Equine Bodywork Tips To Keep Your Older Horse On The Move
Just recently I saw an article about Shayne, unofficially probably the oldest horse in the world. He had just passed away at the amazingly ripe old age of 51!! Shayne's caretakers attributed his very long life and good health to his lifestyle. He spent at least 5 to 6 hours a day in the pasture running with his buddies, keeping up with the youngest of them, and ate between 4 and 6 high calorie meals a day. While few of our horses will live quite as long as Shayne, most will easily make it into their 30's. Here are a few very simple equine bodywork tips that you can do for your horse to help them battle the ailments that commonly plague our 4-legged geriatric companions.
Movement – Use It Or Lose It!
When it comes to keeping your older horse in tip-top shape, the old adage "use it or lose it" holds especially true. Horse's were born to move and in the wild will cover many miles a day in their search for food and water. For the older horse, movement is the key ingredient to keeping arthritis at bay and prevent loss of muscle tone. Even in young horses, studies have shown that horses raised in an environment where they have access to run freely are actually less prone to injury and their bones tend to be much denser and stronger than their counterparts who are stalled for extended periods of time.
One of the most common (and easily preventable) issues that occur to horses that are confined to stalls for long periods of time is they tend to "stock up" in the legs. Fluid retention around the ankles and fetlocks is a great inhibitor of movement and can cause a lot of discomfort. I liken it to extending your arm straight out, wrapping it tightly in several layers of cellophane and then trying to bend your elbow. Any woman who has ever given birth can relate to this feeling! The last few months of pregnancy and dealing with the swollen ankles is exactly what that stocked up horse is going through. Horses need to move to help their bodies lymphatic system clear that fluid out.
For horses that must be stalled, there are several things that you can do to help keep that fluid from building up in their legs.
Weight shift – A very simple technique that utilizes the "digital pump" of the horse is shifting the weight back and forth from one leg to the other. It can be accomplished with one person or two (two is better). Stand on either side of the horse and very gently and slowly push the horse back and forth so that they must shift their weight from side to side in order to maintain balance. If you'll look at their feet, you'll see that this causes the ankles to flex and extend slightly and also utilizes the natural circulatory pump in the horse's foot to get the blood and lymph circulating back up the leg and to the heart.
Lymphatic Massage – One of the great things about massage is that you can perform it every day if necessary. If your horse must remain stalled for a large part of the day, lymphatic massage can be used to clear blockages in the horse's lymphatic system that may be impeding lymph flow and support the bodies natural systems. Lymphatic massage involves a series of strokes that when done in the proper order can have immediate effect on your horse's fluid retention. Some horses that have a lot of toxins built up in their system can feel poorly for a day or so following a lymphatic massage as those toxins work their way out of the body. Contact your local equine bodyworker about setting this up. They can make recommendations to you that will fit your horse's individual circumstances and needs.
Increase Circulation/Muscle Stimulation
One of the inevitable facts for horses as they get older is poor circulation and loss of muscle tone. You'll notice this in changes to their skin and hair coat, bellies begin to drop and sag, and once full and firm muscles start to get soft and flabby or simply waste away. As they start to slow down and move less, this helps to set the stage for the development of other conditions like arthritis.
Just as the circulatory system brings life-giving nutrients to the bodies tissues, so it also takes away degenerative waste materials and toxins from those same tissues. You can help improve your horse's circulation, stimulate the muscle tissue and slow down the progression of arthritis through the use of equine massage.
By using a combination of different equine massage strokes followed by some basic stretches, you can gain a multitude of benefits for your horse. The more vigorous tapotement-type massage strokes like clapping, cupping, and hacking can have a very stimulating effect on the muscle tissue of the horse. These strokes can help to increase the bloodflow to the underlying soft tissues of the big muscle groups of the hindquarters, neck and back, including joints. These strokes are also commonly used in pre-event massage to stimulate the athletes body and prepare it for work.
A technique that uses a combination of compression, cross-fiber friction and effluerage is very beneficial in horses with muscle wasting as the compression acts like a pump, pulling blood into the wasted tissue. It is then followed by cross-fiber friction and effluerage to clear waste buildup from those tissues. You repeat the process about 5 or 6 times. It is used most often on the muscles of the topline, like the back. Older horses with the stereotypical sway back can really benefit from this technique in conjunction with abdominal building exercises.
Basic Range Of Motion Stretches
Adding some basic stretches to your older horse's routine is a great way to keep them supple, flexible and their joints healthy. Spend just 15 minutes a couple of times per week running each of the legs through it's ranges of motion. Add carrot stretches to the mix to cover lateral and vertical flexion. I always recommend massage and stretching of the major muscle groups before riding rather than after, especially with older horses. This will help reduce your horse's risk of injury as well as prepare the body for exercise.
When it comes to the comfort of our equine companions, there is an abundance of over-the-counter and prescription products at our disposal. Some of these are natural. Most are not. All can put a pinch on the pocketbook. The good thing is that all of the above tips will go a long way in helping to keep your horse pain free!. They are all-natural, and most of these techniques will cost you nothing but your time unless you need to bring a professional bodyworker in. Don't get wrapped up in the mechanics of the exact massage technique having to be performed perfectly. I have found over the years that it is the very simple things that can have a profound effect on the horse, particularly in geriatric cases. By simply increasing your horses movement throughout the day and doing a good rubdown you are helping your horse and they will appreciate your efforts!
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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These are awesome tips! It would be great to keep horses pain free, thus following the tips could really help.