Equine Sports Therapy IRVAP (MT) & LANTRA Qualified Bit & Bridle Fit Consultant
Did you know? Around 60% of the horses’ body weight is muscle. It can take up to 90 days for a small muscle injury to become apparent (noticed by a change in behaviour, decreased performance and / or lameness) by which time more serious injury may have occurred. Timely intervention to these ‘minor’ muscle injuries can not only improve a horse’s performance, but it may also prevent problems in the future. When a muscle tightens, the tightness is often transmitted from one muscle group to another, so for example, shoulder tension may be transmitted to the muscles of the forearm, resulting in extra stress being placed on the tendons. Equine massage encourages the nutrition and development of the muscular system by stimulating its circulation, nerve supply, and cell activity. Regular and systematic body massage causes the muscles to become firmer and more elastic, as well as flexible, and pliable.
Equine massage therapy techniques can impact on equine joints and bones in the following ways: -
The skin is one of the largest organs of the horse’s body. Just underneath the skin there are millions of nerve endings, all which carry sensory information to the brain. Applied pressure to these nerve endings carries the neurological benefits of massage to the brain which results in relaxation.
Improved circulation is a well-known benefit gained through massage. There are two main types of circulation within the body, the circulation of lymph flow and the circulation of blood flow.
When circulation is poor, conditions such as
During a massage, the stimulation of improved circulation occurs which can assist with these conditions as the very act of massage improves the horse’s circulation. Most of massage techniques compress and release the horse’s muscles and so blood flow is initially slowed and then released to flow back into the area. This can assist with moving blood through areas of congestion. New, blood carries oxygen to the horse’s cells, allowing them to function at their optimum. Enhancing the circulation system by massage we also assist in important aspects of healing. Wounds need both red and white blood cells to heal. In simple terms white blood cells assist in the fight against bacteria and infection while the red blood cells help to repair tissue and heal wounds.
So, by enhancing the horse’s circulation, it means there will be a better supply of red blood cells and so ability to heal from injury.
Sometimes this system can become sluggish and blocked (lymphatic congestion), particularly if the horse has been on box rest post injury. By performing massage, we will be encouraging lymph flow and in so doing aiding the lymph system to eliminate waste materials, toxins including lactic acid. This is why it is important as a therapist, that we have knowledge of lymph flow and where the nodes are situation in the horse.
Although lymphatic drainage is a natural function of the lymphatic system because the lymphatic system is unable to move the fluid on its own, it relies on muscles to push to push lymph flow along the body. Therefore, performing massage assists the muscles in pushing the lymphatic fluid along the system in the right direction.
The reason why it is not unusual to see a horse with filled legs if the horse has been on box rest for stood in for any period of time is because the lower legs do not have muscles as such to push fluid along. Also, it is always more likely that excess fluid will accumulate in the lower regions of the anatomy.
For the oedema to be resolved the excess fluid needs to be taken up by the lymphatic system. Gentle mobilisation techniques could assist in encouraging circulation to mobilise the excess fluid and encourage it to travel.
This type of massage not only increases the flow of lymph and drainage of waste, it also improves the overall function of the lymph system as a whole.
Increased lymphatic drainage brings the benefits of improved recovery rates, reduced oedema and improved circulation.
With a post event massage or a rehabilitation massage, the horse could well be suffering from oedema, fatigue and weakness. If a horse has sustained an injury there is often a buildup of metabolic waste within the muscle tissue. This build up can impede recovery and increase pain. So, stimulating the lymphatic system with a massage will assist in decreasing fatigue, weakness and inflammation, hence speeding recovery time.
Equine massage can have an intense effect on the nervous system of the horse. Massage can increase the release of:-
Massage therefore at the most basic level (particularly when we discuss the use of effleurage type strokes) promotes relaxation, increases temperature, and activates the parasympathetic system releasing and promoting a feeling of well-being.
So, on a basic level the influence on the nervous system of equine massage therapy is:
The endocrine system is comprised of glands that produce and secrete hormones released from the endocrine system into the bloodstream.
These regulate growth, fats, metabolism, mood, temperature, sexuality, thyroid, and tissue function.
The endocrine system can have secondary effects on other organs such as the kidneys, liver, heart, and sexual organs.
You may not consider that massage has much of an effect on the horse’s respiratory system. However, as with other systems throughout the horse, sports massage therapy has a positive effect on the respiration system. Massage effectively increases circulation throughout the body – and therefore assists in the oxygenation of tissues. It also relaxes the nervous system – thereby allowing for deeper, steadier breathing.
Endorphin release reduces blood pressure thereby assisting with a more efficient circulation placing less pressure on the cardiovascular system. This result in longer, deeper breaths and a reduced heart rate. Both of which can make the horse more relaxed.
Respiration begins with inhalation and the intercostal muscles assisting in the expanding of the rib cage. If the horse has tension or muscles soreness in this location it can affect the expansion of the horse’s rib cate and limit lung capacity. Equine massage therapy can identify muscular problems such as stress and trigger points which can then be treated if necessary to ensure the intercostal muscles are in good condition.
Sports therapy can have a really positive affect on horses with gastric ulcers. Horses who have gastric ulcers often experience compensatory patterns of muscular tension, myofascial restrictions and considerable muscular pain as a result of coping with the discomfort that the ulcers cause. If left untreated the pain and discomfort can alter their way of moving and posture, leaving them more susceptible to injuries. Massage can compliment the veterinary treatment by ensuring that any areas of muscular tension, muscular pain and restrictions are addressed.
During my research I found a study by Witold Kedziersk (2017). This study consisted of measuring levels of salivary cortisol concentration in race horses. He utlised a group of race horses who were regularly trained and competed in official races . Once a month saliva samples were collected from each horse to determine the cortisol concentration. It was found that both music and massage resulted in significantly lower salivary Cortisol concentration compared to the control group and therefore it was concluded that horses found massage or music relaxing and resulted in lower-level salivary Cortisol concentration. Salivary cortisol levels are an indication of stress levels, so again this evidences how massage lowers stress levels (also linked to ulcers) and endures a feeling of well-being.