Category Archives: Equine Massage

Care of Your Equine Athlete

People often make comments to me like “You must have really strong hands” or “Your arms must have big muscles”, but Trigger Point Therapy, Myofascial Release, Stress Point Therapy are all fairly gentle practices. Accuracy, through knowledge of anatomy, reduces the need for brute strength.  The massage is deep, with firm pressure, stimulating endorphins, and the horse often helps me by leaning into my hands.

Trigger Point therapy targets areas of stress where muscle attaches to bone. The treatment specifically targets areas of constriction that refer pain signals to other parts of the body. Myofascial release is related to trigger point therapy, but focuses on tightness , or other disorders afflicting the fascia, a membrane that surrounds the muscles and may restrict their motion.  What makes my work so exciting is that I can switch methods as I move around the horse, using what is needed for each area of the body. 

All animals need to have their bodies in balance to live long and active lives. For show horses it makes the difference between winning and being withdrawn from the competition Tight muscles can affect  posture, and poor posture can cause spinal misalignments. The reverse is also true — spinal alignments can lead to muscle strain. 

Massage therapy should also be part of the process of rehabilitating from injuries, regaining lost range of motion, or coping with chronic pain conditions.  Body work for your horse can produce dramatic results in a short period of time: one of the many reasons it is so exciting for me to go to work!

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My Detective Work

I often say that doing body work on animals is detective work.  I get a medical history from the owner, but not from the client himself.  The horse or dog can’t point out where they might be feeling pain, so I have to tune in to all their subtle signals (and you would be amazed how stoic some animals can be!).

About 75% of trigger points are not where the pain is, so a thorough knowledge of anatomy, stress, and trigger points is essential.  I worked on a young mare that was expressing discomfort in her neck. She tossed her head a lot, especially during transitions. When her rider picked up the reins, she curled her nose to her chest. She was showing discomfort, but after examining her, I found her pelvis was very uneven. Her right pelvic crest (what some people might call the hip) was a good two inches higher than the left. It took three adjustments during the session to finally get her body level, but she was very focused on helping during the work. She walked off showing a fluid movement that we had not seen before, and she kept stretching her neck out.  Reports from the rider have been very positive: the mare continues to improve, stretch, move forward, and seek contact.

Trigger point referral patterns from multiple trigger points can overlap, causing a composite referral pattern. This has been the case with the young and green mare. As one problem gets resolved, it leads me to the next. Instead of resorting to gadgets to fix her head tossing, the wise owner had an inkling that the mare was feeling pain.  If I only work on the area where the pain is presenting, there will not be relief.

This mare is competing very well at her first show as I write this. I will continue to help her keep her body balanced and pain free. I’m expecting great things from this wonderful athlete who just needed a little help to take off!

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Extend The Career of Your Equine Athlete

Many riders tell me their horse feels off when they first get on, but works out of it. In some cases, this could be the sign of something serious needing further investigation.  Soreness can disappear as the horse warms up, and then reappear a few hours after the work out. The reason is that soft tissue injuries almost always cause more pain when they are cold, because that is when the muscles are tightest. As the muscles warm up, they stretch out and send fewer pain signals.  After the work out, all the soft tissue cools down and tightens again, often adding a few more muscle fibers to the tight area. You can see how, over time, this scenario can turn into more pain and escalate into an injury requiring a long lay-up.

Just because an injured area feels better after it warms up doesn’t mean that everything is okay. Stiffness and pain mean something, especially if they create a pattern over time. That is not to say that all muscle soreness is bad. Some aches are inevitable in becoming fit.

Sports massage for your horse can help ease soreness and pinpoint areas that are prone to tightness. Massage is helpful both before and after (after the horse has cooled down; I never massage right after a workout) exercise.

Massage therapy benefits the body in ways that most warm-up routines fail to do. Over time, select muscles may tighten and shorten. This greatly endangers the body, and unfortunately, an athlete is rarely aware of it until after an injury has occurred. A further benefit of regular sessions is that oxygen flow is naturally improved, which creates healthier conditions for muscles, optimizing body tissue. Increasing the flexibility in soft tissue can greatly reduce the incidence of injury.

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Benefits of Myofascial Manipulation

Fascia is still a medical mystery. In October, 2007, more than 100 scientists from around the world convened in Boston, Massachusetts to discuss the latest research on fascia: an enigmatic, gauze-like matrix of connective tissue that envelopes the muscles, surrounds the nerves and swathes the organs in a body-wide-web of fibrous collagen. But the researchers had some unlikely company. Also in attendance, and outnumbering researchers 5:1, was a group of alternative-medicine practitioners with a mutual interest in fascia. United by their fascination with this medically neglected tissue, the two camps comprised the attendees of the first-ever International Fascia Research Congress.

Ida Rolf , the founder of the Rolf Institute of Structural Integration, described her work on organizing the body as this:  Rolfing works on the web-like network of connective tissues, called fascia, to release, realign, and balance the whole body, potentially resolving discomfort, reducing compensations and alleviating pain.”

For decades, anatomical dissections and representations have presented the body as stripped of its fascial tissues, and the majority of physiology textbooks make little mention of it. “Most scientists,” says Wallace Sampson, alternative medicine skeptic and professor emeritus at Stanford University, “even those wary of alternative therapies, admit that the field of fascia research is a field of neglect, and remains sorely under-investigated.”

The basic concepts of myofascial release are these:

1. The body functions as a total biologic unit

2. The body possesses self-healing and self-regulatory mechanisms

3. Structure and function are interrelated, and

4. Abnormal pressure in one part of the body produces abnormal pressures and strains upon other parts of the body.

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What is the Secret to Horse Show Success?

The number one cause of injury is overuse: working too much, too fast, too soon, or too often. As riders, it is a huge responsibility to protect your horse from these training errors.  It is tempting to overdo it when there are shows you want to go to, or if you have a young and talented horse. There is a limit to how much training the body can absorb. Rest and recovery are as important as hard work.  Realigning the body with massage therapy is another key to preventing injuries.  Flexibility is an important indicator in the prevention of injuries. The horses I know that avoid injuries and are at the top of the leader board  are the ones who are on a carefully planned fitness program, have superior nutrition, regular body work, are ridden on good footing, and have knowledgeable farriers.

Pain is a warning signal that needs to be listened to. Pain is an important signal that something is about to go very wrong. If you saddle up your horse and he has a strong reaction, pay attention to that. If your horse starts refusing jumps, listen to him. If your horse comes out of the stall very stiff, or is taking longer to warm up, there is discomfort present. If dealt with early, many sources of pain can be alleviated through deep massage. If pain signals are ignored, they will inevitably get worse. Something minor can lead to something very serious, or permanent,  in a muscle, tendon, ligament, or joint. When in doubt, use the cold laser, or have body work done. Needless suffering can very often be avoided.

Once an injury occurs, scar tissue forms as it heals. This tissue is not as elastic as the original and thus is more prone to re-injury. As I keep saying, prevention is the key to a long and successful athletic career.

 

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Trouble With a Canter Lead?

Recently I was called to work on a jumper that was having trouble with lead changes.  When I encounter problems with leads, there are a few spots that I check: triceps in the front leg, the illiacus by the pelvis, the glutes. But those places yielded no clues with this gelding.  I did find a lot of tightness in the muscles of his neck, particularly the brachiocephalicus (the blue muscle in the diagram).

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The horse flinched when I started work on this muscle on both sides of his neck and seemed to have a lot of trouble moving his head to either side.  I asked if the horse was having trouble riding turns and circles, and the owner confirmed that corners had been quite problematic of late.

The brachiocephalicus swings the head and neck from side to side, and also pulls the front leg forward, as it also attaches there. You can see what a long muscle it is. Carrot stretches were almost impossible for this horse. He was literally trapped by the spasms in his neck. I used all the tools in my hands: compression, direct pressure, cross fiber friction, and the horse closed his eyes and starting taking deep breaths. There was great improvement in his flexibility. The rider has reported improvement in his performance in every way: turning, jumping, lead changes, and length of stride.  If your horse is having similar problems, don’t overlook the influence of the brachiocephalicus.

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Is All Pain Bad?

Pain is a valuable and natural tool that notifies us when there is a condition that needs tending to.  Immediately taking or administering (in the case of our animals) painkilling medicine without first reflecting on what message the pain is sending is not useful. The medication will temporarily treat the pain, with side effects, but whatever caused the pain is most likely still there. I prefer a cure to treatment!

Pain is not a disease. Pain is a symptom.

Muscles have two major functions: they contract to create motion, and relax to return to its full length and allow another muscle to pull in the opposite direction.  No other tissue in the body does this.  Muscles move bones that are attached by tendons. To move bones back to their starting points, the muscle that made the movement has to relax so the opposite muscle in the pair to bring the bones back to resting position.

What happens if this dance doesn’t run smoothly? If the first muscle doesn’t fully relax, the bones cannot return to their restful, or healthy postural position. Alignment and balance are then adversely affected. Stiffness and immobility (lameness) gain control of the body, robbing it of strength, stamina, and graceful movement. When the body is balanced (the massage work I do is called body balancing) it is in a state of health.  When postural balance is restored, pain symptoms disappear.

I recently worked on a mare that looked to be in pain in her front end. One leg was twisted so that her hoof pointed in. Her walk looked painful as well. I found an area of very tight muscles in one shoulder (I have no idea how they got like that. This was my first meeting with her.) It did not take long for her whole posture to change. Her leg starting to turn until it was fairly straight. At the end of her bodywork session I asked to see her walk, and she just strutted out of the barn. We were all smiles, and once again I was elated to see an animal relieved of pain just by re-balancing some tight muscles.  A week later I heard from the owner that the mare is moving well.

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Is Your Horse Heavy on the Forehand?

The goal in riding, in our bodies, and our horses, is balance.  Poor balance and posture is a symptom that the body is stiff and in pain.  A horse that is heavy on the forehand is a horse with bad posture. An uneven gait is often the result of bad posture.

I worked on a horse recently that was so downhill it looked like it’s chest was sinking to its knees. His rider said she was tired of having to hold him up, of having him lean on her.  I found his pectoral muscles to be tight but stretched out.  The pectoral muscles support the rib cage, and if they are stuck in an extended position, if they have not contracted back to a good postural balance, it is impossible to elevate the forehand. Trying to do collected movements on this guy was a losing battle.  He was severely limited by his weak and inflexible muscles.

There is a massage technique for raising the chest and I spent quite some time and effort trying it. At first I got nowhere. I had to go back and work more on the pectoral muscles (there are four) before he was ready to be lifted.  The second or third time around I started to see the withers and back raise just a bit.

 

This is the beginning. It will take a few sessions and good riding to reverse the effects of bad posture in this teenaged horse. I am confident that it will happen. The horse was relaxed and happy at the end of the session and I got a good report of a comfortable and relaxed ride today.  Working towards good posture and flexibility will be the key to prevent injuries that can occur when a horse is heavy on his forehand. With posture restored, horses feel more tranquil and less stressed. Postural balance is good for the mind as well as the body!

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A Vicious Cycle

What happens when your horse gets injured? There is the initial pain and then reduced blood carrying oxygen to the injury site. The reduced circulation then causes an involuntary spasm or contraction.  The spasm helps create a protective splint, which is natures’ way of immobilizing the injured area. The spasm, while in some ways protecting the area, creates more pain, and therefore more spasms. Quite a system, right?

In the beginning of recovery, there is inflammation.  There is a purpose to inflammation: it helps the body clear out damaged tissue and muscle fibers. Icing will keep the inflammation from becoming extreme.

New muscle fibers will form as the injury heals.  It is crucial, once the body is healed, to keep all tissue, new and old, flexible and pliable with massage and gentle exercise.  Cold laser therapy can help with healing damaged tissue, but spasms formed during the injury must be manually removed.  I never massage a newly injured horse, or work on any area that is inflamed. Once time has passed, massage is essential to keep the muscles pliable and encourage circulation.

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Restoring Harmony to the Equine Body

When there is an imbalance in the  alignment of the body, the result is aches and pains.  The pains lead to a learned response from muscles to try and avoid the discomfort, further distorting the body.  When I watch a horse walk, I look for all the clues that show which muscles are tight and causing asymmetry . The massage I do works to lengthen the overly tight muscles, and to help the extended muscles to contract in order to bring the two sides of the horse into balance.

Any repetitive motion creates muscle and tissue shortening. Eventually the torso becomes crooked, which creates restrictions and pain. What I do is a number of techniques to release muscle shortening , spasms ,and adhesions that may have occurred as a result of injury. To lengthen tissue, to restore length of motion, is my goal with each equine athlete.

Many people give their horse time off when it shows signs of muscle soreness or tension. Rest is important, but if there are knots in the muscle fibers, they will still be there no matter how much rest the horse has. Those knots have to be manually removed. You will see the results immediately, as your horse moves with a new fluidity.

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