Massage While You Groom

Massage While You Groom

Anyone who has worked around horses will recognize the utter pleasure shown by Mason in response to Mimi's touch.

Photo: Anne M. Eberhardt/The Horse

How much time per day do you spend grooming your horse? It probably varies between a minimum of five minutes to sometimes as long as 30 minutes, depending on what needs to be done. Over the months and years, this time adds up to a significant amount. Ten minutes, daily, becomes eight hours of time spent in grooming each month! Why not take this quantity of time and make it quality time? Why not use this time to deepen your relationship with your horse? Why not massage while you groom?

The primary goal of any grooming session is to remove dirt from your horse's coat, clean his hooves, and generally make him presentable and comfortable for riding. The brush is the primary tool for this endeavor. To incorporate massage into your grooming routine, you will need to use other grooming tools that allow closer contact between your hand and the horse.

Rubber mitts and soft rubber-fingered curry combs, such as the Unigroom, are wonderful massage tools. These are great for dislodging the dirt left from a good roll in the field as well as for shaking loose dead hair and skin cells. The added benefit is the pleasantly stimulating effect of the soft "fingers" as you rub in a circular motion over the body. A chamois cloth will help you give a shine to your horse's coat while you carry out traditional massage strokes. These tools will help you unite the goals of getting your horse clean and massaging him at the same time.

Begin your grooming massage at the poll, to relax the neck and cause the horse to lower his head. Use a slow, small, circular motion to relax the capitis and splenius muscles of the upper neck as well as the nuchal ligament. Rub behind the ears on first one side of the head, then the other. Then rub the bridle path, while encouraging your horse to lower his head.

When the horse has lowered his head, gently massage the base of the ears with your hands and draw the ears outward. Notice that I did not suggest that you pull the ears outward. If you pull the ears, you will get a slight stretch in the immediate local area of the tissue around the ears. There is nothing wrong with this, but a more effective way of opening up this area and causing the relaxation response would be to "traction" the ears outward gently.

This is a technique I learned when I attended the first course of Equine Cranio Sacral Techniques, taught by the Upledger Institute. If your intent is to draw the ears outward, with as little as five grams of traction on the base of the ears, the ears become a handle to the bones of the skull, creating a subtle expansive feeling. If you don't believe me, try this on yourself. Pull your ears outward, then gently traction the ears outward, with only the slightest amount of tension, no pulling. The first exercise gives you a sensation in the ears only. The second exercise stimulates a feeling of a subtle opening of the cranial bones. It can be quite relaxing to the horse.

As you move down the horse's neck, there are areas of tension that can appear in horses of any discipline simply because they use their necks for balance and as counterbalance for the rear legs in forward propulsion. You might encounter nodules of muscle tension as you move farther along the splenius muscle and into the trapezius muscle. I feel if you maintaining your small circular motion and increase the pressure you can stimulate blood flow into these areas of tension. The pressure and kinetic activity of the circular motion will allow the muscle bundle to relax.

Horses usually respond to this by stretching out their necks and moving their mouth in a "Mr. Ed" imitation. Their facial expression clearly says, "Boy, does that feel good!"

In humans, the rhomboid muscle, which stabilizes the scapula, can develop spasm and become a source of low level discomfort. I feel this also happens in the equine athlete. Deep circular rubbing in the area anterior and superior to the scapula will benefit the horse in extending his forward reach with the forearm.

An area of chronic muscle tension in many horses is the thoraco lumbar fascia and the longissimus dorsi muscles along the back. Using your Unigroom or rubber mitt, rub in a slow steady circular motion, moving from the withers area toward the tail. As you reach the mid back, you will encounter an area that is hypersensitive in many horses. This area is identified acupuncturally as BL 18 and anatomically by 13th and 14th thoracic vertebrae. This area becomes hyper sensitive in response to repeated stress on muscles and tendons. (What athlete does not have repeated stress to the muscles and tendons!)

While you are massaging from the thoracic to the lumbar area of the back, pay close attention to the fascia covering the spinous processes. Is the connective tissue covering the spinous processes even in thickness all along the thoraco lumbar spine? Often, I have noticed areas along the ridge of the spine where the subcutaneous fascia has thickened in response to chronic pressure from the saddle. The area is slightly raised, causing some to think that a vertebra is out of alignment. I feel you can mobilize this thickened connective tissue by using a chamois and firm stroking. Softening and relaxing the connective tissue will be of benefit, as will taking a close look at your saddle fit.

As you move back to the gluteal area, the epidermis, fascia, and muscle become quite dense and thick. Massage here can reach only the superficial layers of tissue, but even so can have an effect on superficial circulation. Here the circular motion becomes larger and with a bit more pressure. Most horses enjoy massage around the tail head, so this area should not be forgotten. While you are in the area of the tail, massage the origination of the semittendinosis and the semimembranosis muscles. Slide your thumbs under the base of the tail on either side. The fingers rest gently on the semimembranosis. Gently massage the soft tissue on either side of the tail. This is quite relaxing for most horses, especially those who have kept these muscles tight in guarding themselves from pain elsewhere in the body.

Now that you have made your way to the tail, finish your grooming massage with a gentle tail pull. Keeping one hand on your horse at all times, move behind him and grasp his tail. Draw the tail toward you steadily. As with the ear pull, the goal here is not to pull on the tail, causing only a local response. The goal is to create caudal to cranial traction on the spine. This is another of the Upledger Equine Cranio Sacral techniques. A strong pull on the tail will cause the horse to tense his gluteal and hamstring muscles. A gentle traction will cause a relaxation of the paraspinal muscles. Direct your full attention to this exercise and observe the results.

A grooming massage for the legs is best done with a rubber mitt, or perhaps two--one for each hand. In days gone by, the groom would sit under the horse and sing as he rubbed the horse's legs. The singing and the rhythmical rubbing made them both feel good. Singing or humming to your horse can be part of an ongoing dialogue that I will discuss later in this article. Singing while you rub helps you to slow down so the legs do not get a superficial once-over. Taking time really to look at and to feel the structures of the horse's legs on a daily basis can provide early warning of overuse injury. If you know his legs well, you can detect more easily the slightest change in heat or swelling.

The coronary band is an area that is densely profused with blood vessels that feed the tissues of the foot. It is easily stimulated by circular rubbing with your grooming massage tool or with your fingers, but is an area often neglected in both massage and in daily grooming. A veterinarian speaking at the 1998 Kentucky Laminitis Symposium noted that he had documented a significant increase in hoof growth when laminitic horses received massage or photon therapy to the coronary bands.

Once you have gone over your horse with the rubber groomer or rubber mitt, you might want to go back to areas of tension and work with your fingers or elbow to "release" these areas. This is a good time to carry out some stretching exercises. Always observe your horse's facial expressions and body language for clues as to how much pressure is comfortable. Sometimes a light touch or a gentle stretch is more effective than deeper probing.

Essential to all of the exercises described is the idea that the time spent grooming can provide a valuable opportunity to deepen the connection between horse and rider. Grooming can be a mindless exercise of knocking off the dirt, or a mind-expanding opportunity for interspecies communication. It can be an opportunity to elevate the level of communication between you and your horse. As any skilled horse owner knows, the mind-to-mind communication between horse and human is the basis of good horsemanship. The time spent in grooming offers an opportunity for the horse and rider to experience the kind of exchange that occurs between two individuals that care for one another.

DEEP Stuff

To send the message of massage--the message of caring--think DEEP. D is for dialogue. While you are grooming, and indeed from the moment you arrive at the stable, maintain a dialogue with your horse. This dialogue should include both verbal and nonverbal communication. As you are getting out of your car and going into the barn, you could extend a non-verbal greeting to your horse. Make a point to raise your awareness of where he is physically and let him know you are coming to spend some time with him. You might find your horse walking toward you as you enter his paddock.

Endeavor to keep this dialogue going the entire time you are with him. This does not mean that you are subjecting him to a steady stream of baby talk. A dialogue is a back and forth flow of communication. A horse is more apt to be in a centered state of existence, and you should try to blend with him. Being centered means that you are aware of your physical self and your attention is focused on the physical body or some part of it. The result is that your mind tends to become more quiet; you are not so caught up in your own thoughts. The horse's survival instincts make it natural for him to be focused on himself and his surroundings. For you to blend with him, your attention must be centered on the physical realities of your horse and yourself.

Along with thoughts or words directed toward expressing your appreciation for him and your happiness at being able to spend time with him, you should keep your mind open to communication from him. Allow space for him to communicate with you. Both the horse and the human are creatures who need to feel a sense of community and connection. Horses and humans are both herd animals, happiest when their own kind is near. It is through community support that our respective species has been able to survive.

The sound of the "master's voice" is reassuring to the horse, but most of the horse's communication is on a nonverbal level. By maintaining an ongoing dialogue while you prepare to ride, you will solidify the bond of communication with your horse.

Thoroughbred racehorses, from the time they are yearlings, live lives of separation from the herd. They are kept in stalls, sometimes without so much as a small window for close communication with another horse. Many of these horses develop habits of self-stimulation such as flapping their lips, chewing their tongue, rubbing, or chewing wood to substitute for touch from other group members. For these horses, interaction with humans must take the place of herd interaction. If you have ever watched a herd of horses, or a group of any animals, you have seen that they move as if they were all of one mind. One animal picks up a scent or a sound and they all move at once. The communication passes through the herd in an instant. A mental and verbal dialogue that leaves space for communication from your horse will help to satisfy his gregarious needs.

Your touch is an important form of nonverbal communication with your horse. With your touch, perhaps more so than with your voice, you can show respect for your horse. Touch him with kindness and allow him to know at all times what you are going to do.

E is for energy. Have you ever talked to someone who left you feeling tired and drained of your energy? Some people, although they might not realize it, take energy from others to balance out some inner need. These people are always in a state of distress, anxiety, or unhappiness and have a need to draw you into this unbalanced state, as well. No doubt you also know someone who gives off too much energy, leaving you feeling a bit suppressed.

These people are hostile, aggressive, or in need of holding the upper hand. Being around someone who either draws your energy or gives off too much energy can be an unbalancing encounter. When you are around your horse, it is important to be in a neutral state, neither sending nor drawing energy. If you are in a critical, uncomfortable, or irritable frame of mind, your horse can sense it immediately. If you are in a depressed or needy state, your horse will sense this, too. Endeavor to be neutral in your energetic state, neither sending nor receiving energy in order to create a bonding effect.

A disturbing scene that I often have witnessed at the racetrack involves the groom who is brushing his horse much too vigorously, nearly attacking the horse with the brush. The horse has tremendous tension in his body, is biting the wall, and is kicking at the groom. This interplay of forces is for the benefit of the groom only and is in no way beneficial for the horse. In this case, the groom is giving off too much energy, perhaps due to the frustrations in his life or some personal unhappiness. As the expression goes, he is "taking it out" on the horse. Many Thoroughbreds have chronically hyper-tense back and hip muscles due to guarding muscle spasm. This state of hypertonicity is heightened by the state of anxiety that the groom has imposed on the horse. The groom could be of much more benefit if he would approach the horse from an energetically neutral attitude, speaking to him and touching him in a gentle manner, encouraging the horse to relax his body.

It is sad to say, but it appears to me that the days of the kindly groom who sings to the horse as he brushes, and talks to the horse as he massages the legs, are disappearing. Perhaps our fast-paced life does not foster the attitude of slowing down to blend with the horse's calm flow. I remember hearing those soft, deep voices and their verbal caresses from years ago, when I was lucky enough to approach the stall unseen. Today, I am more apt to hear a harsh voice and foul language when the poor horse makes a wrong move. Negative and confrontational energies will only lead to conflict. It is confusing for the horse and dangerous for the human.

A groom at the racetrack has more personal contact with the horse than any other individual. His influence on the horse's energetic state is profound. A good groom does not draw or send energy with his actions or attitude, but uses his voice and hands in a caring, helping way.

E is for evaluate. As you begin to groom your horse, you should be on the lookout for recent injuries or areas of discomfort. The time spent grooming is the perfect time for such discoveries, as your hands and eyes are on the horse. A technique for getting to know the horse that is common to all forms of massage involves gentle stroking with the flat hand. This offers the opportunity to feel areas of increased or decreased muscle tension, as well as search for heat and swelling. Long, firm, gentle strokes along the large muscle groups serve to calm the horse and reassure him about being touched.

Maintain your dialogue with him and ask him where he is uncomfortable. Observe whether your attention is directed to a specific body part. By using your hands for grooming, rather than a brush, you will have the advantage of closer contact and better tactile sense of the symptoms of injury.

P is for perceive. Perhaps it is also for palpation. "Palpation" comes from the Latin palpare, "to stroke or to caress, or to care for." To palpate is to explore the structures beneath the skin with care. While you are doing this, make your focus clear. This is quality time for you and your horse, one on one. It is not a time to deal with your own issues. Establish the mental connection with your horse by raising your awareness of him. Your eyes are on your horse and your mind is with him. Your attention is focused on your horse in a calm and open manner. The result is an atmosphere of cooperation and a sense of centeredness on the task at hand.

Massaging while you groom will benefit your horse by promoting relaxation and allowing him to gain confidence in your movements. It will benefit you by putting you in a calm mental state and establishing a pathway for communication between you and your horse.

About the Author

Mimi Porter

Mimi Porter lives in Lexington, Ky., where she has practiced equine therapy since 1982. Prior to that, she spent 10 years as an athletic trainer at the University of Kentucky. Porter authored The New Equine Sports Therapy, published by Eclipse Press and available at or by calling 800/582-5604.

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