..more than just a luxury treatment
Written by Christy DiColla of Equine Wellness & Bodywork.
Many equine injuries can be prevented before they ever occur. There is a simple diagnostic tool every horse owner could, and should, use for any horse that is in work. Equine sports massage, a therapy that is often overlooked and thought of as only a pampering treatment, could make the difference in the longevity and success of a horse’s working career as an athlete.
So what is Equine Sports Massage Therapy? Simply put, it is the manipulation of the soft tissues of the body in order to release muscle spasms or stress points, induce relaxation, or stimulation, and to improve circulation which stimulates the removal of waste products and uptake of oxygen and nutrients in cells. Massage Therapy sets up the right conditions to trigger the body into getting itself back to optimal health. It is one of the oldest forms of therapy and has been used in almost every civilization throughout history. Professional athletes use sports massage therapy across the world to keep them in top condition and to increase their performance.
The musculature of the horse makes up 60% of it’s body mass. The muscles are responsible for all movement that occurs in the body and muscle attachments via tendons can be found on many bones of the horse’s skeleton. Tense neck and back muscles can pull the vertebrae they are attached to out of alignment. As horsemen and women we are all familiar with protecting the fragile tendons in our horses legs, yet rarely do we concern ourselves us with the muscles that those tendons are attached to. The tendons are only extensions of the muscles by which muscle action is transmitted to joints. The interesting thing about tendons and muscles is their difference in elasticity, or their ability to stretch. Tendons only account for 10% of the elasticity of the muscle-tendon unit. This accounts for why tendons are so easily injured, there is not much “give” in their range of motion. The muscle however, has 90% of elasticity, and this is what we can use to our advantage in keeping horses sound.
Christy DiColla is a certified Equine Sports Massage Therapist, Reiki Therapist, and has studied at UGA for a B.S. with an emphasis on Equine Science.
Christy's equine clients range from thoroughbred and standardbred racehorses, high level dressage horses and hunter jumpers, horses in rehabilitation, to beloved backyard ponies. She combines ancient healing modalities with modern science to improve horses’ flexibility, range of motion, performance level, and general well being.
Very often tendon, ligament, and joint problems have origins in strained, contracted, and thus shortened muscles. This is because the horse’s body was intended to work as a unit, and stress in one area will be passed on to its neighboring parts. When a muscle spasm, or a bundle of muscle fibers in a contracted state, is present in a muscle it restricts the free range of motion for the horse. If the muscle cannot function as it was intended to, it puts tension on the tendons, ligaments, and joints it is associated with. This causes them to work beyond their very limited range of motion. The beginning stages of strained muscles before injuries occur can often be seen in common training problems such as a horse refusing leads, bucking, rearing, being girthy or cold backed, short extensions, and so forth and so on. Muscle imbalance and soreness can be caused by a variety of reasons including stress, poor nutrition, faulty training programs, poor saddle fit, rider imbalances, and any imbalances and crookedness present in the horse’s body.
The best way to determine whether your horse may be experiencing muscle strain is to have a qualified equine sports massage therapist perform a full evaluation on your horse. A qualified therapist is certified and has hands on training on treating the equine body specifically.
In addition to treating your horse, a good therapist will show you massage techniques you can use on your horse on a regular basis. If you are unable to hire a therapist, there are many good equine massage books and dvds that will guide you through basic routines you can perform on your horse. A good place to start is to notice how your horse reacts when you apply pressure to different muscles on its body. If a horse shows signs of pain or discomfort by flinching or moving away, it could be experiencing muscle tension, because healthy muscle tissue does not hurt. The most common areas of muscle tension on the horse are the poll, shoulders, and lumbar back. Muscle strain and atrophy in these areas will invariably place stress on the tendons, ligaments, and joints in the horse’s legs and can also pull the vertebral column out of alignment.
Equine massage sports therapy is a simple and cost-effective practice we can work into our horses care and maintenance program to reduce the potential of injury. Strong, relaxed muscles help prevent vertebrae misalignment and promote harmonious movement within the equine body. In addition to the health benefits of massage therapy, it can also improve performance and trainability by reducing pain and improving flexibility. Sports massage therapy can be used for both prevention and correction, but as we all know, it is better to keep our horse in full health than to pay the costs of caring for an unsound animal. As one old adage states, “An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.”