Warmer weather brings with it new green grasses and other lush greens for our horse's to munch on and with that comes an increase in the number of cases of laminitis and founder. The trigger mechanism(s) for this condition in horses has been hottly debated, as well as how to treat it. There are multiple causes for this condition ranging from mechanical to metabolic. The most prevalent cause, particularly in the spring, appears to be dietary/metabolic issues at work and can be triggered by the intake of feed and/or forages with high sugar contents.
What Is Laminitis/Founder?
Laminitis is an extremely painful condition of the sensitive laminae of the horse hoof in which the bonds between the laminae become compromised and breakdown. This condition is characterized by a very tender sole, particularly near the apex of the frog, heat in the hoof and an unwillingness to move. Because of the excruciating pain in the feet, the horse will typically find a soft place to put its front feet on, sometimes in an elevated location such as a pile of hay. In severe cases, the coffin bone detaches from the hoof wall, rotating downward and can even push through the sole of the hoof. This is the condition known commonly as founder.
How Can Equine Massage Help With Laminitis Pain Relief?
As horse owners, it is hard to watch our horses suffer with the pain of laminitis. We want to do whatever we can to make sure that they are as comfortable as we can make them. I've had good success in providing pain relief to horses with mild to severe cases of laminitis using equine massage techniques.
The coffin bone is attached to the deep digital flexor tendon, which is in turn attached to the flexor muscles further up the back of the horse's leg. In horses with laminitic pain, the muscles in the neck, shoulders and down the back of the legs become very tight in response to compensating for the painful feet. The problem ends up compounding on itself as the tight muscles contract and shorten putting more tension on the already compromised coffin bone and causing even more pain. Massaging the triceps and flexor muscles down the backside of the legs helps to relieve tension on the coffin bone by relaxing the associated soft tissue attachments in the leg, as well as the neck and shoulder which have been in a constant state of contraction.
How Do You Massage A Horse's Legs?
When doing a massage on a horse with laminitis, I will typically start at the top and work my way down. You'll find the rhomboid and trapezius muscles will be very tight because the horse uses the weight of its head as momentum to move its painful front end by throwing the head upward with each step on the painful limb. I always start with a gentler touch at first, then gradually get firmer, reading the horse to know how much pressure is enough. I will use a variety of strokes ranging from petrissage to effleurage to tapotement. I'll work each area no more than 5 to 10 minutes. When you get to the muscles at the back of the leg, you can be more effective if the horse's leg is flexed, and of course do not use tapotement on the lower leg muscles as it can be painful to the horse. You can usually rest the leg on your knee for a minute or so at a time before the horse might need to shift its weight over to the other leg. I massage even the tendons of the lower leg and down to the top of the hoof. Be respectful of your horse's tolerance for pain. Some horses are more stoic about it than others, but they will all give you signs when they need a break.
You can repeat the massage every day as needed, but usually 2 to 3 times per week is sufficient to see a noticeable difference in your horse's comfort level. As your horse improves and is less painful, you can also add some extension stretches to the equation to help stretch the soft tissue out.
Always consult your veterinarian before starting any therapy on your horse to make sure there are no contraindications. If you suspect your horse may have laminitis, you should contact your veterinarian immediately.
Lisa Carter is a Certified Equine Massage Therapist (CEMT), with multiple certifications from several different equine bodywork schools. She incorporates her knowledge and experience with Parelli Natural Horsemanship, equine bodywork and as a veterinary technician to provide her clients with the resources they need to make informed decisions for their horses. She encourages and facilitates network building between equine health care professionals, working together to find the best combination of therapies to meet the needs of the "whole horse".
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