Equine Therapy Practices to Help Your Horse Perform and Recover
Warming trends in the weather means horseshow season is right around the corner. Some riders take the winter months to let their horse (and maybe themselves) de-load from the physical and mental demands of training. With spring approaching, now is an appropriate time to really ask yourself if you’re setting your horse up for a successful season in the show ring, on the course, or throughout the trails.
Bodywork and massage therapy isn’t just for recovery and rehab. Equine therapy can also help your horse perform well by maintaining better health. A good bodyworker will be able to:
1. Enhance performance with improved flexibility, range of motion, and functional symmetry (Murata et al., 2012)
2. Relieve post-exercise soreness, inflammation and speed up recovery time through cellular waste removal and increased circulation (Weber et al., 2006)
3. Promote relaxation, and reduce stress, anxiety and tension resulting from the general progression of training or the increase in workload (Schiefer et al., 2017) (Mullen et al., 2016)
4. Offer input on areas of dysfunction or compensation to help improve your training program and prevent injuries
Common with many things, prevention is key!
Riders may often find they are not aware of physical restrictions until a significant training issue (like head tossing, being behind the leg, trouble picking up leads, refusing jumps, bucking/bolting/rearing, etc.) develops.
Many times overuse, repetitive strain, muscle weakness or imbalance, dysfunction in the contraction or lengthening of tissues, and chronic tension are often easily dismissed as minor ailments or inconveniences one must "work through". Neglecting to address these issues leaves our horses open to many difficult injuries to overcome such as bowed tendons, suspensory injuries, check ligament tears, sacroiliac sprain (or hunter’s bump), and vertebral misalignment, just to list a few.
So what simple steps can we take to help our equine athletes?
Pre-competition equine bodywork and massage typically focuses on preparing the horse's body for physical activity and optimizing performance. The techniques used for a pre-event massage are an effective way to “wake-up” the neuromuscular system for quick reaction, better proprioception and heightened coordination. This type of massage increases circulation and motor/sensory input to the muscles, fascia, and nerves to support endurance and flexibility, and to encourage more rapid firing of nerve fibers (leading to greater proficiency of movement). These applications also counter the effects of muscle fatigue, which may be caused by a long under-saddle warmups. Casual riders and competitors alike use massage in conjunction with a warmup, especially before a speed or power event such as show jumping, barrel racing or reining.
A post-event massage is used to reduce soreness, decrease recuperation time, and expedite relaxation and healing. When cells metabolize during exercise they output metabolic waste and lactic acid that can become trapped within the tissues. This waste production and stagnation causes muscle fatigue and soreness. Post-event massage and bodywork programs are designed to increase venous and lymphatic circulation to reduce the buildup of these waste products. A good post-event massage will result in less soreness, support muscle growth/repair, and preserve range of motion and flexibility, ensuring your horse is ready for the next day of showing or riding with physical preparedness he had on the first day. While post-event massage is beneficial for all disciplines and activities it is highly recommended for activities where muscles spend more time under tension, like dressage, cross county, endurance, vaulting or driving.
Overall, pre-competition equine bodywork and massage is focused on preparing the horse for physical activity, while post-competition bodywork and massage is focused on aiding in recovery and promoting relaxation. While there may be some overlap in the techniques used and benefits offered, the specific goals and techniques of each type of bodywork and massage differ and may be applied successfully in most any situation, event or need.
For personalized methods and applications of bodywork and massage that can help your horse have a healthy, successful show, trail or recreational season, book your session today.
Supportive therapies don’t have to be complicated. Like you, I want the best for your horse. Routine bodywork provides a plethora of benefits to help increase performance, prevent injury and boost recovery.
To your good health and happiness.
Massage is not a substitute for proper veterinary treatment. Make sure to ask your vet if massage and bodywork is appropriate for your horse.
Mullen, K. M., Gellatly, T. L., & Repogle, K. K. (2016). The effect of therapeutic massage on equine thoracolumbar range of motion: A pilot study. Journal of Equine Veterinary Science, 38, 37-43.
Murata, M., Hobo, S., Oki, H., Matsui, A., & Ohmura, H. (2012). The effect of stretching and massage on the neck and shoulder muscles of thoroughbred horses. Journal of Equine Science, 23(2), 39-44.
Schiefer, T. K., Willoughby, D. S., & Schaefer, A. L. (2017). Effects of massage therapy on physiological and behavioral measures of stress in horses. Journal of Veterinary Behavior, 17, 10-16.
Weber, P. S., Denison, T., Stucky, K., Hellyer, P., & Chakraborty, S. (2006). The effect of massage on the biochemical and biomechanical properties of equine skeletal muscle. Journal of Animal Science, 84(11), 3065-3075.