Hands On and Happy (Massage)

Throughout history, different forms of massage have been used in cultures to relieve pain and tension in soft tissues. We humans know that massage usually feels good and provides relaxation to us, so we assume that the same will be true for our horses. Although it might seem improbable given the many forms of manual therapies, the wide-ranging term “massage” can be defined as simply the

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Throughout history, different forms of massage have been used in cultures to relieve pain and tension in soft tissues. We humans know that massage usually feels good and provides relaxation to us, so we assume that the same will be true for our horses. Although it might seem improbable given the many forms of manual therapies, the wide-ranging term “massage” can be defined as simply the application of pressure and traction to the soft tissues of the body, whether that body is human or horse.

If you will make it a habit to use your hands regularly on your horse, you will soon see the benefits of the opportunity this provides for close and intimate contact. You will begin to develop manual sensitivity for areas of tension, heat, or swelling. You might even begin to recognize trigger points, small areas of muscle that contain an irritated nerve structure.

When an area of the body is stressed repeatedly, the local nerves become over-excitable or hyper-irritable. These localized points will be painful on palpation and the muscle will react with a twitch response. Muscles containing trigger points are held in a shortened position, reducing the muscle’s functionality. The goal of trigger point therapy is to deactivate the point and eliminate the source of pain. Trigger point locations often correspond to the locations of acupuncture points, but unlike acupuncture points, which can be mapped on charts of the body, trigger points are not in the same place in everyone. Also unlike acupuncture points, trigger points are sources of pain, rather than access points to energy channels.

The mechanical action of the hands compressing and releasing cutaneous and subcutaneous tissues can theoretically enhance circulation of blood and lymph, resulting in an increased supply of oxygen and removal of waste products or mediators of pain. Certain massage techniques have been shown to increase the threshold for pain and relax muscle spasm. An intriguing aspect of massage is that a massage that is done well can relax the mind and reduce anxiety, which might affect the perception of pain, for both the horse and the human. The feelings generated by touch might be a primary benefit, even more so than the muscle health benefit

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Mimi Porter lives in Lexington, Ky., where she has practiced equine therapy since 1982. Prior to that, she spent 10 years as an athletic trainer at the University of Kentucky. Porter authored The New Equine Sports Therapy

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