Hands On and Happy (Massage)

Throughout history, different forms of massage have been used in cultures to relieve pain and tension in soft tissues. We humans know that massage usually feels good and provides relaxation to us, so we assume that the same will be true for our horses. Although it might seem improbable given the many forms of manual therapies, the wide-ranging term "massage" can be defined as simply the application of pressure and traction to the soft tissues of the body, whether that body is human or horse.

If you will make it a habit to use your hands regularly on your horse, you will soon see the benefits of the opportunity this provides for close and intimate contact. You will begin to develop manual sensitivity for areas of tension, heat, or swelling. You might even begin to recognize trigger points, small areas of muscle that contain an irritated nerve structure.

When an area of the body is stressed repeatedly, the local nerves become over-excitable or hyper-irritable. These localized points will be painful on palpation and the muscle will react with a twitch response. Muscles containing trigger points are held in a shortened position, reducing the muscle's functionality. The goal of trigger point therapy is to deactivate the point and eliminate the source of pain. Trigger point locations often correspond to the locations of acupuncture points, but unlike acupuncture points, which can be mapped on charts of the body, trigger points are not in the same place in everyone. Also unlike acupuncture points, trigger points are sources of pain, rather than access points to energy channels.

The mechanical action of the hands compressing and releasing cutaneous and subcutaneous tissues can theoretically enhance circulation of blood and lymph, resulting in an increased supply of oxygen and removal of waste products or mediators of pain. Certain massage techniques have been shown to increase the threshold for pain and relax muscle spasm. An intriguing aspect of massage is that a massage that is done well can relax the mind and reduce anxiety, which might affect the perception of pain, for both the horse and the human. The feelings generated by touch might be a primary benefit, even more so than the muscle health benefit.

What is Massage?

The technique of massage--the art of pressure, traction, rubbing, compressing, and manipulating soft tissue to achieve a therapeutic effect--varies widely from culture to culture. The Japanese recognize a form of manual therapy called Shiatsu, while the strokes used in Swedish massage have become the standard when one speaks of massage therapy. Lomi Lomi is a form of deep tissue manipulation developed in Hawaii; sports massage and Rolfing are its state-side counterparts. Massage therapy techniques range from cross-friction massage and myofascial release, where the patient is acutely aware of deep tissue probing, to the inappropriately named therapeutic touch, where the therapist does not come into physical contact with the patient at all. There are thousands of manual therapy techniques, each with its own unique form of soft tissue manipulation, joint mobilization, and stimulation of various pressure points according to the physiological theories on which it is based.

The experience of illness and hospitalization often elicits a stress response in humans that might manifest as sleep disturbances, increased heart rate, increased systolic and diastolic blood pressure, anxiety, and general discomfort. The profession of nursing was founded on the administration of palliative care, or the reduction of discomfort in the patient.

Massage, particularly the back rub, is a well-established nursing intervention, and has been utilized as a time-honored comfort measure. Research has demonstrated that back massage has the ability to elicit a relaxation response in the majority of study subjects. Translating this evidence into information we could use with our horses, one could use the long, smooth, flat-handed strokes of the back rub to reduce pre-event anxiety or post-race agitation in horses.

A massage designed to induce a relaxation response would make use of effleurage strokes, or strokes that glide over the body surface. The pressure is firm and even, your mind should be relaxed, and the setting as quiet and comfortable as possible. Using this approach, the anxious energy level of a horse can be decreased significantly. If this is done habitually before an event, the horse might begin to associate a state of calmness with the event, reducing pre-show anxiety.

Massage for Foals?

A recent study was designed to examine the effects of five days of massage therapy on the weight gain and sleep/wake behavior of hospitalized, stable pre-term infants. Massage therapy, which consisted of body stroking and passive limb movement, was provided to 16 pre-term human neonates. The massage group averaged 53% greater daily weight gain than the control group, spent less time sleeping at the end of five treatment days than the control group, and spent more time in the drowsy state.

Could these results be applied to the premature or the dysmature foal?

My team of equine therapists in Lexington, Ky., often work with hospitalized foals. During our treatment sessions, we focus on creating a comfortable, non-frightening experience for the foal. Our hands are always firm, but gentle. Compression and stretching strokes are used to maintain blood and lymph circulation and to inhibit soft tissue contractures while the foal is not mobile.

A hospitalized foal can have painful and frightening experiences with humans in the necessities of surgery and post-surgical care. We endeavor to make our interactions with these foals an opportunity for deep relaxation and building trust in humans. Foals respond with spontaneous stretching and increased vigor in standing attempts.

For Your Horse

Imbalances in muscle tension are warning signs of injury. By using your hands on your horse regularly, you can "see" into the future and potentially affect the course of an injury situation. Massage therapy techniques can help prevent injury by keeping the soft tissues mobile.

Strokes that could be used on the horse to increase range of motion and promote functionality include petrissage, or kneading strokes, and friction strokes that compress and stretch the tissues beneath the skin. Before these strokes are used, the horse must be warm and relaxed. When these strokes are followed by manual stretching, you can see an increase in joint function and feel softening of soft tissues.

Vibration strokes provide an approach to softening adhesions (scar tissue connecting the damaged structure to the surrounding healthy tissue, such as between damaged flexor tendon tissue and the surrounding fascia, or subcutaneous tissue) or restrictions in the superficial fascia.

Using the fingertips or palms in contact with the skin, vibrate the skin and superficial layers of fascia, and observe the mobilizing effect this stroke can have. Vibration does not affect deeper tissues, but can stimulate local circulation.

Massage is, by necessity, a superficial approach to injury care. The addition of range of motion exercise will make massage more effective in treating loss of functionality. There are many stretching and ground exercises that can effectively and easily be used with horses to increase functionality following injury or surgery.

Massage Isn't Always Enough

A study in humans suggests that massage and ultrasound have only limited effects on deep muscle temperature, and they might not be suitable as a preparation strategy for exercise. Massage can be an aid in preparing the body for therapeutic exercise such as stretching and controlled movement, but it might not be effective in all situations as a "stand-alone" therapy.

Not Always Safe

Most horse owners believe that massage is completely safe to use, but this is not true. Massage is relatively safe, but there are contraindications.

Do not use massage in the presence of phlebitis (vein inflammation), deep vein thrombosis (clotting), burns, skin infections, open wounds, bone fractures, or muscle tears. Avoid massage to an area of internal bleeding, such as an acute hematoma (bruise). There you should apply ice massage, gliding a block of ice over the injured area for 10 minutes. A horse with overly tense muscles should not be massaged or should only be massaged with very light touch. Massaging soft tissue that is in a high state of tension can cause bruising and increase the pain response.

Take-Home Message

Touching your horse in a pleasant manner not only strengthens the bond between human and horse, but allows you to feel where there are problems you might not otherwise observe. You should consult your veterinarian if you find areas that are sensitive to your touch. If you are interested in trying more intensive massage on your horse, you can take classes or hire an equine therapist. Remember, you can cause injury trying some things if you don't know what you are doing. Massage should be pleasurable, for you and your horse.


Our intuitive response to pain is to rub it. Human studies have linked hands-on contact with relaxation effects, a reduction in pain, improved circulation, and increased metabolism. An effective massage is not difficult, and a simple formula such this can be followed.

  1. Always begin a massage with effleurage or superficial stroking.
  2. Follow that with deep stroking.
  3. Use friction or vibration over areas of tension or adhesions.
  4. Follow that with deep stroking.
  5. End with superficial stroking.
  6. Walk the horse on a loose line.
  7. Go through a series of gentle stretching exercises.


Massage is a skill anyone can learn to do safely and in a satisfying manner. To ready yourself to give a good equine massage and to receive the reciprocal benefits, follow these simple steps:

  • Relax. Use your breathing to help you relax the tensions in your own muscles. Exhale deeply; as you do this, send all your bodily tensions out with your breath. Horses do this, and your horse might begin to recognize this as a signal that good things are coming.
  • Get grounded. Take on the feeling that your feet are planted firmly on the ground and that your body is strong and comfortable.
  • Make contact mentally. Stand at your horse's shoulder and look him in the eye. Speak to him softly and let him know that it is time for some peaceful togetherness.
  • Make contact physically. Place your flat hands on your horse in the area of the withers. Using a smooth gliding stroke, begin effleurage stroking. These are long, hand over-hand strokes that move from the withers to the tail. I like to begin on the horse's back, then move to his side, then to his belly. Be aware of what your horse finds pleasurable and non-threatening. Continue effleurage from the poll to the base of the neck and the shoulders. If you want to include the legs in your massage, begin at the hoof and stroke toward the body. Keep at least one hand on your horse at all times.
  • Give Your Gift. Using vibration, compression, or any of the strokes you enjoy using, seek out areas of tightness. The main benefit of massage is the relaxation effect, but other benefits include increased circulation, relaxation of muscle spasm, and the opportunity to identify and address subclinical tension.
  • Smile. A massage should end when it is no longer pleasurable for you or your horse. When it is time to stop, do so, then step back and smile at your horse.--Mimi Porter


To learn more about massage and all of the other forms of equine therapy, a college-level curriculum is available at Midway College in Midway, Ky. This program offers the first bachelor of science curriculum in equine therapy. Begun in 1999, this curriculum is still the only one of its kind in the United States.

The philosophy behind this four-year college degree program is that those who consider themselves equine rehabilitation and sports therapy practitioners should have a college degree that is specific to that field. Horses deserve no less than well-trained, highly skilled professionals to work with veterinarians in helping them recover from injury or surgery.

The equine therapy curriculum at Midway College includes a course in massage therapy. This course covers many forms of manual therapy, including myofascial release, zero balancing, craniosacral therapy, Tellington Touch, Reki, Shiatsu, Swedish massage, and energy medicine. Other courses in the curriculum include equine disease, lameness, nutrition, exercise physiology, anatomy and physiology, horseshoeing, physical agents, manual therapy, Eastern medicine, veterinary procedures, and three semesters of clinical experience in applying equine therapy techniques to horses. The curriculum equips the equine therapist to assist the veterinarian in the clinic or field.

To learn more about this unique curriculum, visit www.midway.edu or www.equinehealthcare.com.--Mimi Porter

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 www.exclusivelyequine.com or by calling 800/582-5604.

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