It is fairly common knowledge that equine massage helps to decrease the tension in your horse’s muscles and also decreases inflammation. The increase in circulation and the release of endorphins promoted by massage are also somewhat well known. However, most people do not realize all of the benefits that massage can offer equine athletes. In addition to offering improvements for the horse’s muscular system, massage also helps the horse’s skeletal, digestive, nervous, cardiovascular, respiratory, endocrine, lymphatic, and urinary systems.
While there are so many benefits to the other systems in the horse’s body when a massage is performed, the muscles receive numerous improvements from the session. Massage increases the flexibility of soft tissues and helps to break up muscle spasms and trigger points. Tendon and ligament tears can benefit by massage in multiple ways, including the increase of circulation to flush out injured cells from the site of the tear and to increase the nutrients needed for repair of the injured tissues. The scar tissue strength is also increased to help aid in tendon healing. Healing is also advanced by the increase in flow of nutrients to injured soft tissues. In those areas where there is scar tissue located near the skin in muscle knots, massage helps to loosen and soften scar tissue.
We have all experienced soreness after a tough workout and horses are no different. Massage helps to decrease delayed-onset muscle soreness and enhances muscle tone and range of motion. These benefits definitely serve to help improve athletic performance, along with the entire combination of whole body benefits experienced with a massage. Massage also helps to maintain good body posture and body balance. Prevention of atrophy (wasting) in inactive muscles is one of the great benefits for muscle tissue in senior horses, especially, as well as those who are stall bound with an injury. Massage also helps soft tissues by lengthening the connective tissue and reducing the formation of adhesions leading to fibrosis in muscle and fascia.
It may seem odd to think that massage could help a horse’s bones when it seems to be something that would strictly aid the soft tissues. However, equine massage helps to increase mineral retention, such as nitrogen and phosphorus, in the bones. The circulation increase provided by massage can also help to aid fracture healing by promoting the transportation of materials necessary for the rebuilding process through the new blood vessels formed during fracture healing. Fibroblast (cells needed for building bone) cell production is increased by massage and inflammation is decreased. With this reduction in joint inflammation, massage can help reduce the pain and symptoms associated with arthritis.
The circulation increase created by equine massage helps all of the body systems in the horse, including the digestive system. Digestion is stimulated by both this circulation increase, as well as the relaxation response that is promoted during massage. Equine massage helps to eliminate excess intestinal gas, increases gastric motility, and aids in relieving colic. I have personally seen this benefit numerous times in my practice. I also hear increased gut sounds during massage sessions on most horses. The obliquus abdominis internus and externus muscles produce forcible compression of the abdomen and thus are active agents in urination and defecation. Massage stimulating both of these muscles thus affects the digestive and urinary systems.
The relaxation response can be quite apparent when a horse is observed during a massage. Licking, chewing, yawning, and resting of alternate back legs are all common reactions. Massage activates the parasympathetic nervous system, thereby causing relaxation and also the reduction of trigger point activity. Pain sensations are decreased in the nervous system both by the release of these endorphins and additionally by the pressure of massage interrupting the pain cycle from muscle spasms and also by interfering with pain information entering the spinal cord. Waste products are eliminated from the nervous system during a massage, in addition to those eliminated from other body systems.
Yet another way that massage affects the nervous system is by improving cognitive function, conscious, intellectual activity. Focus is improved with massage, as well as muscle flexibility and motor function. Spasticity (quality of moving or acting in spasms) is also reduced with massage.
The equine cardiovascular system experiences tremendous improvements from the relaxing experience of a massage. Blood vessels are dilated, circulation is increased, and nutritive materials are replenished during this circulation increase. Another way that massage relaxes the horse is by decreasing his blood pressure and reducing his heart rate. Areas of ischemia (decreased blood circulation) are benefited by the increased blood flow provided by massage. The lower legs can be particularly susceptible to this problem due to no muscle tissue below the knees and hocks, only tendons and ligaments.
Massage increases capillary flow rate, blood viscosity, filtration rate, and blood oxygen saturation levels. The blood flow is also increased to the skin and muscular tissues. Along with the decrease in blood pressure and heart rate that occurs, heart rate variability decreases as well. Red and white blood cell and platelet counts all increase as a benefit from massage.
The cardiovascular system benefits from the massage, such as increased blood circulation and replenishment of nutritive materials, feed over into the respiratory system to benefit the lungs. The respiration rate is decreased, along with the blood pressure and heart rate. These decreases mean that the horse’s body does not have to work as hard and deal with as much stress. The respiratory system is also helped by the increase in peak flow and vital capacity. Vital capacity is the total of tidal volume (amount of air inhaled and exhaled in a single breath), inspiratory reserve volume (amount one can inhale forcefully after normal inhalation), and expiratory reserve volume (amount one can exhale after normal exhalation). These benefits, along with strengthened respiratory muscles, are particularly advantageous for horses with COPD. I have personally witnessed the benefit of massage for horses with COPD (heaves) in my own horse. My mare had such tremendous problems with wheezing and coughing that she stood around in obvious discomfort during the summer of 2008. When she began receiving regular massages in 2009, she was able to go back to competing for a while and has since produced a very healthy colt. She enjoys her retirement with only occasional coughing spells. I am still able to exercise her without causing respiratory distress, which is an absolutely incredible benefit to me personally, as I was extremely worried about my mare when her COPD was at its worst. In fact, the vet had given her approximately 2 years to live as she was in 2008. Thankfully, she is still here!
When a horse is massaged, the nervous system is affected, which results in the release of endorphins, in addition to other changes. The endorphins that are released include serotonin and dopamine. Serotonin regulates mood, appetite, sleep, memory, learning, and muscle contraction. Dopamine is the neurochemical related to sleep and wake cycles. It also regulates heart rate, blood pressure, and indirectly affects pituitary function and movement. Dopamine and serotonin are closely related, in that when one elevates, the other one does as well. They also decrease in the same fashion. With the effects on endorphins, massage helps to improve mood and decrease anxiety and pain in mares that are cycling.
While increasing the levels of serotonin and dopamine, massage decreases the cortisol and norepinephrine levels in the horse. Cortisol is known as the stress horse, thus to decrease it promotes relaxation. When cortisol is elevated in a horse, not only is stress increased, but immune function is also inhibited. An elevation of the norepinephrine levels indicates the presence of stress. Thus, the reduction of these levels is linked to a relaxation response.
When you take into consideration the effects that massage has on the endocrine system, as well as the reduction in muscle tension, it becomes apparent how massage can help a horse with alley issues. If a horse experiences pain during his barrel run, he will begin to resent running barrels and wish to avoid the pain. With increased pain, the horse’s endocrine system will be releasing stress hormones. When the muscle pain and stress levels are decreased, along with the increase of dopamine and serotonin, the horse will have a much more pleasant experience when he is ridden. I have had numerous horses that I have worked on exhibit less resistance to entering the alley, roping box, or show arena. Some of these were subtle, while others had previously refused to the point of rearing and refusing to move forward.
The cardiovascular circulation is increased during an equine massage, as is the lymphatic circulation. Increased lymphatic circulation helps to flush toxins from the various body systems, as well as to decrease edema, or swelling. Lymphocyte and killer T cell counts are also increased as part of the boost to the immune system that massage provides. These cells are some of the markers of a healthy immune system. Massage promotes immune system health and function and overall wellbeing through the combined mechanical, physiological, and psychological therapeutic effects.
When lymphatic drainage is increased, this circulation flow drains to the urinary system eventually. Thus, urine output increases. The stimulation to the parasympathetic system also serves to increase urine output. The horse experiences the healthful benefit of the decrease of metabolic wastes contained in his body tissues. On several occasions, I have had horses urinate during or just after a massage session. I have also noted that when a horse had access to water during the massage session, he will drink off and on during the massage. Similar to when a person gets a massage, it is also important to make sure that a horse is provided plenty of fresh water post-massage to help rid the body of toxins.
Massage helps the skin through the benefits to the other systems. Scar tissue is loosened and softened and healing improved. Skin temperature is increased during the massage. Some horses will actually sweat during the massage, which helps to further cleanse their body of toxins. Massage contributes to the overall health of skin tissue as well.
Massage provides such a complete set of benefits for the horse’s whole body, ranging from relieving muscular tension, improving performance, promoting relaxation, stimulating digestion, and eliminating harmful waste products, just for starters. The beauty of all of these benefits is that there are no harmful side effects like those that can come from drugs. Massage is one of the best things you can do for both your horse, as well as for yourself. The same benefits that apply for your horse also apply when you receive a massage!