventative measure to protect against injuries. It is also used to promote a calm demeanor in anxious horses and to address age-related stiffness and discomfort in senior horses.

Veterinarians may also recommend massage therapy in conjunction with other treatments for various health conditions, such as chronic pain, musculoskeletal disorders, gait abnormalities, or rehabilitation after surgery or injury.

Equine Massage Therapy

Massage therapy in horses involves the use of hands or an instrument to manipulate the skin and muscles. [1] These techniques may relieve tension in the soft tissues, promote blood flow, and promote a calm demeanor.

In veterinary medicine, massage is used to maintain or improve performance, promote injury rehabilitation, and aid in stress reduction. 69% of rehabilitation veterinarians report using massage in their treatment protocols. [7]

For performance horses, studies show that massage may improve gait quality, flexibility, and success in competitive events. Studies of massage on performance horses have shown lowered stress hormones and reduced perception of back pain.

While there are anecdotal reports of benefits from veterinarians and horse owners alike, more scientific studies are necessary to determine the efficacy of massage as a treatment modality in horses.

Trigger Points

Most massage techniques target myofascial trigger points– areas of pain or discomfort that the practitioner can palpate within the muscle belly (i.e. a “knot”). [3] The most common locations for trigger points are areas where muscles join with tendons to attach to a bone. [2]

Trigger points are areas where the sarcomeres, the fibers making up a muscle, are severely contracted, preventing the muscle from contracting. [3] Severe, prolonged contraction of muscles can lead to reduced oxygen levels in surrounding tissues, changes in nerve function, and inflammation in the affected area. [3] Sustained inflammation activates nerve endings, producing a pain response. [3]

Trigger points can be active, meaning painful at rest or during movement, or passive, meaning painful only when palpated by a practitioner. [3] Treatment aims to release the contracted sarcomeres to relieve pain.

If left untreated, trigger points can form cross-links between the muscle fibers, making them more difficult to treat. [3] Cross-links may also form adhesions (scar tissue) between the muscle and its overlying fascia, the connective tissue surrounding muscles. [3]

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Massage Techniques

There are several techniques equine practitioners use as part of massage treatment, each with a different treatment goal. Horse owners can perform many of these techniques at home, however it’s important to consult with a qualified health professional or massage therapist before doing so.

Compression

Compression involves using the heel of the hand, a loose fist, or the fingertips to apply pressure in a rhythmic way, compressing the muscle against the underlying bone. [2] This technique separates the muscle fibers from each other and flattens them, releasing tension. [2]

Direct Pressure

Direct pressure involves using the thumb, fingers, or elbow to apply sustained pressure to a specific area on the horse’s body for at least five seconds. [2]

During the sustained compression, blood flow to the area may be altered, changing the amount of fluid within the tissues. [2] After releasing the compression, a previously tense area becomes more pliable due to redistribution of fluids. [2]

Effleurage

Effleurage is a technique that involves a gliding stroke over a broad area, generally used to prepare a large muscle for more finely detailed work. [2] Practitioners may also use this technique to soothe an area or release tense areas of fascia. [2]

This method is used to treat fluid buildup, such as swelling after surgery or due to lymphedema. [3] During effleurage, the practitioner applies long strokes in the direction of the lymphatic vessels, which help drain excess fluid from tissues. [3] This technique can promote better lymphatic drainage and reduce swelling. [3]

Friction

Friction is a massage technique that involves creating heat to disrupt cross-links between the muscle fibers. When a practitioner manipulates the muscle during treatment, the pressure causes the muscle fibers to rub against each other. This generates heat within the muscle tissue. [2]

To perform this technique, practitioners use their thumb, finger, fist, or heel of the hand to apply pressure perpendicular to the muscle. [2] This technique may help treat muscle spasms or break down adhesions caused by previous injuries. [4]

Tapotement

Tapotement is a technique specific to Swedish massage methods in which the practitioner repeatedly taps, slaps, or cups a previously massaged area. [4] This technique may help improve blood flow to the treatment area. [3]

Petrissage

Petrissage refers to kneading, squeezing, or wringing the muscle tissue and is a component of Swedish massage techniques. The goal of petrissage is to manually replicate normal muscle contraction and relaxation cycles to encourage mobilization of the tissue. [3] Petrissage may also improve circulation and facilitate redistribution of fluid. [4]

Skin Rolling

Skin rolling is a massage technique where the therapist pinches and lifts the skin and subcutaneous tissue, rolling it between the fingers and thumb across various parts of the body to loosen fascia and promote flexibility and circulation. [3]

Vibration or Shaking

Vibration or shaking of tissues may help reduce swelling and promote muscle relaxation. [3] Many types of mechanical massage equipment use vibration to manipulate the treatment area. [3]

Myofascial Release

Myofascial release therapy is a specific technique targeting the fascia, a layer of connective tissue surrounding muscles. [2]

In some injuries or strains, fascia adheres to the underlying muscle, preventing the muscle from moving properly. [2] Myofascial release therapy aims to free the muscle from adhesions, restoring normal muscle function. [2]

Practitioners use a variety of massage techniques depending on the muscle they are treating and the degree of fascial adhesion. [2] Treatment techniques vary based on pressure, movement, and amount of time used to achieve the desired effect. [2]

Two specific techniques used in myofascial release therapy are: [2]

  • C-stroke technique: The practitioner pushes the skin and underlying connective tissue in opposite directions
  • Skin rolling technique: The practitioner lifts the skin away from the underlying connective tissue and rolls it to release any adhesions

Effects of Massage Therapy

Most studies on the efficacy of massage focus on human sports medicine, and more research is needed to determine specific benefits for horses. Many human massage methods are adapted for equine applications with the presumption they have similar effects.

Some of the purported effects of massage on horses include: [2][4]

  • Decreased tissue adhesion and stiffness
  • Increased blood flow to the muscles and skin
  • Reduced pain, muscle tension and muscle spasms
  • Lowered stress hormones

Although research is limited, there are some equine studies investigating the effects of massage on different physiological systems and measures of performance. [8] However, the overall effect of massage on horses is currently inconclusive. [4]

Despite limited evidence, the popularity of massage therapy is increasing as horse owners seek preventative and rehabilitative treatments to support their equines’ overall health and well-being.

Increased Blood Flow

An increase in skin temperature is sometimes used as a measure of massage efficacy because it represents an increase in blood flow to the treatment area. Research in horses shows increased skin temperature lasting for more than one hour. [5]

Human research also shows massage therapy treatments raise skin and muscle temperature. [4] Further study is required to determine how these changes may benefit performance and tissue healing in horses.

There are varied findings