On the International Trail

Learning the Basics of Equine Massage: A Way to Give Back to Your Horse

An Oklahoma State University instructor teaches the basics of equine massage at the 2016 AQHA International Horsemanship Camp in England.

Oklahoma State University instructor Natalie Baker explains how the average horse owner can use basic equine massage techniques as a way to relieve your horse's muscle tightness. (Credit: Kelsey Stangebye)

Have you ever considered equine massage for your horse? At the 2016 AQHA International Horsemanship Camp in England, Oklahoma State University instructor Natalie Baker explains how the average horse owner can use basic equine massage techniques as a way to relieve your horse's muscle tightness. Further explaining that equine massage is a way for a rider to give back to their horse, and in doing so, it can create long-term benefits to keep their horse physically fit and healthy for both riding and competition. 

Safety First 

First and foremost, Natalie stressed that safety for yourself and your handler should be most important. If you have a handler assisting you, they need to on the same side of the horse as you. Additionally, if at any point you feel unsafe, don't treat the horse. Natalie also explained that you should place your free-hand (the hand not massaging) on the horse by positioning your hand into a soft fist. So at all times, you should have  two hands on the horse. This position for your free-hand is a safety precaution, which will allow you to push away from the horse quicker in the case that the horse reacts negatively to your hand pressure. (See photo above.) 

Assess the Horse's Temperament and Body Language

The first thing that Natalie does when working with a horse is to assess and touch the horse's body to determine if there are any tight muscle areas. You should start with the poll and neck, then move to the shoulders and pectorals, then to the withers and back, and finish at the hip of the horse. Natalie began this assessment with light pressure. You should be looking for any tenderness or soreness as you move your hands into these areas. Often, you can assess a horse's pain through their body language when touching that particular area. For instance, you should be aware of the horse's body language by watching their ears, eyes, tail and legs etc.  Through the horse's body language, the horse will tell you what kind of pressure to use. 

Systematic and Methodical Approach to Equine Massage: Head to Tail

A typical massage takes about an hour and a half. Natalie has a systematic approach to massage; she begins on one side of the horse at the poll and works to the tail. You should work on one side at a time before moving to the opposite side. This strategy is a way to ensure that you don't miss any areas of the horse's body. 

Q: Is it okay to just massage one area of the horse, rather than massaging the whole body?

A: Natalie says that it is OK to just focus on one body part. However, it would be a more effective massage to treat all of the mentioned body parts, because all of the muscles affect one another. 

Massage Techniques

For each section of the body, you should massage each area three times. You should begin with light pressure, and then with each time, you should increase pressure. Below is an overview of massage techniques with a corresponding video demonstration: 

Massaging the Neck

Begin massaging the neck in front of the horse's shoulders and moves upwards towards the poll. Start with direct pressure from your three finger tips on the horse's neck. Then build pressure each time. 

Then move to the lower part of the neck, just above the cervical spine and begin with the same direct pressure. 

Finally, transition to using a "wave motion" massage technique on both of the above mentioned areas of the horse's neck. With this technique, keep your hand relaxed and move your hand in a waving-like motion, while moving towards the horse's poll. 

Shoulders, Forearm and Pectoral Muscles

For the shoulder muscle, use the fist of your hand in a circular motion to massage the shoulder.  

For the pectoral muscles, use three of your fingers and work in a lengthening motion to work out any muscle tightness. Again, start with light pressure and increase pressure for three times. 

For the horse's forearm, use  direct  pressure of your thumb and work down the horse's forearm. 

Withers

There are two massaging methods you should use for the withers. Begin with light pressure with the wave-like motion. Then massage the muscle up and down on the withers. Natalie described this technique as a "mountains and valleys" motion to loosen up the muscle. (See second video for demonstration on the "mountains and valleys massage technique) 

Massaging the Croup and Hip

Using three fingers, use the mountains and valleys motion along the horse's back and work towards the croup, and then towards the top of the tail. 

Then Natalie uses a circular motion of her fist on the horse's hip. However, note that you should not massage the stifle. 

Thank you to the UK Quarter Horse Association! 

It's incredible how quickly time passes when you're having fun – Oklahoma State University instructors have just completed the final AQHA International Horsemanship Camp for the European schedule. Up next, I will be joining the Sam Houston State University instructors for the AQHA International Horsemanship Camps in China!