Frequently Asked Questions About Equine Massage
How do you get the horse on the couch?
I have been asked this question more than any other! Horses and ponies are massaged standing up, so methods are different from those used on people. Care has to be taken about how much pressure is used so that the horse is not pushed around. Because they are standing, they can respond dynamically to the massage and are more able to use body language to show their likes and dislikes. They can shift about, stand their ground, or lean into the touch. Because their muscles are in use during the massage, the amount of pressure used can be similar to or less than that used on people.
Do you use massage oils?
Oils are used on people to reduce friction on the skin. Massage strokes are adapted to the horse's covering of hair and its natural body oils so massage oils or waxes are not needed and the skin beneath the hair is never dragged or pulled.
Do horses and ponies enjoy massage?
Horses and ponies do enjoy massage so the massage is a reward in itself and they can be very co-operative. Signs of enjoyment, engagement and relaxation are:
- lowering the head
- dozing with eyes soft and eyelids drooping
- lower lip drooping and wobbling
- licking and chewing
- moving the tail aside for massage of the hindquarters
- changing position to allow better access to muscles
Enjoyment of massage can help horses who are ambivalent or hyper-sensitive about touch become more tolerant and trusting
How does massage work?
Massage works on the physiology of the horse in several ways. Improved circulation enhances the metabolism by increasing the supply of oxygen and nutrients to the tissues and the removal of carbon dioxide, toxins and waste products. Blood pressure is lowered, reducing the strain on blood vessels and the heart. These overall effects help the pony to recover from exertion, illness and injury, reducing any stiffness or swelling whilst promoting well-being and health. Massage also stretches and softens the tissues, releasing tension and spasm from muscles and breaking down scar tissue, giving a more specific benefit to areas of the horse's body, such as a tight back, stiff shoulder or hindquarters.
Massage using more rapid vigorous moves will stimulate the pony to prepare it for activity whilst a slower, soothing routine will bring calmness and relaxation. Massage also encourages the horse to produce natural endorphins, which help to ease pain and produce a “feel-good” factor.
What kind of horses and ponies benefit from massage?
Although any horse can enjoy and benefit from a massage, owners might arrange one for several reasons:
- speed recovery from an injury or illness
- help prevent damage and injury
- compensate for insufficient turn-out, such as a horse on box rest
- the pony has a stiff side, shown by problems picking up that canter on the left or right lead or by a stiff neck
- “hormonal” mare who is stressed or irritable during her cycle, affecting well-being and performance
- jaw and poll are tight
- the horse is holding its tail to one side indicating discomfort
- lack of suppleness and swing in the back
- tension and excitability when in work
- the horse is working hard – competition, long hacks or a lot of travelling
- lack of contact and interaction with other horses
What can I do myself?
Groom your horse with your hands.
Take a bit more time than usual. After you have removed the dried mud and worst of the dirt, use your hands instead of brushes. Avoid firm pressure and only do what you know will be safe with your pony. Use the same or less pressure than you would with a brush, stroking in the direction of the hair as you usually would, but slow right down. Spend as little or as much time as you like, but during the time, work slowly and calmly. This will help you to:
- improve the condition of skin and hair
- become more familiar with your pony's body
- develop closeness and trust
You might also find that it relaxes both you and your horse.