A good massage makes most of us feel better. This definitely includes horses. It is, however, one of those tools that makes more difference for some horses than others. I have had owners call or text me after a massage to tell me that I ‘fixed’ their horse or that they were not expecting to see that much of an improvement. Most owners notice a difference which can include the horse feeling more supple, straight, better able to engage the hind end, more relaxed, etc. I have also spoken with owners who had not seen much of a difference at all in their horse following a massage. Finally, there are a few horses who actually appear worse after a massage. It is often a horse with an underlying issue, but certainly not always. Horses are prey animals, and as such, are very good as masking injuries and lamenesess. To appear sound, they often develop some pretty extreme compensatory issues. When these issues are addressed and previously tense muscles are relaxed, the horse is often not able to compensate to the same degree and will suddenly appear lame. Over the years, I have seen many of these horses diagnosed with an injury not long after, so it is definitely something to keep in mind if your horse appears worse after a massage.
If you have contemplated getting your horse massaged, it is important to have realistic expectations. Massage will help loosen up stiff muscles and allow the horse to use his body more correctly, but it will only be truly effective when combined with good training, correctly fitting tack, proper veterinary atttention and good hoof care.
If you’re riding in an incorrectly fitting saddle, for example, the massage will make the horse feel better for a day or two, but ultimately your money will be better spent on a well fitting saddle first. It’s a much better idea to correct that problem first and then get your horse a massage to loosen up the muscles that were held tight while working in a less than optimal fitting saddle.
Another thing to consider is how your body is affecting your horse’s performance. The longer I do this, the more I am amazed at how often horses and their riders hold tension or have muscle weaknesses in the exact same areas. This isn’t a coincidence. Definitely something to keep in mind, especially if you notice that all the horses you ride struggle with the same issues under saddle. We all have imbalances caused by hours of sitting at computers, in the car, mucking stalls, not to mention compensating for some old injuries we have all sustained riding. Getting your body strong, fit and relaxed will only help you and your horse perform better in the long run.
Most owners are realistic about what a massage can do for their horse, but I did learn early on to confirm that we are, in fact, on the same page. There was a horse I massaged early in my career who had been off for a considerable amount of time and were not able to be trained consistently. I had done a case history and spoken about the mysterious on/off lameness that was hard to pinpoint. I spoke with the vet as well who said a massage couldn’t hurt, because he was stumped with the horse at this point. I performed an assessment and found some areas of tension which I pointed out. The owners decided to go ahead with a massage. At the end they asked, quite seriously, if I thought he would win his race that weekend. I was definitely taken aback because it doesn’t matter how good of a massage a horse receives and how much of an improvement it makes, he is unlikely to win a race if he hasn’t really trained in weeks. That was the day I re-learned the importance of talking about realistic expectations. Massage is a great tool for loosening up tight muscles, releasing trigger points, and combined with the recommended stretches and home care, can help a horse use his body more correctly. At the same time, even the best massage is quite unlikely to perform miracles in one treatment.