CRC Fall 2018
Massage Therapy in Horses
What it is
Everybody loves a good massage, it is often used by people to treat sore muscles, and simply to relax. There is archeological evidence suggesting it has been used by humans for centuries, it was even already known to Ancient Egyptians. However, it is only recently started being used as a support therapy for horses. According to the definition from theHorse magazine, “Massage is the use of the hands and fingers, and even the elbow, to manipulate the soft tissues. Goals of massage include promotion of circulation and tissue drainage, muscle relaxation, and pain relief” (1).
There are numerous benefits of massage. It helps loosen tight muscles and joints as a warm up before exercising, thus preventing injuries. It has a sedative effect on CNS, keeping the horse more relaxed during the exercise. It can enhance activity of the lymphatic and circulatory systems and help maintain mobility of an injured joint. In addition, horses with limited mobility who are kept in a stable may end up developing edema of lower leg, called “stocking up” (1). Edema is an abnormal accumulation of fluid in tissues. Just as prolonged sitting or standing can cause fluid build-up in human legs. The oxygenated blood is sent to the periphery by the pumping of the heart. It gets back to the blood via veins. The veins do not have a pump, like heart, but they have valves which prevent blood from moving backwards. Though valves prevent the blood from going backwards, they do not pump the blood toward the heart. The movement of the muscles, and the motion of legs hitting the ground during a step, is one part of the mechanism that helps to move blood through the veins. Thus, when movement is restricted some blood builds up in the legs, and may cause edema (3, 5). Massage can be very useful in sending that blood running and decrease edema.
“For massage to be effective, the affected structure must be sufficiently superficial to be accessible to the force imparted by the therapist’s hand” (1). Deep injuries are inaccessible, and other treatment should be used in those cases. Another limitation of massage is that it “Needs to be used after the active inflammation phase, so at least 24-48 hours after injury “(1). During inflammation, there is an inflow of blood to the injured area, and massage would just send the blood flowing away from it and would spread the inflammatory signals throughout the body, which is the opposite of what a localized inflammation is trying to achieve.
Also, it goes without saying that massage should be administered by a trained individual, to ensure it is a proper treatment that does not make the injury worse. Pulling too strongly can exacerbate injuries, and it is important to know how much force to apply.
Another important thing to remember is that it is not a panacea. It is a support therapy, which can improve blood flow and relax muscles, and in some cases that may be enough to treat the problem. However, as with other alternative and support therapies, it is important to remember that it is not a substitute for treatment, and there are things that it is just not helpful with. It should not be used on a broken skin, or at the site of infection, for example, since it can only make it worse. It is not a substitute for observation by a trained veterinarian.
There are some promising results, but so far there is no clear-cut indication of how and when to use it, and the benefit has not been quantified (2).
How to integrate into Western Medicine
There needs to be more research on when it is applicable, what are the best techniques, when to recommend it. Ideally massage would be done by a trained specialist, or at least the owner would have some training before attempting it.
Light massage may be good as a warm up before exercises, and could probably be done by the owner, could be also used as one of the ways of bonding with the horse.
The series of videos on lameness by Equitopia recommends using massage as part of the rehabilitation regiment for lameness. “… Using hands-on application to alleviate that tension, to increase circulation in that area and to fire the nerves so that the soft tissues in an area can go back to normal state of health, and thus allow the bones and the joints in that area to track in a normal range or motion” (4). According to theHorse, “Conditions that would benefit from massage include tight muscles and joints, contracted tendons, immobile scar tissue, and chronic edema. Massage to the coronary band promotes blood flow and can increase the rate of hoof growth. Massage loosens and stretches dense connective tissue, has a sedative effect on the central nervous system, and can enhance lymphatic and blood circulatory activity” (1).
1. The Horse – Your Guide to Equine Health Care. Hands-On Therapies for the Horse – The Horse. Retrieved from http://thehorse.com/14593/hands-on-therapies-for-the-horse/
2. Scott, Mike; Swensen, Lee Ann (September 2009). “Evaluating the Benefits of Equine Massage Therapy: A Review of the Evidence and Current Practices”. Journal of Equine Veterinary Science..
3. Edema. Retrieved from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Edema
4. Rehabilitating the Lame Horse: Mind, Body & Spirit (Part four of a four part series). Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zwlLGNuSTqE
5. The Spruce Pets. (2018). Learn the Causes, Treatments and Prevention of Stocking Up in Horses. Retrieved https://www.thesprucepets.com/stocked-up-legs-in-horses-1885853