Equine massage therapy is a bodywork modality that involves the systematic manual manipulation of a horse’s muscles and soft tissues to alleviate muscle tension and promote overall well-being. It’s an increasingly popular component of holistic veterinary care and equine management.

Horse owners may seek out massage therapy to enhance their horse’s performance and mobility, or as a preventative measure to protect against injuries. It is also used to promote a calm demeanor in anxious horses and to address age-related stiffness and discomfort in senior horses.

Veterinarians may also recommend massage therapy in conjunction with other treatments for various health conditions, such as chronic pain, musculoskeletal disorders, gait abnormalities, or rehabilitation after surgery or injury.

Equine Massage Therapy

Massage therapy in horses involves the use of hands or an instrument to manipulate the skin and muscles. [1] These techniques may relieve tension in the soft tissues, promote blood flow, and promote a calm demeanor.

In veterinary medicine, massage is used to maintain or improve performance, promote injury rehabilitation, and aid in stress reduction. 69% of rehabilitation veterinarians report using massage in their treatment protocols. [7]

For performance horses, studies show that massage may improve gait quality, flexibility, and success in competitive events. Studies of massage on performance horses have shown lowered stress hormones and reduced perception of back pain.

While there are anecdotal reports of benefits from veterinarians and horse owners alike, more scientific studies are necessary to determine the efficacy of massage as a treatment modality in horses.

Trigger Points

Most massage techniques target myofascial trigger points– areas of pain or discomfort that the practitioner can palpate within the muscle belly (i.e. a “knot”). [3] The most common locations for trigger points are areas where muscles join with tendons to attach to a bone. [2]

Trigger points are areas where the sarcomeres, the fibers making up a muscle, are severely contracted, preventing the muscle from contracting. [3] Severe, prolonged contraction of muscles can lead to reduced oxygen levels in surrounding tissues, changes in nerve function, and inflammation in the affected area. [3] Sustained inflammation activates nerve endings, producing a pain response. [3]

Trigger points can be active, meaning painful at rest or during movement, or passive, meaning painful only when palpated by a practitioner. [3] Treatment aims to release the contracted sarcomeres to relieve pain.

If left untreated, trigger points can form cross-links between the muscle fibers, making them more difficult to treat. [3] Cross-links may also form adhesions (scar tissue) between the muscle and its overlying fascia, the connective tissue surrounding muscles. [3]

Mad About Horses
Join Dr. Chris Mortensen, PhD on an exciting adventure into the story of the horse and learn how we can make the world a better place for all equines.
Apple Podcasts Spotify Youtube
Mad Barn - Equine Nutrition Consultants

Massage Techniques

There are several techniques equine practitioners use as part of massage treatment, each with a different treatment goal. Horse owners can perform many of these techniques at home, however it’s important to consult with a qualified health professional or massage therapist before doing so.

Compression

Compression involves using the heel of the hand, a loose fist, or the fingertips to apply pressure in a rhythmic way, compressing the muscle against the underlying bone. [2] This technique separates the muscle fibers from each other and flattens them, releasing tension. [2]

Direct Pressure

Direct pressure involves using the thumb, fingers, or elbow to apply sustained pressure to a specific area on the horse’s body for at least five seconds. [2]

During the sustained compression, blood flow to the area may be altered, changing the amount of fluid within the tissues. [2] After releasing the compression, a previously tense area becomes more pliable due to redistribution of fluids. [2]

Effleurage

Effleurage is a technique that involves a gliding stroke over a broad area, generally used to prepare a large muscle for more finely detailed work. [2] Practitioners may also use this technique to soothe an area or release tense areas of fascia. [2]

This method is used to treat fluid buildup, such as swelling after surgery or due to lymphedema. [3] During effleurage, the practitioner applies long strokes in the direction of the lymphatic vessels, which help drain excess fluid from tissues. [3] This technique can promote better lymphatic drainage and reduce swelling. [3]

Friction

Friction is a massage technique that involves creating heat to disrupt cross-links between the muscle fibers. When a practitioner manipulates the muscle during treatment, the pressure causes the muscle fibers to rub against each other. This generates heat within the muscle tissue. [2]

To perform this technique, practitioners use their thumb, finger, fist, or heel of the hand to apply pressure perpendicular to the muscle. [2] This technique may help treat muscle spasms or break down adhesions caused by previous injuries. [4]

Tapotement

Tapotement is a technique specific to Swedish massage methods in which the practitioner repeatedly taps, slaps, or cups a previously massaged area. [4] This technique may help improve blood flow to the treatment area. [3]

Petrissage

Petrissage refers to kneading, squeezing, or wringing the muscle tissue and is a component of Swedish massage techniques. The goal of petrissage is to manually replicate normal muscle contraction and relaxation cycles to encourage mobilization of the tissue. [3] Petrissage may also improve circulation and facilitate redistribution of fluid. [4]

Skin Rolling

Skin rolling is a massage technique where the therapist pinches and lifts the skin and subcutaneous tissue, rolling it between the fingers and thumb across various parts of the body to loosen fascia and promote flexibility and circulation. [3]

Vibration or Shaking

Vibration or shaking of tissues may help reduce swelling and promote muscle relaxation. [3] Many types of mechanical massage equipment use vibration to manipulate the treatment area. [3]

Myofascial Release

Myofascial release therapy is a specific technique targeting the fascia, a layer of connective tissue surrounding muscles. [2]

In some injuries or strains, fascia adheres to the underlying muscle, preventing the muscle from moving properly. [2] Myofascial release therapy aims to free the muscle from adhesions, restoring normal muscle function. [2]

Practitioners use a variety of massage techniques depending on the muscle they are treating and the degree of fascial adhesion. [2] Treatment techniques vary based on pressure, movement, and amount of time used to achieve the desired effect. [2]

Two specific techniques used in myofascial release therapy are: [2]

  • C-stroke technique: The practitioner pushes the skin and underlying connective tissue in opposite directions
  • Skin rolling technique: The practitioner lifts the skin away from the underlying connective tissue and rolls it to release any adhesions

Effects of Massage Therapy

Most studies on the efficacy of massage focus on human sports medicine, and more research is needed to determine specific benefits for horses. Many human massage methods are adapted for equine applications with the presumption they have similar effects.

Some of the purported effects of massage on horses include: [2][4]

  • Decreased tissue adhesion and stiffness
  • Increased blood flow to the muscles and skin
  • Reduced pain, muscle tension and muscle spasms
  • Lowered stress hormones

Although research is limited, there are some equine studies investigating the effects of massage on different physiological systems and measures of performance. [8] However, the overall effect of massage on horses is currently inconclusive. [4]

Despite limited evidence, the popularity of massage therapy is increasing as horse owners seek preventative and rehabilitative treatments to support their equines’ overall health and well-being.

Increased Blood Flow

An increase in skin temperature is sometimes used as a measure of massage efficacy because it represents an increase in blood flow to the treatment area. Research in horses shows increased skin temperature lasting for more than one hour. [5]

Human research also shows massage therapy treatments raise skin and muscle temperature. [4] Further study is required to determine how these changes may benefit performance and tissue healing in horses.

There are varied findings on the overall effect of massage on blood flow. Most research concludes that small changes in circulation are likely to occur, but large changes are unlikely. [4]

Pain Reduction

Some studies support the use of massage to reduce pain, likely by inhibiting pain-related nerve signals. [4]

One study evaluated the effect of massage on pain perception over the lumbosacral (lower back) region in horses. [11] Horses that received massage treatment had higher pain thresholds compared to untreated horses, indicating a pain relief effect from massage. [11]

Subsequent treatments further increased the horses’ pain threshold, suggesting massage may help manage pain in the long term. [11]

Stress Reduction

Heart rate, cortisol levels, and behaviour are metrics used to assess stress in horses. Researchers evaluated the effect of massage on heart rate and horse behaviour in ten healthy horses and found lowered heart rate during and after treatment. [12]

In particular, massage of the withers and neck showed the largest decrease in heart rate. [12] Massaging these areas also produced positive behaviours associated with enjoyment in horses. [12]

These findings suggest massage may reduce stress in horses and promote relaxation. [12] In particular, massaging areas associated with allo-grooming (social grooming) in horses, such as the neck and withers, may have the most benefit. [12]

One study showed that racehorses who received massage during the training season had lower levels of the stress hormone cortisol. [6] Further research is needed to determine the best frequency and duration of massage treatments to reduce stress in horses.

Another study evaluating the effect of Swedish massage techniques on 30 horses also found a significant decrease in heart rate after massage. [10]

In humans, the effect of massage on the stress response is inconclusive, with variable results seen in cortisol levels, heart rate, and blood pressure. [4] However, studies on the patient-reported impact of massage frequently show reduced anxiety and increased relaxation, suggesting there may be psychological benefits. [4]

Gait Improvements

There are two studies examining the impact of massage on stride length in horses. [2]

The first study evaluated the stride length of eight horses before and after massage. The results showed that stride length increased after massage by 3.6% at the walk and 1.2% at the trot. [2] From these findings, researchers concluded massage may have a positive impact on sports performance.

Another study examined the effect of massage on tracking up (forward extension of the hind limbs during movement). [9] This study showed that massage treatment increased the extension of the hind limbs, but further research is required to assess the efficacy massage on tracking up. [9]

Flexibility

A study on 30 horses competing in dressage, endurance, and Saddlebred riding classes showed improved flexibility in the neck, back, and hindquarters after ten Swedish massage treatments. [10] In particular, Saddlebreds showed the most improvement in neck flexibility after massage treatment relative to other breeds in the study. [10]

These findings suggest competition horses may benefit from Swedish massage as part of their warm-up and cool-down routines, in addition to weekly treatment. [10]

Performance

There are two studies evaluating the effect of massage on the performance of Arabian racehorses. [13] In one study, horses that received massage three days a week during their performance year had higher winnings per race and number of races won compared to the control group. [13]

The same researcher also identified similar findings in another study. [6]

Clinical Use

Massage is a popular treatment modality in many veterinary rehabilitation practices. One international survey showed that 69% of rehabilitation veterinarians incorporate massage into their treatment protocols. [7]

Many practitioners use massage as part of ongoing maintenance strategies, particularly for performance horses. [2][7] Most massage sessions for horses are between 10 to 30 minutes. [8]

The goals of treatment include improving flexibility and range of motion, reducing the risk of injury, and improving performance. [2]

Other uses for massage in horses include: [2][7]

  • Rehabilitation after injury or surgery
  • Easing muscle strain during return to work
  • Counter-treatment for compensation injuries elsewhere in the body
  • Post-exercise recovery
  • Stress reduction

Side Effects

There are very few reported side effects from massage therapy. [2] In many cases, massage therapy is a safe and valuable complementary therapy to conventional veterinary treatments. [2]

Horses that should not receive massage therapy include those with: [2]

Choosing a Massage Practitioner

Equine massage therapy is an unregulated industry, with no set standards for the amount or quality of training practitioners receive. [2] Some practitioners are registered human massage therapists who take additional training in equine massage, while others receive exclusively equine training. [2]

To ensure your horse receives the safest and most effective equine massage treatment, horse owners should review potential practitioners’ training and qualifications before agreeing to services. Features of a high-quality equine massage training program include: [2]

  • Minimum 500 hours of training and study experience
  • Practitioner emphasis on the role of massage therapy as an addition, not a replacement, for veterinary treatment
  • Practical training such as externships, internships, or case studies
  • Training in normal and abnormal horse behaviour

Some equine bodywork associations require a minimum number of training hours to become a member. [2] Choosing bodyworkers who are members of these associations can help horse owners find qualified individuals to work on their horses.

  • International Association of Animal Massage and Bodywork
  • International Equine Bodyworker Association
  • National Board of Certification for Animal Acupressure and Massage
  • Equine Association

Summary

  • Massage therapy for horses involves using the hands or specialized devices to manipulate soft tissues for treatment purposes
  • Equine practitioners use massage in horses to improve or maintain performance, relieve muscle strain, and reduce stress
  • While more scientific studies are needed to determine the efficacy of massage therapy in horses, treatment is safe and shows some potential benefits
  • Horse owners can learn massage techniques to perform on their own horse, but should consult with a qualified health professional before using massage to address injuries or health concerns

Is Your Horse's Diet Missing Anything?

Identify gaps in your horse's nutrition program to optimize their well-being.

References

  1. Haussler, K.K. Veterinary Clinics of North America: Equine Practice. 2010. doi: 10.1016/j.cveq.2010.07.006.
  2. Scott, M. and Swenson, L.A. Evaluating the Benefits of Equine Massage Therapy: A Review of the Evidence and Current Practices. Journal of Equine Veterinary Science. 2009. doi: 10.1016/j.jevs.2009.07.017.
  3. Maler, M. Massage Therapy and Myofascial Principles, in Integrative Veterinary Medicine, John Wiley & Sons, Ltd, 2023, pp. 63–69. doi: 10.1002/9781119823551.ch8.
  4. Weerapong, P. et al. The Mechanisms of Massage and Effects on Performance, Muscle Recovery and Injury Prevention. Sports Med. 2005. doi: 10.2165/00007256-200535030-00004.
  5. Salter, M.M. et al. Effect of Equine Sports Massage Therapy on Cutaneous Temperature. Journal of Equine Veterinary Science. 2011. doi: 10.1016/j.jevs.2011.03.158.
  6. Kędzierski, W. et al. Massage or Music Meant to Be Relaxing, Result in Lowering Salivary Cortisol Concentration in Race Horses. PHK. 2017. doi: 10.21836/PEM20170206.
  7. Wilson, J.M. et al. International Survey Regarding the Use of Rehabilitation Modalities in Horses. Frontiers in Veterinary Science. 2018.
  8. Atalaia, T. et al. Equine Rehabilitation: A Scoping Review of the Literature. Animals. 2021. doi: 10.3390/ani11061508.
  9. Hill, C. and Crook, T. The Relationship between Massage to the Equine Caudal Hindlimb Muscles and Hindlimb Protraction. Equine Veterinary Journal. 2010. doi: 10.1111/j.2042-3306.2010.00279.x.
  10. Badenhorst, J. et al. The Effects of Swedish Massage on Performance Horses in South Africa. Journal for New Generation Sciences. 2017. doi: 10.10520/EJC-f099306f1.
  11. Sullivan, K.A. et al. The Effects of Chiropractic, Massage and Phenylbutazone on Spinal Mechanical Nociceptive Thresholds in Horses without Clinical Signs. Equine Veterinary Journal. 2008. doi: 10.2746/042516407X240456.
  12. McBride, S.D. et al. A Preliminary Study on the Effect of Massage to Reduce Stress in the Horse. Journal of Equine Veterinary Science. 2004. doi: 10.1016/j.jevs.2004.01.014.
  13. Kowalik, S. et al. The Effect of Relaxing Massage on Heart Rate and Heart Rate Variability in Purebred Arabian Racehorses. Animal Science Journal. 2017. doi: 10.1111/asj.12671.