Massage Therapy for Optimum Performance and Health

By Ute Miethe

Side Stretch
Photo 1
. Side stretch; 22-year-old horse reaches for the carrot

Massage therapy can be very helpful when it comes to maintaining performance and health. Racetrack grooms for example discovered some time ago that a form of slapping (with towels wrapped around the hand and applied with a soft wrist) helped maintain a certain amount of conditioning for racehorses that were laid up due to injury. The technique stimulated the muscle tissue, therefore reducing the amount of time needed to recondition the horse after lay-up. It also supported the healing process more effectively by reducing strain and increasing circulation.

Most people think of relaxation when they think of massage therapy (human or animal). Although this is a component of most massage techniques (except pre-event massage to stimulate muscles), it is not the main component, unless a massage is given to primarily achieve relaxation.

Why can massage be so helpful?

The answer lies within a form of connective tissue - the fascia (fosh´-ee-uh), whose basic function and design is the same in humans or animals and will respond essentially the same to any massage therapy.
Fascia is sheets or bands of fibrous connective tissue enveloping, separating, and/or binding together muscles, organs, and other soft structures of the body. It is composed of two layers, a superficial layer (connects the skin) and a deep layer (connected to other tissue structures in the body). For example, myofascia partitions muscles into groups and allows the muscle fibers to effectively glide against each other, ensuring optimal range of motion.

It could also be envisioned as the biological plastic wrap that wraps everything in the body - the organs, the bones, vessels, muscle tissue, etc. - in one big interconnected sheet. If everything were to be taken away from a human body, for example, except the fascia, one would see a perfect outline of that body and all its parts.

Between Leg Stretch
Photo 2. Stretching between the forelegs for the carrot

What can go wrong?

Only healthy fascia allows specialized tissues to slide against each other without interference. Healthy fascia can become dysfunctional due to:

* Trauma (injury)
* Bad postural habits causing unnatural shortening or lengthening of muscles and creating asymmetries
* Illness

What affects one area of fascia can affect other areas of it, due to its interconnectedness. Imagine you pull on a corner of a T-shirt - not only does it cause wrinkles and distortion at the site of impact, it also causes tension in an area that is in a direct line at a distance point from the initial "trauma". The same thing happens to fascial tissue in the body, creating dysfunction that can cause:

* Pain
* Loss of range of motion
* Interference with other biological functions in the body

If not addressed, this can develop into a permanent dysfunction of muscle and other tissue, in both localized and seemingly unrelated areas.

Problems as a result of muscular dysfunction include:

Abs Before
Photo 3. Belly lift, before stimulation

* Injuries to the junction where muscle and tendon meet, the area where the blood flow is reduced, resulting in scar tissue. Increased blood flow generally supports healing and is the reason why muscle injuries usually heal faster than ligament/tendon injuries.
* Proprioceptor dysfunction. A proprioceptor is a specialized sensory nerve ending that monitors internal changes in the body brought about by movement and muscular activity. Proprioceptors located in muscles and tendons transmit information that is used to coordinate muscular activity. These proprioceptors think they know the "normal" range of motion for a muscle, when in fact they may have been fooled into the opposite by bad postural habits, asymmetries, trauma or illness.
* Tears of fibers in the muscle belly, which can occur but happen less frequently than injuries in areas where muscle fibers connect to tendons
* Chronically hyper- or hypotonic muscles
* Myofascial adhesions

How Massage Helps

Photo 4.
Belly lift, upon stimulation. The abdominals engage and lift the back.

Massage therapy focuses on (depending on client's needs):

* Reducing or eliminating adhesions within the fascia to promote proper healing, and alignment of the scar tissue with the general muscle fiber direction to minimize restrictions
* Reestablishing normal/ optimal range of motion and restoring or maintaining normal/ optimal muscle function by re-setting the proprioceptors
* Stimulating muscle tone
* Shortening recovery time between performances
* Helping the body to eliminate metabolic wastes
* Stimulating the nervous system
* Muscle relaxation
* Restoring balance through symmetry and eliminating discomfort to encourage correct use of the musculo-skeletal system

In addition, massage therapy supports chiropractic treatments by allowing the tissues to respond better to the adjustment.

There are several massage and hands-on techniques (for humans or animals) one can choose from - Swedish Massage, Deep Tissue, Trigger Point, Myofascial Release, and many more. All massage techniques have a beneficial effect if applied correctly, however some situations may require limited application of a particular technique, due to contraindications or the intent of the massage, which can be either healing support (in rehabilitation), or stimulation (for competition).

Pelvis Before
Photo 5.
Pelvic flexion, before stimulation

When working with horse clients, I like to see the horse move, preferably on a longe line first and then under saddle. This gives the handler an opportunity to see the before and after, and allows me to assess horse and rider issues prior to the work.

Signs to look for that show the massage is working and releasing tension, especially when it comes to animals, are
* Soft eyes
* Deep breathing or sighing
* Licking
* Twitching of muscle tissue

Improvements are usually seen immediately after the massage is completed. Softening of the tissue can be felt and positive changes in movement can be seen. Usually the individual will also feel much more relaxed.

What you can do

I always encourage the owner/ handler/ rider to actively participate in the therapy process, one major reason being the effect of rider asymmetries on the horse. From my own riding experience and by observing other riders, I have become very aware of the asymmetries that interfere with riding and that often cause pathological neuromuscular changes (people and horses).

Most muscular problems simply arise from uneven use of the body, due to bad postural habits and the fact that one side is usually dominant over the other. I recently worked on a friend's new horse. When palpating his back it became obvious that he was quite sore, more on the right than the left. That is a clear indication that the previous rider tended to sit heavier on the right side. It is possible that the initial problem was an ill-fitting saddle, which was exacerbated by the rider's uneven seat. Saddle comfort is essential for a healthy back and optimal performance.

Typical asymmetry problems:

  • Sitting unevenly in the saddle and collapsing on one side (usually caused by stronger muscles on one side of the back versus the other)
  • One hip more forward than the other
  • A leading or dropped shoulder
  • Always looking down
  • Lack of open hip angle due to tight hip flexors

In almost all cases the horses are more affected by the rider's asymmetries as the horse tries to adjust his balance for the rider.

Pelvis After
Photo 6. Pelvic flexion, upon stimulation. Tail tucks under and back is raised and rounded slightly; pressure was just released a moment before so back has already gone much of the way back down.

It is important for the rider to be aware of such asymmetries and address them through specific exercises (horse and human) with the goal of becoming as symmetrical and balanced as possible. Massage therapy is a great tool to assist and expedite this process.

When it comes to the person/ rider, I might ask them to:

  • Do simple stretching exercises and ask them to observe their postural habits, so they will become more aware of their weaker and stronger sides
  • Switch sides as needed to become more balanced. For example, if they carry shopping baskets always on the left arm, I advise them to switch to the right, and so on. Those are signs of imbedded asymmetries that can be improved, or even eliminated, by focusing on simply doing the opposite.
  • Do yoga or Tai Chi. Another massage therapist once told me that if everyone would be doing yoga on a regular basis, we would not need any massage work. I think he's got a point! Now if we could just get the horses to do the downward facing dog...

When it comes to horses, the handler can always do some :

  • Simple leg stretching exercises
  • Carrot stretches for the neck (Photos 1 and 2)
  • Simple poll flexions.
  • Belly lifts and pelvic flexions (only if the horse’s pelvis is not generally posteriorly rotated at rest), which are comparable to a person doing sit-ups and are great for toning abdominal muscles, stretching the back muscles and increasing range of motion (ROM) in the sacro-iliac joint (where the pelvis meets the spine), while stretching the deep hip flexors.
    (If a horse exhibits discomfort when attempting stretching, avoid doing it.)

To get your horse to do a belly lift, place your fingers at the sternum on the belly (right behind the withers at the midline of the belly). Apply firm pressure with your fingertips or fingernails, or scratch lightly back and forth until the horse elevates his withers (Photos 1 and 2), and hold the position for about five to ten seconds.

For the pelvic flexion (which will also lift the back) apply pressure with both index and middle fingers in the muscular groove about three to four inches to the side of the tail (where the tail starts). Apply pressure with your fingers until the pelvis flexes down (Photos 3 and 4). Hold pressure for as long as you can up to 20 or 30 seconds. Be aware of possible negative reaction from the horse and be careful not to get kicked. It is common to see very little response, if any, in horses who are not used to these types of stretches, or are rather stiff in their backs. They may initially object, but will improve over time, as they become more flexible. However, if your horse pins his ears, kicks, bites, swishes his tail, or stomps his foot when asked to do these stretches, pain may be involved that might need veterinary attention.

If you are uncertain about the technique, have a professional show you first, so you can learn how to do it correctly. Correct body posture is just as important as applying the technique correctly. Always remember safety first when working around horses - be sure they are happily cooperating and stop working if they become agitated. Again, cooperating signs to watch for are becoming sleepy or soft-eyed, licking or chewing, taking a deep, sighing breath. Signs of agitation or pain include ducking, ear pinning, tail swishing, and biting. 

Always consult a doctor or veterinarian prior to starting massage therapy on a sick or injured individual so an appropriate treatment plan can be worked out. I also would like to stress that any stretching exercises should be done gently, only within the individual's range of comfortable motion, and only when the musculature has been warmed up. It makes stretching a muscle much more effective and considerably reduces the chance of injuring a muscle. A cold muscle is very prone to injury when stretched. Brisk grooming may be adequate in warming up the tissue, as are simple Swedish massage strokes. Be aware that it takes longer in colder climates or seasons for the musculature to warm up and it might make more sense to walk or work the horse first before attempting any stretching.

In conclusion

Personally, I strongly believe that less is more and therefore prefer to use less invasive techniques that are highly effective, yet cause the least amount of discomfort and will facilitate lasting and positive changes. People often believe that the treatment needs to hurt or be uncomfortable to be effective, AKA "No pain, no gain" - not so when it comes to good massage therapy. Though it’s normal to have some discomfort, it should be minimized. Animals especially will object to too invasive treatments and generally stop cooperating.

Ute and Roe'sie
Ute Miethe and Roe'sie   Photo by Cele Noble

If you or your horse have performance issues, and possible pathological, tack, or nutritional causes have been ruled out by a doctor or veterinarian, chances are that the issues are due to tension in the body, caused by muscular dysfunction. Most, if not all, training resistance in horses is either caused by discomfort/ pain or the inability to mentally process a request given by the handler or rider. Not effectively addressing those issues will considerably increase the risk of injury to horse or handler, as the horse usually responds to them with behaviors such as bolting, bucking, rearing, etc.

When it comes to musculo-skeletal problems, never underestimate the involvement of the myofascia, especially if one is serious about achieving maximum performance and health. Only healthy fascia can support optimal health and performance. Good massage therapy can expedite the healing of myofascial tissue disorders and restore optimal muscle function in horse and rider. Hoof Print


About the author:

Ute Miethe is a graduate of the Northwest School of Massage in Federal Way, WA with a Certificate of Excellence in all studies, including reflexology, Swedish, deep tissue and sports massage, acupressure, trigger point and myofascial massage. She is also a certified CranioSacral 1 therapist. As a graduate of the Northwest School of Animal Massage in Redmond, she is certified for massage on small and large animals. Ute has been a horsewoman and avid dressage rider for 12 years and regularly clinics with Steve Kanikkeberg and James Shaw (Tai Chi for the Equestrian). Her focus is on facilitating positive and lasting changes in the health of humans and animals. She can be reached at (253) 576-8035 or