Massage Offers Relief for Stiff Muscles and Joints

Whether you are on or off your horse, you can usually tell when he's not as limber as usual. Stiff muscles and joints from overexertion or lack of exercise may have slowed him down. He may come walking in from the pasture more slowly, letting his pasture mates pass him like the wind. You may notice him stretching his limbs more often, or he may even show a slight limp. Had he just been lying down, this might be expected temporarily, but if he hadn't, and if your veterinarian advises, you might want to try some massage therapy.

What Really Is Stiffness?

Tendons and ligaments also benefit from massage.

Stiffness is a commonly used term for impaired motion. Impaired motion is often the result of localized swelling (excess fluid, or edema, in the surrounding tissues), excess fluid in the joint cavities, lack of joint lubrication, or inelasticity of muscle and connective tissue. Each can be helped by restoring proper blood circulation to, and moving excess fluid away from, the area, and massage and exercise can accomplish that. Exercise and movement in the joints help restore lubricating fluid to the dry joints and massage helps remove edema from the area.

Muscles are attached to tendons, which are attached to bones, and a problem in the muscle due to spasm or stiffness will in turn limit the range of motion in the joint. This also stresses the inelastic ligaments, which attach bone to bone, and can cause serious injury. The muscle is the softer tissue, and if it loses its flexibility and can't stretch or function normally, the tendons and ligaments risk injury. In addition, other muscle groups may be stressed in the body's attempts to overcompensate for soreness elsewhere.

A muscle is an organ that contracts voluntarily or involuntarily to move the different parts of the body. The structure of a muscle can be compared to that of a rope with sheathed groups of strands inside other sheathed groups of strands.

When a muscle is damaged from overuse, lack of use, or stress, its strands can become stuck together, like unstirred spaghetti can clump together. The strands cannot move freely alongside each other, inhibiting elasticity and range of motion.

How Massage Can Help

If you are not fortunate enough to have a qualified massage therapist on hand, you may want to try to help your horse yourself. It takes training and practice to become really skilled at equine massage, but massage is an ancient healing art dating back to prehistoric times, and you can learn to do it too. If your horse gets regular massage therapy, ask your equine massage therapist if there are techniques you can do yourself in between treatments.

Massage is the oldest form of healing; it's instinctual to rub an area that hurts. It is also an effective way to stimulate circulation, and to relax or rejuvenate your horse. Massage increases blood flow to the area to bring in healthy oxygen and nutrients and carry off harmful toxins and wastes. It stimulates lymph flow to eliminate the wastes and to keep the body's immunities active to overcome injury and illness. It releases areas of tension within the muscles and relieves muscle spasms and discomfort.

There is a limited supply of blood throughout the connective tissue (the binding, supportive tissues such as tendons, ligaments, and cartilage). Massage increases the flow of blood through these tissues enhancing their capacity to function and to heal if injured. Proper manipulation of the muscle and the connective tissue also increases elasticity and range of motion. All of this gets your horse's body functioning more normally again and gets him back on track, feeling better, and more mobile.

Massage is an important part of the healing process. The positive results of massage help both mentally and physically. A good attitude and positive thinking on your part are essential, because attitudes and energies are transferred from the giver to the receiver and from the receiver back to the giver. Mere touch and the "laying on of hands" are therapeutic and are therefore preventive medicine, in that they can redirect energy flow and enhance intercellular communication. Massage assists in the re-balancing process, thus allowing the body to self-heal.

When massaging, use just enough pressure to reach the underlying muscles; fast, hard movements are not usually necessary. Warm up the area with lighter, broader strokes, starting out slowly and using light pressure. Superficial strokes can be faster and more vigorous, over smaller areas at a time, like currying. Deep strokes should be slower and more controlled.

A healthy muscle, when relaxed, will feel soft and pliable. You can use fingers, thumbs, the heels of your hand, knuckles, forearms, and even elbows - there are many ways to give a massage. Most strokes are more effective when directed toward the heart and performed in small or large circular motions. The direction of the hair coat should also be considered. Observe your horse's reactions.

Keep in mind the body is a whole entity and all parts are related to the others. The head bone's connected to the . tailbone. Thus an area of stiffness is going to affect other areas as well. Massaging the whole body, not just one or two problem areas, may be more effective in achieving the necessary results.

When massaging joints, avoid putting direct pressure on bony areas. This can be painful and even damaging to the horse. Carefully massage the softer areas around the bone (the tendons and ligaments) where the blood flow is minimal to stimulate much needed circulation. Avoid hard pressure in those areas, however, because there are delicate nerves, veins, and arteries running through them that could be injured if handled roughly.

When massaging your horse, always observe his reactions. Horses often become more attentive as you approach troublesome areas, so pay attention. Never use more pressure than your horse will allow. Sensitive areas generally become less sensitive as they are massaged; watch and record your horse's reactions. With practice you will soon learn to read your horse's reactions to know where and how to massage. Allow and encourage his feedback. Many horses will take a deep breath and then relax soon after you begin. Keep safety in mind, for both you and your horse. Don't tie him; most horses will stand quietly with a lead rope hanging to the ground. If not, either place him in an enclosed area or have someone hold him for you.

Following these few basic guidelines will ensure an effective, safe massage. Always offer water to your horse before and after a massage. Body fluids will flush out the bad and bring in the good, so be sure he is kept hydrated. Practice, and enjoy the hands-on experience!


This is an informational article only; it is not intended to replace veterinary diagnosis or treatment. Always consult your veterinarian for any health problems.

For more information on massage, see the following books:

  • Equine Massage by JP Hourdebaigt; Massage for Horses by Mary Bromiley;
  • Healing Your Horse by Snader, Willoughby, Khalsa, Denega, and Basko;
  • For the Good of the Horse by Mary Wanless; The Basic Principles of Equine
  • Massage and Muscle Therapy, and the video, Equine Massage and Muscle Therapy by Mike Scott

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