I would like to begin by saying that Equine Massage Therapy is in no way, shape or form a replacement for regular veterinary care! If your horse is lame or obviously unwell, a veterinarian should always be your first call. Equine massage therapists (or any bodyworkers, acupuncturists, chiropractors, etc) are not able to diagnose your horse. Ever. If you ever encounter a massage therapist who claims otherwise, that should be a huge red flag to use someone else. Massage therapists can assess soft tissues for things like areas of increased tension, heat, swelling or tenderness as well as areas of decreased tone or temperature. We can also do a visual assessment to see if any muscles look particularly tight or if other muscle groups are not being used to their full potential. We can also check the horse’s joints to see what their range of motion is like. This information can certainly be important, but the reason veterinarians use x-rays, ultrasounds, lameness locators and bone scans for a diagnosis, is because those tools are needed (along with a veterinary degree) in order to actually make a diagnosis. Without the big picture, all we know is where the horse is holding tension and not whether the tense area is the site of an injury or if the horse is developing compensatory issues due to something very different.
Massage is also contraindicated in other situations. One common reason for postponing some appointments every fall is any case where the horse has a virus. Not only can massage therapists spread the virus to other horses and barns if they are unaware of it, but it can make the horse feel more sick and increase recovery time as well. A massage increases circulation and rids the body of toxins. In theory, it appears that would never cause a problem, but if the body is already fighting off a virus, the massage will just tax the system further. A massage is also contraindicated any time a horse has a fever as it can actually cause more of a spike in the horse’s temperature.
Another common contraindication is a skin infection. This is true whether the infection is bacterial or fungal, and even more important if it is a zoonotic infection (one which can be spread to humans, such as ringworm). If the skin infection covers only a small area of the body, the massage may be modified to avoid it, but otherwise it is better to wait than to risk spreading what may be a small infection, to the entire body.
In cases of tying up, massage should not be performed at the onset (and tying up is a veterinary emergency, so definitely call them right away). Massage can certainly be helpful down the road, but in acute cases, it can cause further muscle damage.
After surgery, massage is generally contraindicated for 4-8 weeks and should only be performed once the veterinarian has given permission to do so.
The medications your horse is on can also be contraindications for massage, as the effects of the massage will directly counteract what some medications are doing. It is important to tell the massage therapist what medications your horse is on so they can advise you if a massage is not appropriate at this time. With other medications, the massage can proceed, but the therapist needs to be aware of them and modify the massage accordingly.
In general, if your horse is currently sick or injured, speak to your veterinarian about whether massage would be a good idea before contacting the massage therapist. Also, don’t be surprised if the massage therapist would like to speak to your vet. It is only in your horse’s best interest for everyone to communicate and be on the same page.
I love cases where there is a lot of communication between everyone on the team. This includes the veterinarian, and at times chiropractor or saddle fitter or trainer. We all contribute some pieces to the puzzle, and we can all be much more effective if we work together.