Bodywork Basics

As riders, owners and partners to our horses, there is an incredible array of treatments available to us to help our horses feel and perform their best. How do you know what your horse needs? How do you know whom you can trust to take the best possible care of your horse? What if you want to become a provider of alternative equine therapies yourself? I make no claims to be an expert, but I have begun navigating this part of the horse world, and it seems that there are many others who are interested in doing the same! I’ve compiled the questions I’m asked most frequently to help anyone who is curious figure out what their place might be among all these options.

To give a bit of background on myself, I’m certified as an Equine Sports Massage Therapist. My history with equine massage therapy goes back much further than taking the steps to become certified myself. My horses first started receiving massages about 8 years ago. I met a Certified Equine Sports Massage Therapist (CESMT) at a local show, she was running a horse show special, so I decided to have Maria done and the difference was immediate and obvious. It was clear during the massage how much she was enjoying it, her walk right after the massage was loose and her stride was open, and the next ride was full of soft, supple, stretchy work. I was convinced right away of the effectiveness and started to add it into my routine for both Houdini and Maria.

What is Equine Bodywork?

There are a number of types of therapy that fall under the larger umbrella of “bodywork.” It can be overwhelming trying to determine what your horse needs, when and how often they need it, who you should choose, or how to get into it yourself if that’s what you’re interested in!

Massage isn’t the only type of bodywork you can employ for your horse. There are practitioners of dozens of types of therapies, many using multiple types to treat the horses they work on. It’s important to note that certification and licensing for each type of bodywork varies by state and is determined by each state’s veterinary board. 

Massage: soft tissue/muscle work; used to increase circulation, promote relaxation, improve muscle tone; not typically used to treat a specific, acute injury, but overall benefits can aid in recovery/healing; does not manipulate bones or joints; depending on the state, regulation, or ‘veterinary supervision’ of massage therapists varies from no supervision, to being allowed with certification from appropriate school, to being allowed with direct supervision (a licensed veterinarian must sign a form for each horse that a therapist will work on), to being allowed only by veterinarians (it’s up to the massage therapist in each state to make sure that they are up to date on the regulations in their state and compliant).

Myofascial Release: a hands on therapy that aims to reduce fascial restrictions, which can be caused by injuries, prolonged stress or trauma to an area and can in turn cause muscle fatigue and lack of flexibility; follows the same state by state restrictions as massage therapy.

Chiropractic: treats musculoskeletal system; used to treat acute conditions and enhance performance in sport horses, can also be used to maintain soundness; equine chiropractors MUST be a licensed DVM – this is very important, never use a chiropractor for your horse who is not a licensed veterinarian! The great thing about soft tissue work is that it’s very difficult to cause an injury through that type of therapy, on the contrary, it’s VERY easy to cause injury by manipulating the musculoskeletal system, particularly if done by someone who is not properly trained.

Obligatory photo of Maria being worked on by her highly qualified Equine Chiropractor/DVM.

Obligatory photo of Maria being worked on by her highly qualified Equine Chiropractor/DVM.

Acupuncture: various techniques using needles to stimulate specific points on the horse’s body; used for pain relief and to treat a whole host of conditions (musculoskeletal, neurological, gastrointestinal) as well as for general performance enhancement; courses in equine acupuncture are typically offered only to licensed veterinarians and vet school students.

Acupressure: a less invasive treatment similar to acupuncture, uses finger pressure on specific points on the horse’s body; used to relieve pain, muscle spasms and swelling and is believed to remove toxins and increase circulation to help aid recovery; no specific certification or licensing is required for someone to practice acupressure therapy. Reflexology: a touch therapy along the same lines as acupressure, typically utilizing different ‘reflex points’ but used to treat similar conditions.

How do I know if my horse needs massage?

All horses can benefit from massage therapy! I know, I know, that sounds like exactly the type of thing someone might say if they made their living by providing such a thing. But really, I haven’t met a horse that wouldn’t both benefit from and enjoy massage therapy. Essentially, the answer to the above question is that you can’t go wrong in adding massage therapy to your horse’s routine (aside from a few very uncommon scenarios in which it could be contraindicated), but we’ll review some of the major reasons you might seek out a massage therapist in your area.

The biggest overall effect of massage therapy is increased circulation. This, in turn, can aid in recovery from injuries and recovery from routine muscle fatigue, can aid digestion and can increase flexibility, which are all positive outcomes for both sport horses and what we’ll call “maintenance” horses, i.e. horses who are not in work, are retired, are companion horses, basically a horse whose performance does not need to be improved but who you still want to keep happy and healthy.

Of course, most of us don’t have bottomless budgets from which to draw for our horse related expenditures, so we want to make sure that our resources are going toward the things that will have the biggest effect and are the most needed, so you might be wondering a bit more specifically how you can tell when your horse needs a massage. 

The most obvious sign will be muscle tension and reactivity (a flinch or moving away from pressure applied to an area). Many horses have one area that stays tense or sensitive pretty regularly based on what kind of work they do and the way they’re built. You may notice this on the ground during grooming or during a ride, or quite possibly both. Dressage horses are typically reactive in their neck, shoulder and hip; hunter/jumper horses are often reactive in their poll and shoulder; race horses are frequently reactive on the inside shoulder and outside haunches, based on which way they gallop on the track (to the left in the US and to the right in the UK, for example); event horses are typically a combination of all of the above! Your horse’s massage therapist will do a short evaluation over their whole body before beginning the massage to identify the areas that are most reactive and determine where most of their time will be spent during the massage. 

As I said previously, massage can also aid in recovery from an injury, through increased circulation, rather than directly treating the site of the injury. Both of my horses have had soft tissue injuries, one was a tendon and the other was a ligament injury, and I had them both receiving regular massages while they were out of work and when I started bringing them back, both to help the actual injured tissue to heal and also to help maintain their body condition when there wasn’t much else I could do with them to keep fit. It’s important to note two things here: the first is that your horse’s massage therapist should NOT be doing any diagnosing of injuries, the most they should offer is the suggestion that you consult a vet; the second is that you should get approval from your vet before adding anything to an injured horse’s routine to make sure that massage will not worsen any specific condition.

Speaking of which, this brings us to a brief, but not-so-fun topic, how do I know when my horse should NOT get a massage?

As I said, there are a few uncommon conditions in which massage is contraindicated, which I’ll share with you in the interest of education. If a horse is in shock, usually as a reaction to extreme trauma or pain, one symptom is lowered blood pressure. Massage also lowers blood pressure, so I’m sure you can see where this is going. If your horse is showing signs of shock, seek immediate veterinary care. If a horse is showing signs of or is known to have a fever or infection of some kind, you don’t want to increase their circulation and interfere with the healing process. Once again, if your horse is displaying symptoms of having a fever or infection, you should consult a vet right away. Lastly, if a horse has cancer or a tumor condition, massage should not be used, once again due to the increase in circulation. A condition may be isolated and massage could cause it to spread. I will assume that if you know your horse has such a condition, you are already working with a vet, but just in case, if your horse shows any symptoms, you guessed it: consult a vet immediately.

How often does my horse need a massage?

I am a believer that any amount of bodywork is better than none, so the answer is really as often as you can comfortably afford to add it into your routine. As a general rule, I say that maintenance horses should be massaged every 4 to 6 weeks, horses is moderate work should be massaged every 2 to 4 weeks and horses in a high level of work should be massaged every 1 to 2 weeks. Again, this is just a generic rule, what I would love to see if we all lived in an ideal world. If you are able to incorporate frequent, regular massages into your horse’s routine, great! If you are able incorporate massage once every other month, great! If you are able to incorporate massage sometimes, when your resources aren’t eaten up by feed bills, vet bills, tack store bills, etc., great! If you can budget it to incorporate massage right before or right after a show, great! If you see an improvement in your horse when they receive massages, then I’m a fan of whatever scenario works for you!

What exercises can I do on my own, in between professional massages, to make my horse feel better, give them a little treat, etc.? How do I make sure I don’t hurt my horse if I try to do these myself?

The great thing about massage and working with soft tissue/muscle, is that it’s difficult to cause injury, as long as you’re careful and you listen and respect your horse’s reactions and cues. I’m going to share 3 of my favorite quick and easy DIY exercises with you, these are things I regularly recommend to my clients in between their horse’s sessions.

1. This first one is super easy. You’re basically going to become a human heating pad for your horse! Wherever you notice reactivity or sensitivity, simply lay one or both of your hands, palms down, over the area or spot in question. I generally recommend starting with one hand, using your other hand to hold the halter or to place on the horse’s shoulder or haunches (depending on where the reactive area is), until you’re sure your horse is comfortable and won’t try nipping, stomping or kicking at you. We all know our horses well and trust them, but when you’re dealing with an area that may be sensitive or in pain, you can’t be too careful. You can hold your hand(s) there for as long as you like. Your horse will hopefully start licking and chewing, showing signs of release, they may be wary when you start but this should not elicit any reaction other than comfort and relaxation once your horse accepts what you’re doing. This can be used anywhere but I commonly do this on the poll, along either side of the spine from the withers to the tail, and just in front of the point of the hip.

Release may look something like this.

Release may look something like this.

2. This next one is a touch more involved, but almost equally as non-invasive. Over any reactive or sensitive spot, use your thumb or your index and middle finger together to rub small circles. Start with light pressure and work your way up to moderate pressure if your horse will tolerate it. You can even combine this with the first exercise. Use some heat to relax the area a bit and then rub some circles. Lighten your pressure or stop and go back to the first technique if your horse shows signs of pain while you’re doing this.

3. The last exercise that I like to suggest are good old fashioned carrot stretches! You can google some various techniques to do these, but essentially you’ll use a treat of some sort and have your horse reach their nose down toward their front legs, around to either hip or out in front of them. This one is great to do before or after you ride! You can also learn to do some more advanced stretches, I would recommend asking your vet, chiropractor or massage therapist to show you so you can see where you should hold and how much extension or flexion to ask for.

 

How do I get certified to become a massage therapist myself?

This question has a slightly less straightforward answer. As we talked about before, regulations and supervision required varies by state. The first step is to make sure that your state is not one where animal massage is either not allowed or allowed only by licensed veterinarians. You can find a list of each state’s statutes here: https://iaamb.org/resources/laws-by-state/. Once you’ve established that you live in a state where you’ll be allowed to practice, the easiest thing to do is search for certification programs local to you. The program that I took was through Equissage, which is based in Virginia, but has licensed franchises in New England/New York, North Carolina, California and Texas. There are also other certification programs you can go through, it will just depend on your location. There are also companies that offer home-study programs, which I can’t really speak about because I haven’t taken them, but I think I would suggest an in person course if at all possible, because I can’t see how you’d learn without the hands on aspects.

Are there any prerequisites to take the course? How much anatomy do I need to know?

All of the courses I’ve seen do not list any prerequisite experience or education prior to taking the course. I can’t imagine it would be easy to pick up quickly if you’re not already comfortable around horses (though if you’re reading this I would image that you already are!), but I have heard that massage therapists who are certified to work on people do take the equine and canine massage courses for their continuing education, mostly without intentions to ever work on animals professionally. The course that I took covered quite a bit of anatomy in the materials we used to study, it’s probably easier to pick up when you’re already familiar with equine anatomy, at least on a basic level. If you’re worried about that aspect, you could always study equine musculoskeletal anatomy on your own before you take the course, and I also know of several home study courses that focus solely on more in depth anatomy. All of this will depend on the specific certification course that you take, but I definitely encourage you to reach out to the company or the instructor if possible and ask any questions you have to make sure that you’re comfortable with the breadth of the course, what will be required of you and what you’ll get out of it.

How long does it take to establish a reputation and build a client base?

Once again, this is a question without a straightforward answer. This all depends on where you’re located. If you’re in an area without a lot of competitive riders or professional equestrians, you might have a hard time building up business, simply because the people around you may be more resistant to the idea of alternative therapy. Conversely, if you’re somewhere with a ton of sporthorse programs, lots of professionals and highly motivated amateurs, you’ll probably have an easier time attracting clients, both because they may already be used to the idea and also because they’re probably more willing to try different things to impact their horse’s performance. You should also do some research to see if there are other ESMTs in your area. If there aren’t many, you may be able to fill a demand that is currently going unanswered. If there are a lot in your area, you may find yourself competing with more established therapists for the same group of potential clients. There are a lot of factors at play, but it’s just like building any other business. Make sure that the demand exists, take the time and effort to market yourself and use the connections that you have to get your name out there.

What else would you like to know?

I think I’ve established that this is one of my favorite things to talk about! That being said, I want to know what questions you have that I haven’t answered. Feel free to ask in the comments of this post, or reach out to me on Instagram if you want to chat privately. I can’t wait to hear from you!