Weekend Wellness: Equine Sports Massage Therapy

Is Equine Sports Massage Therapy the right choice for your horse?

Among the many alternative therapies available to horse owners, Equine Sports Massage Therapy (ESMT) is one of the more accessible and popular treatments. The prolific and relatively affordable nature of certification programs has increased the number of practitioners available to performance and casual riders alike. As horse owners, we benefit from this upsurge in people who are willing and excited to work with us to treat and pamper our horses.


What is Equine Sports Massage Therapy?

It’s not that much different that deep tissue massage for humans: It’s the therapeutic application of hands-on deep tissue treatments. Practitioners use a variety of methods when they perform a massage (and different schools teach different approaches, of course), but the general idea is that ESMT utilizes compression, direct pressure, and cross-fiber friction to increase blood flow and deliver oxygen to your horse’s muscles.

What does it do?

The increased blood flow and oxygen delivery to your horse’s muscles can have a number of positive results, including:

  • improved circulation
  • enhanced muscle tone
  • increased range of motion
  • eased muscle spasms
  • stimulated circulation in the lymphatic system
  • relieved tension
  • reduced inflammation
  • reduced swelling in the joints
  • reduced danger of fibrosis
  • lengthened connective tissues (which breaks down and prevents the formation of adhesions)

You may be wondering what that actually means for your horse. Simply put, it can mean pain relief, faster healing times, more efficient toxin elimination, and/or a general improvement in the animal’s disposition.

What happens during a massage?

Typically, an equine sports massage therapist will begin by introducing him/herself to your horse and conducting a brief evaluation. The evaluation does two things: First, it gives the massage therapist an idea of how body sore your horse is and how dramatically it may react to treatment. Second, it serves as another form of introduction and familiarization.

After the evaluation, the massage therapist usually goes straight into the massage, working each muscle group of your horse in a systematic fashion. I was trained to start at the poll of the horse and work my way toward its hind end, completing one entire side of the horse before proceeding to the other. Others may have different approaches, but you should expect your massage therapist to focus on each muscle group and treat according to the amount of muscle tension found.

Practitioners will use different strokes to treat your horse. At one point it may appear that s/he is pressing on or rubbing your horse, at others it may appear that s/he is percussing or tapping the horse. Each stroke has its own purpose and achieves specific results. A knowledgeable massage therapist should be able to explain to you what s/he is doing and why.

A massage takes roughly an hour, but times may vary depending on the needs of the horse and the approach of the massage therapist.

Does my horse need ESMT?

Like all things when it comes to horses, knowing whether or not sports massage therapy is the right choice for your horse can be difficult. The short and easy answer is that most horses can benefit from sports massage because it’s a non-invasive way to relieve muscle tension. At the very least, most horses enjoy the massage and are able to relax through the treatment. For horses who are in pain, it can offer relief and some attest it can free up their horse’s movement and improve performance. (If you need help identifying whether or not you horse is in pain, refer to our article on knowing when your horse needs body work.) Horses that are especially good candidates for regular massages are those that under heavy workloads, performance horses, or those that suffer from chronic pain, regardless of their activity levels.

Pixabay/Luciano Marelli/CC

Throughout my time as an equine massage therapist, I have known horses who have been resistant to sports massage. Horses who are especially body sore or sensitive sometimes cannot withstand much direct pressure and a less aggressive approach must be taken (a qualified equine massage therapist should be able to adapt his/her pressure to your horse’s needs). Similarly, horses that are suffering from internal issues such as ulcers or ovarian cysts, can be overly sensitive to certain portions of a massage. However, even among horses such as this, I have found that as their body conditions improve, the more I can move toward traditional ESMT when I work with them and the more they enjoy it. Of course, like people, some horses simply do not like massages as much as others. Fortunately for those horses, there are a number of other options on the market.

Remember, no body work service or product can replace proper veterinary care or diagnose or treat a disease. 

Go riding!

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