Equine, Horse & Rider, Injury Management

Why get your horse massaged?

When I tell people that I am qualified to massage both humans and horses, I often get asked, “Why would you massage a horse?” I never get asked, “Why massage a human?” As a result I often want to throw back, “Why wouldn’t you get your horse massaged?” Let’s have a closer look.

I believe that I don’t get asked, “Why massage a human?” Due to the ability for people to understand how our body feels and are able to empathise with others when they feel stiff and in pain. I think sometimes humans forget that horses can feel discomfort like people do, and below are a few factors which can affect horses.

Horses are not designed to be ridden

Historically horses have been domesticated by humans for a number of jobs over hundreds of years. Horses were not put here just for human use and as a result have to adapt to the demands humans place on them. A horse needs to be broken in slowly and gently to allow adaptations to occur especially in the back. The vertebral column especially the base of the neck are the last areas of the horse to mature. By this, I mean the growth plates are the last to fuse. As a result skeletal maturation doesn’t occur until at least five and half years old. Further to this if your horse is taller, long in the neck and a gelding then fusion can take longer. You may be looking at eight years old before this has all occurred. Therefore, looking after the musculoskeletal spine is paramount too developing a strong and enduring horse for the future. Conformation of a horse can also play a role in developing tightness and stiffness, as certain conformations will predispose a horse to experience certain mechanical stressors. For instance, a horse with a long neck may experience more muscle soreness in the shoulder and neck, as they will have to work harder to stabilise. Regular massage, stretching, and exercises can help a horse to adapt, as they are developing and allow them to grow strong, flexible and supple.

Demands

Humans demand quite a bit from horses. Some have a job such as military and police horses. Others are competed at high levels in dressage, eventing, endurance, racing, team chasing and show jumping to name a few. All of these disciplines work the horse physically and mentally very hard, and as a result aches, tightness, and injuries do occur. A high performance human athlete wouldn’t go through a heavy training period without having regular massage, or treatment to help them train better and reduce the risk of injury. So why would we ask a horse too?

While I have discussed high performing horses all horses being ridden can benefit from massages. While they might not have the high demands placed on them as high perfuming horses do, they still get ridden regularly even at low level competition and as a result experience aches and pains. Horses also have to deal with us humans. We are not always the fittest or most balanced and horses have to compensate. More often than not if a human is stiff on their right side so will your horse. Both horse and rider receiving treatment at a similar time can help the partnership hugely. Imbalances and stiffness can be addressed as a whole entity rather than separate allowing progression to be more rapid and in tune. By having your horse massaged means you can have one as well.

Field, stable and
ridden antics

Horses like to have a frolic around the field with friends or solo and as a result can slip and pull muscles like humans can. This can also occur from spooking and isn’t just limited to the field but when ridden as well. Massage can help horses recover from soft tissue injuries, even impact injuries like a kick, where massage techniques and taping can be employed. Horses that are regularly stabled due to weather or other circumstances like box rest can also suffer sore muscles from repetitive actions like feeding from a hay net. They can experience fluid retention in their limbs due to reduced movement and as a result can feel stiff. Massaging can help relieve muscle soreness and fluid retention but can also relax a stabled horse and give them something different in their daily routine.

Old and young horses

Old horses, like older people suffer aches and pains as they age. Some of this can be due to arthritic changes in joins, a reduced healing rate or cellular turnover, changes in circulation and other health conditions. Massage can help increase mobility in joints, improve circulation and help with pain management making an old horse feel better.

While it wouldn’t be thought that young horses would experience aches and pains they do, but not in the same way an elderly horse might. Young horses are growing rapidly and may experience muscle ache or other problems associated with being young and growing. A young horse also has to adapt to the demands being placed on it such as accommodating a rider, which it has not experienced in its early years. The horse may then be expected to be ridden in an outline and jumped, which it needs time to adapt. Also a young horse is still growing when this is all going on so they need to get used to their own bodies. During all of this young horses can experience discomfort, stiffness, and tight muscles. Massage can help prevent compensatory movement, avoidance behaviour and finally injury.

Past injuries

Unless you have had your horse since a foal you won’t know all its history. As a result there are past injuries that may be still affecting your horse. When I got my current horse and had a bodyworker come and treat him, she said that he had probably had a fall at some point, perhaps into a ditch! It wasn’t until I had the opportunity to chat to a past owner that she confirmed this is exactly what happened. As a result of having a bodyworker (massage therapist) we were able to release this tension and work towards building up his strength. A few years on you wouldn’t know this had happened. Massage can help a great deal towards allowing a horse to function at a better capacity after an injury, as well as help prevent further injuries or compensatory movements. Through massage certain muscles can be released allowing other muscles to be strengthened, and further helping your horse to perform to their potential, be it a happy hacker or a top class event horse.

Well Being

Humans find massage relaxing, so why wouldn’t a horse! More often than not horses completley zone out when experiencing a massage. They relax, some even go to sleep. It allows them time out and a moment to recharge. Your horse will appreciate regular massages and you may find that unwanted behaviours may diminish, due to being relaxed and removing any discomfort. Horses tend to not be naughty in nature and often behaviours occur due to pain. I will admit some horses do have a sense of humour and you could deem this as naughty, but there is a big difference between this and avoiding doing something because it is sore. Horses can also be very good at hiding pain, due to being a pray animal and not wanting to show outward signs to a predator. This means as owners we have to get very good at reading the signs. A regular massage can help prevent this from happening and help your horses well being.

Horses are all very different, they experience muscle tightness and discomfort in different areas and ways, due to age, conformation, injuries, jobs, health conditions and environment. However, to reduce this and allow horses to perform better, in comfort and enjoy it, we can give them regular bodywork sessions. This can be a combination of massage, exercises, stretches, tape, acupressure and many more to allow horses to relax, release and reduce discomfort. Empowering horses to move more freely and naturally.

Horse & Rider, Human

Balanced Rider

When we ride our trusty stead, we try and develop balance, straightness and suppleness in our horse so that they can carry us more effectively and efficiently. However, how often as a rider do you develop your own balance, straightness and suppleness? I would hazard a guess, not as frequently or diligently as you do your horse. With the winter almost over and spring on the horizon, now is a really good time to begin focusing and developing yourself for your horse. They will appreciate it!

We often hear the words “balanced rider” being banded around but what does this really mean? A balanced rider can encompass so many things. Here are just a few to consider when talking about a balanced rider

Force Balance

When the word balance is used, most people will automatically think of the ability to balance against gravity, for example, when standing on one leg or on a beam in gymnastics. This is balance and does play a huge part in riding a horse. If you are not balanced then gravity unfortunately takes control and a rider may fall off or come close to it. If this component of balance is something that you find difficult, think how that affects your horse’s balance. If you are carrying a child or small animal that keeps moving and wriggling around, you have to make adjustments so that you don’t drop them and sometimes this ultimately doesn’t work and a fall occurs. The consequences could be injury to both parties and a feeling of letting someone down. This is something that your horse could experience when you are not balanced and fall off. So to help your horse, working on your basic balance would go a long way to helping to make their job of being a ridden horse easier and less stressful for both parties.

Strength Balance

When I talk about balance of strength, I am referring to muscle strength. This can be left and right dominance. The majority of people are right-handed and are therefore stronger in their right hand or arm. Balance of muscle strength can also refer to agonist and antagonist muscle pairs. If there is an imbalance between these then injury can occur. While this is really important, for this blog it is not of focus but something that will be addressed in the future. So going back to left and right dominance, it is a natural occurrence but it is something we can decrease by working and training our non dominant side. This will even our strength out from one side to the other making our aids more consistent side to side when riding. By doing this a rider can further balance their horse out and be more supportive on their horse’s non dominant side.

Tension Balance

Muscle and soft tissue play a huge part in movement biomechanics for horse and rider. If an area is tight this will affect the body globally and also affect how your horse moves. You may not think this is so, however you may be shocked at how much you actually do influence your horse’s movement.

About 5 months ago, I injured my back playing field hockey. I had pain in the right side of my lower back which resulted in a huge decrease in range of motion, strength, force absorption and suppleness in my hips and back. However, I still attempted to ride and it was definitely an attempt. In walk I was not too bad, nor was my horse but going into trot was another story. My horse looked lame on both reins, feeling pretty low at being injured myself, having the prospect of my horse being lame as well, just would have been the last nail in the coffin. I was lucky enough to have my instructor present and being an equine bodyworker myself, we got to work straight away to fix him. Firstly we lunged him still with tack on and were happily surprised to see that he was not at all lame but instead moving rather well. It was therefore put down to rider influence. This surprised me hugely. While I know we influence our horses, I didn’t think by this much. Let me put this into a little bit more perspective. I am a small rider standing at 5ft2″ and 53kg. If my horse was small perhaps this would be understandable but my horse is 16.3hh, maybe a little taller and probably weighs near if not more than 700kg. So you can see that we can influence how our horse moves quite considerably, even minor things that we don’t realise could have an affect.

Soft tissue tension can affect mobility of the body causing decreased movement in various areas. It can also affect how different muscles activate, for instance, when there is a lot of tension in the iliopsoas muscle (hip flexors), this can affect your gluteus medius (one of your many butt muscles). The gluteus medius helps stabilise the lower back so will really kick in when performing rising trot. When the iliopsaos is tight it causes the gluteus medius to become stretched and it doesn’t like it. As a result it doesn’t activate as effectively, thus not stabilising through the lower back. No matter how much you try and strengthen the gluteus medius, it won’t make a difference until the iliopsoas is released and the gluteus medius is no longer stretched. Once this muscle can activate, then strengthening can occur and the body can function as a unit.

Anatomical Balance

Unfortunately, sometimes the way we are built means that we will have some differences from side to side or back to front. We were born like this and this is something we can’t always change, or we may have sustained an injury causing an anatomical difference. However, we can give ourself the best chance possible by being aware and doing something about it.

How do we develop ourselves so that we become the balanced rider that is talked about so much? Well there are many ways and here are some ideas below.

Massage

A massage is not just a luxury or something at a spa, a good sports massage will help with the following

  • Reduce muscle tension
  • Increase flexibility
  • Improve circulation and recovery
  • Help activate muscles
  • Reduce injury risk
  • Improve wellbeing

A good massage therapist will be able to help with improving posture off and on the horse. It is also good practice to be seen around the same time your horse receives bodywork so that one of you doesn’t undo the hard work put in. So when your horse is next scheduled for a session also schedule yourself in.

Pilates

Pilates was developed by Joseph Pilates to help rehabilitate soldiers during the war. It is used now to help people strengthen their core. However it is a bit more than this. Pilates does focus on your deep core muscles but it also develops better movement patterns by encouraging co-activation of deep core muscles and global muscles. I work with athletes and non athletes and while the athletes look strong, they tend to not use their deep core muscles but their global ones. They therefore find the more advanced Pilates exercises often easier but when you take them back to just using their deep core muscles they find this very difficult, unlike non athletes. Due to this, athletes that favour their global muscles will sustain injuries. Pilates teaches people to activate and use their body in a more functional and long lasting way.

Pilates is brilliant for horse riders as it allows a deeper understanding of one’s body. Equipilates™️ was developed specifically for horse riders by Lindsay Wilcox-Reid and is a combination of Pilates and other movement therapies to develop that body awareness and allow a rider to have a deeper connection with their horse. If you have an Equipilates™️ instructor near you, it is worth signing up to regular classes. Over time you will notice a difference. However, if you do not have an Equipilates™️ instructor close by, a normal Pilates class will still make a huge difference.

Things you can do when you ride

There are many things you can do without spending extra money or too much extra time. These include videoing yourself. This will highlight whether you are sitting evenly and what posture you adopt during all gaits and can be quite an eye opener. Often we are unaware of little things like this due to our bodies adapting and normalising them. It feels wrong when we correct them but in time your body will adjust to this being normal. The next step to really highlight any issues would to be to do regular no stirrup work. This will allow you as an individual to lengthen through the leg and hip and work hugely on balance force, especially when transitioning down. As you progress, using Franklin balls would further develop your awareness, balance and connection with your horse. Lastly, and this does cost a bit of money but having lessons with a riding instructor who understands core engagement is worth its weight in gold. Having someone tell you when and how you need to activate and seeing the results transfer to your horse in real time, is a huge learning curve and something you will then use throughout your riding, even when hacking.

So the above are just a few things you can do to become that balanced rider. There are others but the above would be a good first step in the right direction.