As you might know by now, 18-year-old Dorado is just a tad accident prone—if there's a way to hurt himself, pull a shoe off, or scare his mom to death, you can be pretty sure he'll find it. And not long ago he reminded me of this fact when—in the middle of a very quiet longe session due to impending thunderstorms—he somehow managed to spook at something (I still have no idea what…) and do the splits in two directions—with his two hind legs and with his front and back legs. Only Dorado…
He quickly regained his footing and took off bucking (a sure sign he's mad at himself!) and, once I managed to rein the wild beast in, I gave him a quick looking over to be sure hadn't seriously injured himself. And, as if on cue, it started raining. So we headed back into the barn for the day.
Dorado loves his massages!
Photo: Erica Larson
I was thrilled that, despite his fancy foot work, Dorado hadn't injured himself. But I also thought he might be a tad sore for the next day or so, and sure enough he wasn't moving quite as quick as usual when he walked out of his stall the next day. Fortunately for Dorado, Michele Haman of Equi-Librium Therapy LLC, in Versailles, Kentucky, boards her horses at our barn and is always more than happy to fit him into her busy schedule. So I treated him to a massage session to, hopefully, help him feel better after his gymnastic adventure.
When it comes to anything having to do with horses, I'm the kind of person who always wants to understand why and how things work. (I'll be the first to say—and I'm sure my husband will back me up—that this doesn't always translate outside the barn, however. I don't care why the truck or the lights or the grill isn't working, just fix it!) So I asked just what massage does for horses and how it helps loosen a horse's body up.
"Any sort of tension in the body is going to have a fascial factor to it," Haman said, referring to the structural entity that extends from the tip of the horse's ears to his feet and supports and envelops every organ of the body. "The fascia connects the tip of the nose to the back of the tail and to the bottom of the back feet. It's all connected, literally and figuratively speaking.
"So, when they've had an injury, or if they've had work-related soreness or tension, or even if they just walk around the field in the winter, they get pulls through the body in the fascia," she said.
Massage and myofasical release are designed to eliminate those pulls and tension from the body, she said.
So why does body work benefits older horses, even if they haven't just done the splits?
"Almost every old horse I see has old issues—wear and tear from what they've been doing their whole lives," she said. "Whether they are off-the-track or they never raced, have been doing dressage since they were babies, have done in-hand classes, or sat in a field for 20 years, they get sore and tight.
"Performance horses have their own separate set of issues that are specific to discipline," she continued. "So, dressage horses get topline tension. Hunters and reiners get a lot of hindquarter tension. Eventing horses and jumping horses, you tend to see an across-the-board tension everywhere from takeoff and landing. And everyone has saddle fit issues."
Massage and myofasical release are designed to eliminate pulls and tension from the body. No tension here, Dorado says!
Photo: Erica Larson
So when you have a horse in both categories—an older performance horse—keeping the body in tip-top shape becomes even more important.
"Imagine you're arthritic, sore, and tight, and you're not moving so great and your joints are kind of creaky," she explained. "That movement restriction is going to result in fascial tension, and you can release that with body work."
Even if an older horse isn't in regular work, he or she might still benefit from a massage, Haman said.
"It still makes them a lot more comfortable," she explained. "There's going to be a lot more fluidity in their movement," and it might even appear to improve older horses' appearance in some cases, she said.
"Some horses look like they're underweight, and really it's just the fascial pull in the body," she recalled from her personal experiences. Haman said that with some horses that appear to have topline or gluteal atrophy, she'll work with an area five or six times in different ways until the tense fascia releases.
"Imagine a compression sock," she said. "You wear compression socks to keep fluid out of the limb, right? So when you take the compression sock off—or release the tension in the fascia—the tissue underneath rehydrates, and you can actually watch (the horses' musculature) fill in."
Haman likes to see her clients regularly, but says that the frequency at which she works on horses is very variable—ranging from weekly to a few times each year—based on each individual horse's needs and their health status. Between massages, she said, she encourages her clients to regularly perform stretching exercises—which she teaches to anyone interested—with their horses to keep their muscles limber. Some of the many stretches she recommends are included in TheHorse.com's "Top 5 Stretches for Healthy Horses" download.
The fascia connects the tip of the nose to the back of the tail and to the bottom of the feet.
Photo: Erica Larson
And when it comes to selecting a massage therapist, Haman said to choose carefully: "I would look for someone with a four-year, equine-therapy-specific degree. These people learn about all the factors that go into (body work). They're going to learn about anatomy and physiology, lameness and disease, and they're going to understand how these things influence the horse.
"There are reasons not to massage a horse—disease factors, cancerous areas, certain factors of pregnancy, you wouldn't want to massage a horse during those times," she said. "You need to understand more than just what to do. You have to understand when and how to apply it."
She also stressed the importance of massage therapists work alongside veterinarians to ensure each horse is receiving the appropriate health care to accompany their complementary therapies.
After it was all said and done, Dorado jogged up sound and rhythmical—an improvement over where he was to begin the night. And he proceeded to go out to his field and stand straight up on his hind legs before attempting to make his friend Chase play with him. Yep, I'd say he's feeling pretty good!
Have you had massage, myofascial release, or any other type of body work performed on your older horse? Please share your experience!