Equine massage therapy continues to gain popularity, and with good reason.
Although limited studies have examined the benefits of equine massage, this noninvasive therapy continues to grow in popularity among horse owners, competitors, and rehabilitation facility owners. Here’s why.
- Pain relief: It is well known that massage therapy reduces and relieves muscle tension in humans, and it can do the same for horses. And with muscle tension relief comes pain relief. Areas of scar tissue can also benefit from massage. Massage loosens scar tissue gradually, helping the horse move more freely and reducing the associated pain. Massage and stretching can help restore a horse’s mobility after an injury by reducing tension as collagen fibers heal and realign themselves post trauma.
- Improved locomotor function: Massage can be a valuable addition to a rehabilitation program. By loosening tightened connective tissue, massage helps improve a horse’s overall locomotor function. The results are easy to see and are often visible immediately after a session. In a study at The Royal Veterinary College in Hertfordshire, United Kingdom, massage of the caudal muscles of the equine hind limb significantly increased passive and active hind limb protraction.
- Improved circulation: The compression and release pattern of equine massage can help promote circulation in the superficial areas of the limbs. It’s particularly useful for stallbound horses that develop lower leg edema by promoting blood and lymph circulation.
- Relaxation: Many horses visibly relax during a massage session by dropping their head, licking or chewing, cocking a hind leg, swaying with the massage therapist’s movements, and even going to sleep. A 2016 study on the effect of massage on the heart rate of Arabian racehorses supported anecdotal evidence regarding the relaxing benefits of massage. The study, performed on 72 racehorses, measured the heart rate and variability of horses during race season as evidence of the horses’ emotional state. Each group trained 6 days per week, and the experimental group also received massages 3 days per week. Changes in heart rate parameters in the experimental group suggested that “massage may be effectively used to make the racehorses more relaxed and calm.”
- Trust: A massage session also offers important trust-building elements. Owners who learn basic massage techniques can use massage to help a horse associate their touch with a pleasant experience. I have used massage on several rescue horses with impressive results. One mare was so frightened of humans that simply catching her in the stall proved a challenge. After a 40-minute massage session, she approached me as I left the stall, turned herself to the side, and allowed me to continue massaging her as she closed her eyes and lowered her head.