Simple Massages For Your Horse
Massage is a proven alternative therapy for humans and horses alike, used to release tension in the body, reduce stress levels, maintain muscle tone, and relieve pain. While a full-body massage on a horse can be quite technical, I have come up with some simple massage exercises anyone could do on their horse.
These equine massage exercises will target areas in the horse’s body where they tend to carry a lot of stress and tension. These areas include the:
In this article, I’ll break these massage exercises down step-by-step so you can apply them to your horse! A massage is a great tool for bonding with your horse, making your horse feel good, and relieving tension and stress in the horse’s body. Keep reading to learn more!
How Much Pressure Do You Use For an Equine Massage?
Before you start trying to massage your horse, you need to know how much pressure to use when you apply the massage. Doing this incorrectly could hurt your horse or cause soreness and stiffness in its muscles.
Always start a massage using light pressure, and gradually increase to medium and then hard pressure. For reference, light pressure is like laying your hand over the muscle and not really applying much force. In contrast, hard pressure is like poking your palm with a finger from the other hand and imagining you trying to poke through your hand. Medium pressure is somewhere in between.
By gradually increasing the pressure, you will gradually warm up the muscle, avoiding injury or strain.
Signs an Equine Massage is Working
So, how do you tell if an equine massage is working? How do you tell if your horse is relaxing and releasing tension in their bodies? Here are some easy-to-recognize signs:
How can you tell if a horse is enjoying a specific massage? If a horse seems to enjoy a specific area being massaged, you should take time and work on that area more. Here are some signs that a horse likes a massage:
- lip quivering
- stretching neck
- bobbing head
- trying to groom the wall or you!
But…what do you do if your horse doesn’t seem to enjoy the massage? Horses may avoid pressure if they are in pain or not used to the specific contact of the massage. If your notice your horse doing these things, chances are they are uncomfortable with the massage:
- moving away from the pressure
- pinning their ears
- picking up a foot as a warning
- threatening to bite or kick
- swishing the tail (to learn more about why horses swish their tails, check out my article Why Do Horses Swish Their Tails? Horse Behavior Guide.)
If this is the case, return to using the lightest pressure, even just laying your hand on the affected area if need be. A simple warm touch can be enough to encourage blood to the muscle.
Massage For the Horse’s Face
When you get stressed, do you tend to clench your jaw, causing you to have headaches? Well, horses do this too! On top of that, carrying bits in their mouth and just the normal stress of life can also cause them to hold tension in their jaws and face.
I can tell you that the thing that feels the best to me when I’m stressed is massaging my temples. We’re going to do the exact same thing on horses!
- Find the bone ridge that sits behind your horse’s eye. This ridge will be directly down from the horse’s ear.
- Place two fingers right under the ridge of the bone and hold.
- Use light pressure and gradually increase to medium pressure. You can also move your fingers slowly and softly in a small circle.
- You can hold pressure for about 20 seconds at a time, releasing the pressure for a moment and then re-applying.
- A good sign that this massage is releasing tension is the horse will drop its head.
As you do this massage, make sure you stand next to your horse’s head rather than in front of it. You don’t want to get knocked by your horse’s head if they try to throw their head up and escape the pressure.
Massage For the Horse’s Neck
Horses carry a lot of tension in their necks due to lifestyle changes over time. Originally, horses were meant to have their heads down grazing for long periods throughout the day. Now, in more modern horse care, horses have their heads up much more than before. Whether it be riding, eating from a hay net, or going long periods without grazing, horses carry more and more tension in their necks.
I have two useful massages on a horse’s neck you can try to help your horse to relieve tension:
The first technique is aimed at the top muscle of the horse’s neck. When the horse’s head is level, this muscle should be loose and flexible. If you were to grab the horse’s main and gently pull side-to-side, you should feel the muscle move side-to-side as well.
- Grab gently at the base of your horse’s mane.
- Gently wiggle the muscle side-by-side.
- Gradually move from your horse’s poll down to its withers while doing this.
- This will help to loosen this muscle and relieve tension through the topline.
The second massage can greatly help your horse to release stress and help them to feel more relaxed. This technique has more to do with the drainage of lymph nodes rather than working a muscle. Massaging lymph nodes is proven to help relax the individual, whether horse or human.
- Find the groove that runs more on the underside of your horse’s neck. This groove is noticeable on both sides of the horse’s neck.
- Next, run your fingers down this groove from the base of your horse’s ears and down to the horse’s chest. Only run your hand down the horse’s neck, not in the opposite direction.
- As you do this, start with light pressure, and every time you make a pass you can increase the pressure until you are at a hard pressure.
Massage is a great way to help a stressed horse relax. When stressed, humans and animals will carry more tension in their bodies than normal. A massage can work to release this tension and help the individual to relax. To learn how to tell if your horse is anxious, check out my article Signs a Horse is Anxious, Nervous, or Stressed.
Massage For the Horse’s Withers
Almost every horse I’ve worked with has carried some form of tension in its withers. Once again, horses were originally created to have their heads down for long periods of time. Modern care techniques now require a horse to carry its head higher, which can also create tension in the withers. Another cause of sensitivity in the withers is the pressure of tack and rider being carried on the horse’s back.
Did you know that when you have an itch, that tickly feeling is caused by your muscles contracting and getting tense? When you scratch an itch, the movement of your fingers working over the muscle actually causes the muscle to loosen and blood to flow more freely to the muscle, therefore relieving the itch. That being said, scratching is a simple and useful massage technique to use. We are going to use it to massage the horse’s withers.
- Start scratching your horse’s withers using light pressure. Use your fingernails for the best results!
- Gradually increase the pressure to medium and then hard. By this point, your horse should be showing just how much they like the scratch! Stretching their head up, wiggling their lips, or reaching their head around and trying to groom you!
Massage For the Horse’s Topline
Almost every riding horse I have worked on has carried some form of tension in their backs. Even with a properly fitted saddle, a horse’s back and topline still face stress from not only supporting a body that weighs 1000 lbs but also from just the pressure and weight of someone sitting on their back. For this massage, something really easy yet effective you can do is be intentional with your curry comb!
- Use your curry comb and start doing small circles along your horse’s back using light pressure. Stay 1 – 2 inches from the spine so that you are just working the muscles.
- Gradually increase pressure to medium and then hard. This should loosen and relax the muscle throughout the horse’s back.
Massage For the Horse’s Hips
It takes a lot for a horse to propel and push itself forward. This power is known as horsepower, and it’s even a unit of measurement today! The horse’s hips play a crucial role in generating power that will move the horse forward. Because of this, the hips and pelvis tend to carry tension in them.
- Find the horse’s point of hip. Running up to the point of hip, you should notice a verticle line starting right above the stifle.
- Use your fingers to gently draw up this line and to the point of hip. Start with light pressure.
- Gradually increase pressure as you continue to run your fingers up this groove. You should notice your horse yawning and showing signs of big releases.
Massage For the Horse’s Hamstrings
Back on the topic of propulsion, without flexible hamstrings, a horse wouldn’t really be able to move. The hamstrings enable the horse to move forward, run, kick, rear, buck, etc. etc. The state of the hamstrings can determine the range of motion your horse has in its back legs. There are a few muscles in the horse’s hind end that make up the hamstring, but for right now, we are going to be working from the base of the horse’s tail and down the inside of the buttocks to the base of their hind leg.
- Find the base of your horse’s tail. Place your hand next to the dock of the tail and start gently scratching your horse. Your horse’s tail will probably move in the opposite direction as they respond to the scratch.
- Keep scratching as you gradually move your hand down the buttock parallel to the tail. Once you reach the base of the hind leg, you can make your way back up.
- Scratch down and up three times, the first time using light pressure, then medium, and then hard pressure.
Massage For the Horse’s Hocks
The hock is probably the most noticeable joint in a horse’s hind legs; if you were unfamiliar with horses, you may think that the hock is the horse’s knee! Believe it or not, the hock is more similar to a human’s ankle. Many horses develop stiffness and soreness in their hocks, especially as they age. It’s important to start massaging and strengthening the muscles around the hocks as soon as you can.
For this massage, we are targeting the muscles and tendons around the hocks that allow this joint to contract and extend. It’s best to massage the hock after you’ve worked the hamstrings because if the hamstring is tight, chances are that your horse will be stiff and tight through their hock as well.
- At the base of your horse’s hind leg, or at the bottom of their butt cheek as I like to say, start rubbing your hand horizontally left and right across the back of the leg. You can do this at medium pressure.
- After you’ve done this a few times, notice the tendon that runs down the back of the horse’s leg to the hock. If you put a finger on either side of that tendon, you’ll feel a groove on either side. Gently run your fingers down this groove to the hock. You can do this repeatedly, going from light to medium pressure.
- Moving your fingers about 2 inches away from the groove on either side of the tendon, you can run your fingers over a muscle. Do this at light and medium pressure repeatedly.
Massage For the Horse’s Stifles
The stifle is a joint in the horse’s hind legs that unless you know where to look, you probably wouldn’t realize it’s there. The easiest way to find the stifle is to place your hand where your horse’s barrel and the hind leg connect. The stifle will be right behind your hand. By placing your hand in this spot, you can probably feel the joint.
The hamstrings, hocks, and stifles, all tend to impact each other. If one area has tension, it will carry over to the other areas. For best practices, I would recommend massaging these areas in the same session and working from the hamstring to the hock, and then to the stifle.
If the muscles around a joint are stiff and contracted, the joint will have to fight to work against them. By massaging the muscles around a joint, the muscles can loosen to let the joint move more freely. Unfortunately, the muscles around the stifle often go overlooked, even with just simple grooming. By just taking the time to brush these areas each time you groom your horse, you can gently work and loosen these muscles.
- Use your curry comb to curry clockwise circles over the muscles surrounding the stifle joint. Start with light pressure and gradually increase to medium and hard pressure.
- After you’ve curried the outside, take your hand and slip it to the inside of the horse’s leg, right behind the stifle. Use your hand to rub and work this area. Be careful when you first do this, as many horses aren’t used to being touched in this spot.
Many horses enjoy massages, as bodywork has many positive benefits. To learn how to tell if your horse is happy or enjoying its massage, visit my article Is My Horse Happy?