Human athletes deal with concerns about performance or injury by using some or all variations of therapy available to them.
Horses are incredible and sensitive athletes and suffer from muscle soreness, tension, and restricted movement just as we do. But because they are unable to communicate this verbally, horses are frequently misunderstood…
Equine sport is also becoming increasingly intense, making it essential to have a solid preventative and maintenance health program. It should be designed to create and maintain a movement that is natural, free and rewarding for both rider and horse.
Bodywork therapies are vital parts of any such program.
Facts & findings
- A horse’s body weight is made up of 60% muscles; that is almost double that of the average human.
- The muscular system is responsible for motion; any malfunction of that system is consequently the predominant cause for motion problems. Failure to recognize this often results in inadequate treatment.
- Tight, built-up muscles are shortened muscles that have lost flexibility; this makes them more prone to fatigue and injury.
- Once a muscle is in spasm, even a normal, safe movement becomes unsafe and can result in a tear, pull or massive spasm (like a Charley horse).
- Muscular problems tend to be cumulative in nature and do not stay in one isolated area. As the first set of muscles tighten, the next group in line must pick up the slack and is put under stress. Then this group too tightens and passes along even more stress onto the next group of muscles… What started as an unnoticed tightness in the shoulder ends up as troubled flexors and tendons down the leg.
- It is, therefore, not always the last thing you horse did that caused the problem!
- The body is a unit and should be treated as such. The moving parts of the body were designed to move through a specified range of motion freely, easily and completely. If they are unable to do so, there will be a problem.
Word of caution
Muscles can be the entire cause of a problem or reflect a deeper cause! It is important to have the possibility of any deeper issues eliminated by your veterinarian: what constitutes proper therapy for a muscle problem could be entirely improper for a deeper cause!
Sports massage is much more than just a back rub!
Developed specifically for sports, it is based on the premise that anything less than maximum efficiency can be the start of a more serious problem. This type of massage, therefore, goes beyond the problem and its symptoms and goes straight to the cause!
The actual massage session starts with the use of various techniques (compression, percussion, heating bags…) to soften and prepare the muscles.
It is natural, stimulating the body’s own abilities to heal, non-invasive, and using only hands, which involves working on all the deep soft tissues of the body.
When used as correction, massage involves working on those muscles that are in a state of hyper-contraction and can no longer release on their own. This is what is commonly referred to as a knot or spasm.
To treat and correct an issue, direct pressure is applied to the exact problem spots. The key to success lies in being able to locate these exact stress points correctly, and not in the amount of pressure applied. The pressure draws blood back into the muscle and with it, all the necessary nutrients and oxygen. Friction is then applied across the direction of the muscle to loosen up any sticking fibers.
The last step is to properly exercise the horse, either under saddle with large and easy work (no lunging), or with a brisk 15-minute walk/jog within hours of the session.
STRETCHING (yoga for horses):
Stretching is essential for all equine athletes and should be included in any conditioning program. It is applied during a massage session and during warm-up and cool-down.
All the stretches I apply are safe for any sound horses; they will create some added benefits besides those massage offers:
- Allows for the greatest range of motion possible
- Pliable muscles require less exertion and get less fatigued
- Better flexibility allows for more shock absorption reducing the risk of injury
- Strengthens the contraction of the muscles
- Lengthens and stretches scar tissues
- Decreases muscle soreness and cramping after a workout
Never stretch cold muscles!
Reiki (pronounced “Ray-Key”) is a Japanese word meaning “universal life energy”. Applied by an attuned Reiki practitioner through simple placements of the hands, the practitioner becomes a channel for the Reiki energy. Energy flows through their hands to the area in the recipient requiring healing in exactly the right quantity and at exactly the right frequency. The body then heals itself. Energy blocks are released and natural balance is restored. This flow of energy has been scientifically proven by Stanford University.
It has been particularly successful with horses as they are far more in tune with themselves and their environment than people. Reiki is a very powerful therapy, outwardly very subtle in its application but inwardly very profound.
Some of these hands-on techniques are also referred to as “healing touch” or “sweating techniques”. They are the perfect solution for those areas that are too sensitive for massage.
Reiki quite deliberately has no creed, dogma or religion attached to it so that it is open for the benefit of all. It is, however, Buddhist in its outlook, valuing animals and the environment as a whole along with people.
TTeam is the Tellington-Touch Equine Awareness Method. The TTeam training system grew out of Linda Tellington’s life-long experience with horses, combined with her training with Dr. Moshe Feldenkrais. The Feldenkrais method affects a reorganization of the nervous system and is known for improving athletic ability. It also increases function in cases of paralysis and chronic pain.
It is a method of training, reducing stress and overcoming resistance working on 3 levels: bodywork, leading exercises done from the ground and riding with awareness. It enhances the mental, emotional and physical well-being of your horse. And it encourages a deeper rapport between horse and human through increased understanding and more effective communication.
TTeam offers a training approach that encourages optimal performance and health and presents solutions to common behavioral and physical problems. TTEAM horses demonstrate marked improvement in athletic skills and increased willingness and ability to perform.
TuiNa and Shiatsu
TuiNa (pronounced ‘twee-nah’) is a complete healing system, ranking equally with acupuncture, Chinese herbal medicine, and Chi Kong. These forms of therapy are the main components of Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM). TuiNa is probably the oldest (about 3000 years old) system of bodywork still practiced, yet its popularity continues to grow. After such a lengthy period of development and evolution, modern TuiNa is the most tried and tested hands-on therapy in the world.
TuiNa means “push and grasp” and is a medical treatment related to acupuncture. A vigorous technique also referred to as Chinese medical massage or acupuncture without needles. In accordance with the complex theory of TCM, which places emphasis on function and wholeness, TuiNa aims to facilitate the flow of Chi through the system of meridians. The stimulation of specific combinations of Chi-points on these meridians regulates and balances Chi. A large variety of deep pressure, manipulative techniques are focused, with diverse movements, along the meridians and into the chi points (different from acupressure, where the pressure on the points is gentle and static).
TuiNa treats many conditions, e.g. chronic pain caused by muscle-skeletal conditions and injuries, but its effect is felt in the whole body, physically and emotionally. In China, TuiNa is used for conditions that, in the West, would be treated by osteopaths, chiropractors, and physiotherapists, or with drugs.
About 1000 years ago, TuiNa was introduced into Japan, where it was modified and became Shiatsu. It is therefore also based upon the theory of TCM and its benefits are similar to TuiNa.
Following the same system of meridians, Shiatsu techniques are by comparison slower, gentler, and use more static sustained pressure. There is more focus on the meridians than on the chi points.
- Enhances the muscle tone: creating a positive effect on the whole contracting and release process of the muscle, massage helps prevent muscles from getting hyper-contracted and injured.
- Relieves muscle spasm and tension: hands-on manipulation of the contracted muscle will help the fibres to relax and eventually lengthen back to their normal state.
- Breaks up tight knots: friction applied across the direction of the muscle will loosen up any fibres that were sticking to each other and creating discomfort. This will also reduce the danger of fibrosis developing.
- Increases blood circulation: the direct pressure dilates blood vessels and increases blood flow. Blood supplies the body’s tissues and organs with the necessary nutrients and oxygen resulting in: shinier coats, stronger immunity, less strain on the heart, etc.
- Eliminates toxins: increased circulation activates the lymphatic system, which absorbs and eliminates the body’s waste products and toxins.
- Helps release natural painkillers: a stimulated glandular system helps produce more endorphins, providing natural pain relief.
- Reduces joint inflammation: massage increases the production of synovial fluid, the lubricant of joints.
- Increases range of motion: a better moving horse means more efficient strides, and enhanced strides mean improved gaits.
- Improves stamina and endurance: with the muscles working freely and with an increased range of motion, the horse is working more efficiently. His stamina, performance and endurance will improve
- Improves disposition: every animal’s tolerance of discomfort is different, and some are more patient than others. But a common way for your horse to communicate his objections is to change his behaviour. So, when your friend suddenly starts pinning his ears back when you are saddling him up, he may be hurting somewhere.
- Reduces resistance to touch: some horses just don’t want to be touched, while others can’t get enough of your scratches and strokes. Provided there is no external reason, horses that shake you off at first change their mind quickly after a bodywork session.
- Health awareness: the deep and detailed touch during a bodywork session can pick up any subtle changes in tissues at an earlier stage for intervention and care.
- Assess physical condition: tightness in muscles on one side only, changes in temperatures and tension and the reaction to touch can help you to evaluate the success of your horse’s training program and type of work.
- Relaxation: this is generally the first benefit that comes to mind when talking about massage; it is especially useful for high-strung horses.
- Complementary: bodywork therapies work very well in conjunction with other treatment forms (traditional medicine, chiropractic and acupuncture), to provide a more lasting and complete resolution of clinical symptoms. Such as colic, tying-up, botulism, EPM.
Bodywork is used along with other health care modalities, as well as proper training, to help your horse to perform at its optimum levels.