The bare-bones basics of Equine Massage Therapy
I have been wanting to post a thread about massage therapy since I started on this board. I have been doing massage therapy for my own horses and clients for 6 years. I have seen it be everything from a bonding place to a healing place and everywhere in between.
Massage therapy can be very beneficial to any horse. Pasture puff to high level competitor. I started my massage training to help my old mare who had EPM.
Now here are the disclaimers. I am not a vet. Nothing you can learn on a forum will replace a professionals hands on advice. I can help identify areas of the body that *normally* have spasms or knots. If you were to find a knot in some areas, I would recommend calling in a professional.
The first tool you will use to help alleviate pain and find knots is Effleurage. It is basically petting with a heavy hand. I use a repetitive stroking motion all over the body to find knots/spasms. I start from head to tail in a light-medium-heavy stroke of the hand. Some spasms are barely under the skin while others are deep in the muscle tissue.
Using the raw looking diagram I threw together, start at the poll. The red dots on the diagram are areas where you would usually find a knot. At the poll, the knots usually show as either small pea shaped or like a tight string.
A horse that avoids the bit or contact will often have a poll knot. One that has been forced into a premature 'head set' can be expected to have a few. Head shaking is a very common symptom indicating a muscle spasm at the poll.
If you were to find a significant knot here, it is best to call in a professional to help alleviate the issue. Thin strings and smallish peas are broken up with lots of effleurage and circular rubbing.
From the poll, I move down the neck to where it meets the shoulder. See the Purple dots on my diagram. This crease can have several smaller knots. They are most often diagnosed by a horse taking short strides or sometimes can refuse a lead on a particular side.
These knots can be difficult to remove by untrained hands. They tend to be deep in the muscle. Again, use the heavy handed petting (effleurage). This can take a few minutes to reduce the size or it can take several sessions.
Next I move to the withers. This is where a lot of problems start. A horse carries a lot of tension and weight over the withers and most horses will occasionally get a knot or two over the withers.
Start about 4 inches up the neck, before the withers. Using a repetitive stroke, feel the entire area down to the point of the shoulder. You are looking for peas and strings again. As you get closer to the flat of the back, you can pull your hands down away from the spine and more onto the 'meaty' area below. I have these areas highlighted in yellow in the diagram.
Knots on the withers are very problematic. They can be chronic and not always easy to get rid of. They can be an indicator of poor saddle fit. Freedom of motion is difficult to achieve when a horse has such knots.
If you were to find a knot, start with light hands. Apply gentle, steady pressure to any 'pea' and a gently back and forth rubbing motion to any 'string'. Ease off a bit if your horse steps away from your pressure. I often move on to the next area and come back to the withers several times.
Next is the girth area. This area is very, very sensitive. If you were to find a sizable knot in this area, you can expect to get your hiney bitten if you push too hard. I highly recommend calling in a professional if you were to find a spasm in the girth.
Cinchy horses often have a few knots in the girth area. Start at the point of the elbow and work your way back. I go about 6" high on the body and 6" back from the elbow. Start in a smooth stroking motion, carefully watching your horses reaction. Any ear pinning should result in a phone call to a massage therapist. I have them highlighted in Green in my diagram.
Moving toward the hind, there are several areas that are considered 'hot spots' for spasms. Right at the point of where the loins meet the croup about 2-3 inches down on the hip (but still in the 'meaty' area) there is commonly a smallish spasm. Since the muscle here is very dense, it can be difficult to detect.
Through this whole area I use a different massage technique called Tapotement. Using a cupped hand, gently 'beat' the area. Start softly as to not startle your horse and gently work your way up to a steady, heavy handed, rhythmic drumming on the bum. Following your way down the croup and throughout the muscle of the hind end. You will be very surprised how much horses enjoy this! Once you have worked up to a steady rhythm, concentrate on three areas. The point of the croup, the thigh area and the 'waist' area where the barrel and hindquarters meet. These areas are highlighted in Blue.
The whole hind 'beating' should last a good ten minutes. Horses are often relaxed and some will drop their heads...some geldings will drop other parts *laugh*
Face the tail head. See it as an upside down you. On both sides, larger, solid peas are very common. Got a chronic bucker? He's probably got a couple back here. Use a soft, gentle stroke up and down the you. Near the top of the you is where the worst spasms happen. If you find one, your horse is going to encourage you to rub it for him! Apply firm pressure with just a thumb for 1 minute and then add in a slow circular motion for an additional minute. By the time I get to the circular motion...most horses are leaning back into your hands. I have the "U" highlighted in Pink.
One last place to hit. While it isn't very common to find a knot here, they can seriously affect a horses ability to get under themselves. Trace down the backs of the legs to the gaskin area. Around 4-6" in, gently pet the area, working up to a heavier hand. You are looking for a deep, pea shaped knot. If you find one, call the massage therapist. These are deep spasms that need a specialized hand. This area is in black.
Here are a few quick tips about massage.
If giving a light massage, it is absolutely fine to ride the day of. Anything harder and the horse should be given the day off. If you have a massage therapist out, its best to give the horse a few days off and possibly some bute.
I find that bath time is the best time to find knots. Using shampoo, rub all the 'hot spots' on my diagram. They are easier to find with a little lube on em'!
Being able to help your horse lead a more comfortable life is a great feeling. Go forth and rub your horses!