Horse Care: Hands On

Massage therapy is another way to help your horses

story by Michail Bukin

Ahhh, massage.

Does this ancient healing modality fit into your racehorse’s life?

The answer: a hands-down yes.

The restoration of the physiological state of all sports horses aides both their training and performance. As requirements for performance increase, so do the roles of restorative measures, which relieve the most important functional systems of the horse’s body from fatigue, preparing them for the next competitive load.

The popularity of massage to restore a horse’s performance continues to rise. One reason is that competitive loads have become heavy and continue for several days. Another is that previously used pharmacological means of stimulating recovery processes are now unacceptable from the point of view of anti-doping control. Finally, massage is a highly effective and natural stimulator of recovery processes; it can be used for horses during the competition period without restrictions.

What Is Massage?

Massage is a treatment that manipulates soft muscle tissues using varying degrees of movement and pressure for therapeutic and prophylactic purposes, and can treat and prevent various health conditions. When performed correctly and in a timely manner, it is very effective.

In veterinary practice, there are two types of massage: active, which utilizes wiring or a dosed load for a horse with diseases of the joints, muscles and tendon-ligamentous apparatus; and passive, which utilizes hands or special tools.
You can use massage on a horse for muscle fatigue, bruises, muscle atrophy, muscular rheumatism (after the acute stage), myositis, paresis and paralysis, contractures, bursitis, diseases of the joints and tendon-ligamentous apparatus.

You should not use it in the presence of any of these conditions:

• a serious pathological process that has reached its acute stage in the horse’s body;
• increased body temperature;
• increased skin sensitivity, often the result of skin diseases such as dermatitis, furunculosis and eczema;
• severe fatigue immediately after a heavy load;
• burns;
• fresh hemorrhages and hematomas; or
• malignant neoplasms.
Massage is an indispensable treatment for sports injuries, and in combination with thermal treatments, it is highly therapeutic.
Its therapeutic effectiveness depends on the age of the pathological process, knowledge of the basic rules of preparation and execution of the technique.

Follow the Rules

The following list includes basic pointers for delivering a safe and comfortable massage treatment.

1.) Before the massage, thoroughly clean, wash and dry off your horse’s skin.
2.) Make sure you hands are clean and dry as well.
3.) Massage movements should be along the lymphatic vessels and toward the regional lymph nodes.
4.) Massage movements should not cause pain, defensive reactions, bruising or anxiety in the horse.
5.) When performing massage, make sure the horse is standing in a position that allows the muscles of the massaged area to reach a state of physiological rest or complete relaxation.
6.) Make sure the limbs are in a bent position when massaging them, so that the muscles and tendon-ligamentous apparatus can relax, and the lymph flow can move more freely.
7.) Start the massage by lightly stroking the tissues adjacent to the affected area before massaging the affected area itself.
8.) To increase the effectiveness of massage, you can combine it with thermal procedures and other veterinary treatments that can affect metabolic processes in the skeletal muscles. With a proper warm-up, the soft tissues are easier and safer to manipulate, which will make the massage more effective.

Massage Techniques


Effluerage involves sliding movements using the palm, flat hand or knuckles, mainly in the major muscles and anywhere but on the bony areas of the body. It is also a good technique to use when a complete massage of the affected area is impossible, or to prep for massage, or as a consecutive stroke used between other strokes.

There are several types of effluerage. It can be performed in straight line strokes done with the finger tips, palm, flat hand or knuckles along the neck at the beginning of the massage to relax the horse to the touch and to warm major muscles. Done in a circular motion, it is also a good warm-up technique for affected or sore areas.
Effluerage can also be done down the flat part of the back above the rib ledge, between the ribs and down the hips and hind quarters.

There is a lot of versatility with effleurage and it can also be used as a good transition to another stroke.


Kneading involves shifting, grabbing, lifting, pressing and squeezing muscles. This technique is most applicable when the muscles pass into the tendon, and is performed several different ways.

One is felting, which targets the lower part of the limb. The massage therapist places her hands on both sides of the massaged area, perpendicular to it and parallel to each other, and makes movements with her palms in opposite directions. In this case, the palm of one hand can be lowered or directed forward, the other raised or moved backward.

Another kneading technique is a sliding movement between the thumb and the rest of the fingers, which applies non-stop pressure to the muscles or tendons—like squeezing the contents out of a rubber tube.

A third kneading technique is squeezing, which itself breaks down into further techniques.

In one, the massage therapist grasps the massaged part of the body with the fingers of both hands and alternately pulls it toward herself with one hand and away from herself with the other, slightly moving her hands along the length of the muscle or tendon, and repeating these movements.

In another, the massage therapist lifts and pulls off a muscle or tendon with one hand and squeezes the raised tissue with the other. This technique, when performed slowly, can produce excellent results.

Another technique—used when the muscles being massaged cannot be lifted—the massage therapist presses the tissues against the underlying bones with her palm. For this method, making movements with a displacement of the skin and muscles is recommended.

The duration of kneading depends on the size of the massaged area and the nature of the injury. Local warming of the skin serves as a control over the end of this technique.

Kneading is a passive exercise for the muscles, so this technique should be carried out as a preventive measure after prolonged, intense work. Also, this massage technique is used for atrophy, paresis and paralysis of muscles as well as with cicatricial contractures (i.e., the shortening of, or increased tension in, a muscle) and reduced elasticity of the tendon-ligamentous apparatus.


There are three levels of compression used on both surface and deeper muscles. Each part of the hand can be used as well as the elbow and massage tools.

Compression employs rubbing the skin and deep-lying tissues in a circular direction with several fingers of one or more hands. With her fingertips, the massage therapist makes longitudinal, transverse, circular and other movements in any direction on the massaged area, as if trying to penetrate into the depths of the muscles. In this case, the ends of the fingers should move the skin, but not slide over it. The skin may gather in small folds.

A deep compression massage moves surface tissues over deep-lying structures to increase their mobility. The massage therapist applies this technique across the long axis of the muscle fibers.

To increase the efficiency of massage, you can use a soft, elastic plastic or rubber brush or a curry comb.
And as with all techniques mentioned, if the soft tissues are warm, it’s also advisable to combine compression with stroking along the lymphatic vessels, and to use warming aids, anti-inflammatory ointments, gels or fluids.


Tapotement consists of a series of successive contacts with the muscles using the sides of cupped hands and the tips of the fingers moving alternately and parallel to each other. This technique warms and softens the muscle fibers.


Friction is an intense massage technique. It is typically performed perpendicularly to the soft tissues so the muscle fibers can be smoothed. It can be utilized to target the deeper muscles and is also a great option for tendon and ligament injuries as well as scar tissue.

What is Involved in a Massage?

A massage session consists of three stages.

The introductory stage, which lasts 1-3 minutes, uses gentle techniques and prepares the massaged area for the main stage of the session.

This stage, which lasts for 5-20 minutes or more, uses whatever techniques best correspond to the state of the horse’s body.

The final stage, which lasts 1-3 minutes, reduces the intensity of massaging movements on the targeted area.

A single massage session includes anywhere from five to 25 techniques, depending on the severity of the disease and the health of the horse. Breaks between sessions can last from 10 days to up to two or three months.

Keep in mind that vigorous massage of tissues with increased pain sensitivity can cause a significant increase in that sensitivity as well as intramuscular bleeding.

But perform the appropriate techniques of massage correctly, and you will have a much happier, healthier horse. HB

Michail Bukin is a freelance writer living in Estonia. To comment on this story, email us at

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