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Equine Massage

By: Marlene Grass, RVT, CMT

Read By: Pet Lovers
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Massage has had a noted function in our society for thousands of years. The sensation of touch on the fur or skin to the manipulation of muscle tissue has shown a benefit for humans and animals. The known benefits that the animal receives from a massage include:

  • An increased overall sense of wellness
  • A general sense of calming and reduction of stress
  • Increased flexibility and movement
  • Pain reduction or relief from pain
  • Decreased recovery time from surgery or trauma
  • Increased circulation of the blood, lymphatic and nervous systems
  • Removal of toxins from the body and its organs
            
    Massage is not a substitute for veterinary care; it is properly used in addition to standard medical treatments. Massage, performed by a trained and certified person, works with the individual needs of the horse. Sometimes the massage therapist may even detect subtle underlying problems that may prompt a visit to your vet. Despite the many positive aspects of massage, there are some situations in which it may not be an appropriate treatment. Animals suffering from fever, shock, infection, open wounds, rashes, lumps and immune disease are typically not benefited from massage. Taking time to perform a massage will delay much needed veterinary care. A certified practitioner of animal massage is trained in anatomy, movement and observation and may decline to proceed with a massage treatment if the health of the patient is at risk.

    The massage practitioner first observes the horse's gait and movement, demeanor, reactions and body language. The information obtained from this observation will help determine the type of massage. As the massage session proceeds, the practitioner will note positive and negative results and reaction to therapy. This will help the practitioner to modify and change the choreographed massage as needed. The average massage session is 30 minutes, unless there is an underlying health or heart problem requiring only 10 minutes of massage therapy.

    Massage involves applying pressure to specific parts of the body. The amount of pressure used will vary from 5 grams to 5 pounds and depends on the size of the horse, needs of the horse and the type of injury. The muscles will respond and allow manipulation only if the horse is comfortable and a bond of trust has been obtained, and the touch is light and gentle. A firm, harsh, controlling touch is counterproductive. For this reason, massage is different than the normal everyday way we pet our animals.

    Benefits of Massage

    The aging processes take a toll on your horse. Arthritis, joint problems, torn or over extended muscles and ligaments, injury and surgery are some of the more common ailments that can benefit from increased flexibility and reduced physical and mental stress. The massage itself will promote socialization, enhance the human-animal bond and help maintain the health of a horse, no matter if the horse is sedentary or constantly raced. During a period of confinement or restricted movement, the body is at rest and the muscles are inactive or stiff when activities are resumed. Massage improves the flexibility of these muscles and helps to prevent injury. The sports action of massage or a general relaxation massage should be performed prior to exercise as well as post exercise.

    Each muscle will affect other muscles. There is a domino effect to the way each muscle works in conjunction with another, as well as with the bones of the body of which they are connected to. A muscle in the rear leg that has had trauma to it will affect the muscles throughout the back, abdomen, front legs and neck. This will change the way in which the animal walks, stands, eats and plays. It can also change their behavior. Medication alone will help control pain and inflammation and even help control the signs of trauma to the muscles. But massage will assist the animal to heal the trauma. Manipulation of the muscles will strengthen the affected muscles and allow the horse to release adhesions and to slowly use the muscles.

    How Does It Work?

    There are many facets to massage. Swedish massage that has been used with humans has been adapted for use with animals. The animal's medical and social history is extremely important to the therapist in order to choreograph a massage routine. Greeting the animal and creating a trusting bond prior to massage is priceless. Observation of the stance, gait and body language of the horse is very important, and should be observed by the practitioner before and after each session. The owner or caregiver should also be aware of changes and problems that may develop. The therapist or practitioner may show you some techniques that you may safely do in between each massage session.

    Massage is divided into different techniques based on the systems it affects. The circulatory system responds to efflurage and derivative massage. The muscles and skin respond to kneading, passive joint movement and stretching. The nervous system is benefited by passive touch, tapotement and stroking. The massage therapist will evaluate the animal and determine which technique is best suited for the horse. That technique is then performed three times. The direction of application varies. Sometimes it is toward and away from the heart. Other times it is with the muscle fibers, across the muscle fibers or circular in motion.

  • Efflurage is the movement of blood. Rotary, one-hand and hand-over-hand efflurage increases circulation, flushes the tissue and warms the tissue. This is used to open and close a massage. This is used from head to tail, over the entire body, down the outside limb and up the inside of the limbs.

  • Passive touch requires no pressure or movement of your hands. The hand is held in place for 30 to 90 seconds to warm the tissue and calm the animal. This is used at any time during the massage.

  • Kneading techniques can be superficial or deep. Superficial kneading, which is skin rolling, stimulate the skin and hair coat. It increases circulation and flow. Deep kneading affects the muscle fibers. It is applied directly to the muscle not to the bone. This brings blood and nutrients to the belly of the muscle. It releases toxins and muscle spasms. The different techniques are compression, digital kneading, finger stripping, chucking (one and two handed) petrissage, cross-fiber friction, angel wing (one handed or two finger), V-spread (one handed, finger/thumb) and sifting.

  • Tapotement stimulates the animal. These techniques are never to be used on an animal with a history of abuse. Cupping is used on the chest area and loosens mucus within the lungs. Hacking is used on large muscle areas, not on the spine. Tapping may be used over the body and head. Brushing is used on all muscle groups. These are applied three times only, for 30 seconds or less. The placement of the hand is light, quick and never finishes on the animal. The last stroke should land in the air.

  • Stroking is used to calm and quiet the animal. This is a closing technique, and is applied very lightly and slowly.

  • Passive joint movement and stretching is a range of motion physical therapy for the moveable joints. Positioning is important. Misuse could cause trauma to the joint and tissue.

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