I can’t count how many times people are surprised when they found out I’m an equine bodyworker. The standard response is typically “How fascinating! I didn’t know there were massage therapists for horses!” The fact is, massage therapy has been around for many thousands of years and noted as a common therapy in some of the first medical reference books for both humans and animals. With the advent of “modern” medicine, these long-standing alternative therapies fell by the wayside. However, in the late 20th century, equine bodywork in the form of massage therapy, acupressure/acupuncture and chiropractic began to see a resurgence and outpaced growth in other equine therapy categories in the 1990’s1.
As various bodywork modalities gained popularity for human health, people realized these same therapies that were helping them could also help their animals, particularly in the performance arena, where the slightest physical edge means big money! But your horse doesn’t have to be a top athlete to benefit from equine bodywork. The benefits of equine bodywork are many for horses of all ages, disciplines and level of activity. Here are the top 3 reasons EVERY horse needs equine bodywork.
Improved Flexibility and Circulation
Most people are familiar with the concept of “muscle memory”. From ExplainSuff.com, “Muscle memory can best be described as a type of movement with which the muscles become familiar over time.”2 As an equine bodyworker, I witness this process regularly. Some horses develop poor posture over the course of their lifetimes, just as we humans do in the form of slumping our shoulders for example. Sometimes the muscle memory is developed due to compensation from an injury.
The soft tissue of the body is flexible, like a rubber band. Muscle is the most flexible tissue, followed by tendons, then ligaments, which have some give, but not much because they are used to stabilize the joints. As one muscle contracts, the opposing muscle must also stretch to accomodate that movement. If it cannot fully accomodate the movement, flexibility is compromised. Over time, the movement becomes ingrained and certain muscles may maintain a constantly contracted state. This hypertensive state may also impede circulation of nutrients and removal of waste products from the tissues, as well as compress nerves.
Through equine bodywork, we can help retrain the body to move in a more balanced way. Massaging of the tissues not only helps them to relax and soften from their contracted state, but it can also help improve the circulation, restoring nutrient flow to the starving tissues and facilitating the removal of waste products from the area3. By following the relaxation stage of a massage with stretching, we can help unravel muscle adhesions and allow the soft tissue to come into it’s full range of motion. And when accompanied by targeted and consistent bodywork exercises which put purpose to the new movement, we can then help the horse overcome the old muscle memory to make new muscle memory.
Decreased Risk Of Injury
The more flexible and balanced the body, the less susceptible it is to injury. A marathon runner would not go into a 5K run without first stretching! When muscles become contracted, bloodflow is compromised and waste material cannot be removed from the tissues, allowing lactic acid to build up. When a muscle is in a constant state of contraction it becomes weak, causing adjoining muscles, tendons and ligaments to work harder and strain beyond their own limits to make up for it. Regular bodywork helps reduce these risks by maintaining optimal tissue flexibility and health,
Improved Attitude and Feelings Of Well-Being
Studies have shown that massage therapy can be beneficial to the emotional well-being of an individual by helping to elevate several key neurotransmitters (seretonin and dopomine) that are thought to improve mood and lowering cortisol levels (stress hormone). One study indicated an average decrease in cortisol and increase of seretonin and dopomine levels of 30%!4 Horses that feel better emotionally and physically are going to have better attitudes overall, which may help alleviate some behavioral issues. Not only that, but performing a massage on your horse can also be a valuable bonding experience and vehicle improve your relationship with your horse.
The information in this article is not meant to diagnose, treat or cure any condition or illness. Nor is it meant replace proper veterinary care. It is meant for educational purposes only. Always consult your chosen veterinary professional before starting your horse or other animal on any therapy.
1. Equine Massage, Wikipedia – http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Equine_massage. Accessed on 8/3/14.
2. What is ‘Muscle Memory’? – Explain Stuff – Unconscious Scientific concept of the day – http://www.explainstuff.com/2009/06/03/what-is-muscle-memory-explain-stuff-scientific-concept-of-the-day/. Accessed on 8/3/14.
3. Massage therapy improves circulation, alleviates muscle soreness – http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2014/04/140416125434.htm. Accessed on 8/3/14.
4. Cortisol decreases and serotonin and dopamine increase following massage therapy – http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/16162447. Accessed on 8/3/14.
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, using essential oils for animals 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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