Would my horse benefit from a massage?
Last revised April 27, 2017.
Yes, some forms of massage, done on certain areas of your horse, will likely make him feel better, and may have other benefits. But not all massage has value, and some may be detrimental. I explore the details below.
There are hundreds of approaches to massage. Each of these approaches has its adherents and its practitioners. My plan is to attempt an integration of the approaches, in an attempt to provide a sensible overview that you can use to get started.
Kinds of Massage
There are a number of basic massage techniques2 which may be used with your horse alone or in various combinations:
- Grooming and scratching. This is the most common technique with horses, and something you are already doing. It provides a good starting point for other techniques.
- Effleurage (stroking). After grooming and scratching, this is the most common form of horse massage. In it, the palm and hand glide across the tissue, with even pressure applied throughout the stroke.
- Petrissage. Massage movements with strong kneading pressure that compresses underlying muscles.
- Vibration and Shaking. A stroke that ranges from quick shaking to rhythmic rocking by moving the heel of the hand, the side of the hand, or the fingertips3.
- Friction. Typically done using the ball of the thumb or a pointed object. It is a deep pressure massage done in small circular movements to penetrate deep tissues. The technique involves pressing on the tissue and rubbing it back and forth over the underlying muscle.4
- Tapotement. a rhythmic percussion, most frequently administered with the edge of the hand, a cupped hand or the tips of the fingers5.
If you want to try these techniques as an amateur, on your own horse, first study videos of the techniques on YouTube. Practice on yourself. Try your horse when he is in a jovial mood, and keep close tabs on what your massage is doing to that mood. If it results in him relaxing more, feel free to continue.
Massage for Pleasure
This section is about doing the sort of massage that results in pleasure for your horse, and likely for you. Such massage may be more casual and amateurish than massage intended to relax specific muscles. Your goals for this massage:
- Early detection of injured skin and muscle.
- Release endorphins that reduce pain and improve mood.
- Lower heart rate6, lower blood pressure, improve digestion, and improve sleep.
- Improve your relationship with your horse.
In the beginning of your work with your horse, you will have much to learn, and may tire quickly. I suggest that you set a very modest goal of simply learning to read a few signals from your horse and trying to make him feel good.
Animals that are social by nature, such as many birds and mammals, have areas that can’t be reached by their own design, and must be addressed either by rubbing against objects or by grooming by others. These areas — largely the head and neck — appear to be endowed with extra nerves that feel good when stimulated. When two birds groom each other, one grooms the areas presented, while the other presents the areas for which grooming is desired and voices approval (if it feels good) and disapproval (if the grooming hurts). Our cockatiels have a little cluck they use to tell their groomer that it feels good, and another word for “ow” which is handy if a feather is pulled or rubbed the wrong way.
Head grooming in birds and mammals evolved long ago. Head lice, which also evolved long ago, are now programmed to stay on the head, and not go far enough done from there to risk destruction by their host. For birds, head grooming is also critical during moulting, for feathers that emerge are trapped in a sheath that needs to be broken open to release the feather. Such feathers must itch like crazy. But the programming that a bird has that makes head and neck grooming so pleasurable doesn’t turn on and off with moults or plagues of lice. It is on 24×7, and rubbing a little bird’s head will always give it pleasure — providing it wants you to do this and you use his approved technique.7
A horse has a similar area of extra pleasure sensors. I learned about their location when I first met G, my horse. Standing alone in a pasture, he had not been loved since he arrived at the non-profit that had rescued him from a trip from the track to the slaughterhouse. I walked up to him and scratched his chest. He stretched his neck forward, lowered his head, half-closed his eyes, trembled his chin, and groaned loudly. This wasn’t a horse. He was a dog. No feedback from him could have been better at convincing me that I had made him happy. His feedback made me happy, and we were locked in a loop. I scratched and scratched, then moved on to the bottom of his neck. Again he signaled his delight and again we were locked in a happy feedback loop. This was the horse for me, I decided.
I most enjoy being kind when I receive a thank you from the recipient. Gifts that are not acknowledged don’t get repeated. Dogs get my love, but cats that can’t show this appreciation have to scratch their own necks. So I adopted G, a hedonist. It turns out he is very expressive about his pleasures. He uses his groan of ecstasy when defecating, sometimes when urinating, and when rolling for a dust bath. He uses it with me when I do his chest and neck. Now that I have Bud, a young mule, I have two boys who love to be scratched and rubbed. Bud is less demonstrative that G, slower to express his pleasure in my efforts. But I’m patient, and he does signal when things feel good, even if his signals are more subtle and slower to come. If your horse is not an expressive hedonist, you’ll need patience and a good eye to find his signals that your work feels good.
I recommend that your first massages be nothing more than chest and neck scratches or rubs. Working this area will allow you to more easily monitor his feedback, which will primarily come from head and neck. And this area is a high-pleasure zone for him, so making him feel good will be easier, and require less skill than anywhere else. I’d never start a massage near his head, because horses often worry about protecting their eyes and ears. And I’d not start within range of his back legs, because you might manage to get yourself kicked if you are too clumsy when hitting a sore spot. Best to develop your skill at reading his feedback on an area where that feedback is likely to be most positive and most easily observed. (If you are massaging your mule, you need to worry about every possible nearby position front, back, and side if you want to avoid a kick. Pay attention, go slow, and let him come to you.)
I suggest starting on his chest, and scratching or grooming. This area is easy to reach, and an area you’ll always want to check to ensure that there are no clots of dirt or sores that could be irritating when you add a girth. And for my horse, it is his favorite spot.
But a horse may have many favorite spots.
- Withers (site 1 below) and mid-neck8 (site 2) may produce the greatest decrease in heart rate, as it did in a study by McBride et al. (2004), and so are a candidate for your horse’s favorite spot.
- Massage to the ear and poll region (site 6 below) produced the longest lasting effect on heart rate of all areas tested, the lowered heart rate continuing after the massage stopped.
- In the diagram below, sites 1, 2, and 3 are typically preferred sites in allogrooming. McBride found that sites 1, 2, 3, 4, and 6 all produced reductions in heart rate. Site 5 did not. It looks as if the horse prefers others to groom those areas that he can’t groom himself.
- My horse loves his face rubbed with a towel, and we’ve learned that I can scrub from left to right and he can push against the towel, rapidly raising and lowering his head. The towel is safer than fingers for the rubs around his eyes that he enjoys. Toweling his face after a visit to the wash stall seems to reduce his need to roll in the dust when he returns to his pasture.
- In general, the greater the amount of tissue between the horse’s bone and your hand, the more enjoyable that site will be. The lower legs, which have little muscle or fat, are not favorite spots.
Six sites of massage used during the experiment by McBride9
If the goal of your massage is to relax your horse and improve your bond, then you can focus on just a few release points. These locations are sometimes called “endorphin release points”, but they are likely to have much more complex effects, decreasing cortisol levels and releasing a variety of neurotransmitters. Whatever happens after you explore these magic spots, the effects are good. Proper work on your part will likely activate opiate receptors causing an analgesic effect. Your focus on these specific locations will each benefit from specific hand movements:10
- Top of tail dock. Move your hand in a circular motion.
- Just in front of withers: move your hand in the direction that hair grows.
- Both sides of poll: Move in a circular motion.
- Tips of ears: Use the back of your hand to move softly.
- Just above eye: Rub in a circular motion.
- Jowls: Rub in a circular motion.
- Gums above front teeth: rub in a circular motion.
Deep massage is intended to relax certain muscles in your horse, and will require more skill and strength on your part than massage for pleasure, discussed in the previous section. Your goals with this more strenuous massage:
- Relax muscles. Stretch tendons, ligaments and muscles. As a result, you will have produced a more flexible horse, with a greater range of motion. A more flexible horse should perform better, and be less likely to be injured when it fatigues.
- Free old scar tissue, reduce adhesions and other restrictions, and improve recovery from certain injuries.
Your horse could benefit from deep massage. Or you could waste your money. I think you should not do this yourself, and before selecting a massage therapist for your horse, see what they can for your own scar tissue. If the benefits seem to exceed what you paid for a session, then turn the therapist loose on your horse. For myself, it seems like the benefits of a professional massage have worn off by the time I get home.
If we find some technique that makes a horse feel better, we need to explore it, refine it, and talk about it. And we need to come up with some reasonable explanation of why it works, well-grounded in reality as we understand it. The technique needs to be able to withstand the examination of scientists, who can document its effects and rule out placebo effects and other phenomena that might account for the result.
For me, it is not enough that millions of people have believed something for thousands of years. In many ancient cultures for thousands of years, people were certain the earth was flat.11 The “world turtle”, which supports the world on its back, is central in Chinese and Hindu mythology, and is also found in the myths of the Lenape, the Iroquois, and the Huron.12 More recently, and for 200 years or so in Europe, the tomato was believed to be poisonous.13
My notion is this: you can’t just make stuff up and call it true. We need to confirm a technique with science, and explanations must be consistent with world views that are supported by good science.
While I believe that massage can be beneficial, there are many variants that are ineffectual or dangerous, and which live in a world of make-believe. Here are some of them, in alphabetical order:
Acupressure. Applies pressure with fingers, hands, elbows, and devices to various locations. Claims that “life energy” flows through “meridians”, and that poor health comes from “energy blockages” or “imbalances”. By applying pressure through various acupuncture points, “yin”, “yang” and “chi/qi/ki (pronounced “chee”)” are “rebalanced” There is no scientific evidence for these concepts. No physical anatomical basis for the existence of acupuncture points or meridians has been found.14 Practitioners use unusual diagnostic methods to produce diagnoses that have no correspondence with scientific concepts of disease.15 Some studies suggest that acupressure may reduce nausea or have other benefits, but the results may be due to placebo effects or other biases in the studies.16 Acupressure may have benefits, but better research will be needed to confirm this, and the underlying explanation of such benefits needs a new analysis. As NIH has said, “Despite considerable efforts to understand the anatomy and physiology of the “acupuncture points”, the definition and characterization of these points remains controversial. Even more elusive is the basis of some of the key traditional Eastern medical concepts such as the circulation of chi, the meridian system, and the five phases theory, which are difficult to reconcile with contemporary biomedical information but continue to play an important role in the evaluation of patients and the formulation of treatment in acupuncture.17”
Reiki. The palm of the hand is placed on the body of the patient. Practitioners claim that this hands-on healing taps a “universal energy” that transfers from practitioner to patient, encouraging healing. When hands are placed by the practitioner, a surprising warmth or tingling is sometimes felt. The sensation seems to be the same as that sometimes experienced when a person is saved in a revival service. But whether Reiki can reliably produce any benefits is open to dispute, and awaits scientific evidence.18
Shiatsu. Massages with fingers, thumbs, feet and palms; provides assisted stretching, joint manipulation and mobilization. Shiatsu practitioners claim to free blockages to the chi flow and restore energy to areas where it is low. Practitioners press or stretch points on the body that they believe lie along lines of energy they call meridian channels.19 There is no empirical evidence of a life force.20 Studies of shiatsu’s effectiveness have been poorly executed,21 and there is no evidence that shiatsu is an effective medical treatment.
Tellington TTouch. Massages using a circular movement of fingers and hands, done to “activate the function of the cells and awaken cellular intelligence.22” The movement should be circular, clockwise, and of constant pressure, and each should use one and a quarter circles, all beginning at six o’clock. There is little evidence of benefits for TTouch — nearly all of the claims for its benefits are made by Tellington herself.23 And there is much to leave us suspect, particularly with the explanations of why it works and why the particular technique is better than any other circular motion.24 Still, like the other suspect approaches here, the method has thousands of practitioners.
Therapeutic Touch. With non-contact therapeutic touch, the practitioner’s hands are held a few inches away from the patient’s body, allowing the practitioner to “assess” the patient’s “energy forces”, then “unruffling the field” or “clearing” “stagnant energy”, and finally transferring “energy” to the patient. Therapeutic Touch is not likely effective against scores of diseases and conditions, as practitioners claim.25 A study of Therapeutic Touch practitioners found that they were not even as good as chance in detecting the energy of a hand hidden behind a cardboard screen.26 When combined with other therapies, such as massage, the effects of Therapeutic Touch are confounded with the other therapy, making analysis difficult.
Other Suspect Therapies. There are a number of other techniques that are sometimes considered massage and that should always be considered bogus: aromatherapy, colonic irrigation, color therapy, craniosacral therapy, crystal healing, polarity therapy, reflexology, and any other forms of “alternative medicine.27” The legitimate practice of ordinary massage is not quackery. But unsubstantiated claims about any practice, product, or therapy should always be suspect.
1 Image source: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Dr._Heidi_Bockhold_Adjusts_Horse.jpg
2 Cassar M. Massage techniques. In: Handbook of massage therapy; a complete guide for the student and professional therapist. Butterworth-Heinemann; 1999. p. 13-30.
3 “Vibration” http://www.massageprocedures.com/techniques-procedures/swedish-massage/vibration/
4 “Friction Massage”. https://massagers.wahl.com/why-massage/friction-massage
5 “Tapotement” https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tapotement
6 A study has shown that massage reduced heart rate when performed on the withers, mid-neck, croup, second thigh (proximal and mid-semitendinosus), poll and ears, but had no effect when performed elsewhere. It had the strongest effect on heart rate reduction when done at those sites of preferred allogrooming: withers, mid-neck, and croup. McBride, S. D., A. Hemmings, and K. Robinson. “A preliminary study on the effect of massage to reduce stress in the horse.” Journal of Equine Veterinary Science 24.2 (2004): 76-81.
7 A pet bird who asks to be groomed will often do so by approaching to a favorite position, such as the middle of your chest, and putting his head down. Sometimes he will cluck his happy sound in anticipation of the pleasure to come, a signal that you can begin. As you gently rub the part he exposes to your finger, he will turn his head to give you other surfaces to work on. Pleasure clucks will continue when your work feels good, but he will yelp if you pull a feather or push against a shaft and in any way cause pain. My birds seem to most enjoy ear rubbing. Their preferred regions are any part of the head down the neck an inch to the part of the neck they can reach. They have no interest in my attentions to any other body part.
8 McBride, S. D., A. Hemmings, and K. Robinson. “A preliminary study on the effect of massage to reduce stress in the horse.” Journal of Equine Veterinary Science 24.2 (2004): 76-81.
9 Image source: McBride, S. D., A. Hemmings, and K. Robinson. “A preliminary study on the effect of massage to reduce stress in the horse.” Journal of Equine Veterinary Science 24.2 (2004): 76-81.
10 These seven locations and the suggested hand movements are adapted from Richard Shrake’s ground training methods. See http://RichardShrake.com
11 Flat Earth. Wikipedia. Https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Flat_Earth
12 World Turtle. WIkipedia. Https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/World_Turtle.
13 Smith, Annabelle. “Why the Tomato Was Feared in Europe for More than 200 Years.” Smithsonian, June 18 (2013).
14 Felix Mann “… acupuncture points are no more real than the black spots that a drunkard sees in front of his eyes.” (Mann F. Reinventing Acupuncture: A New Concept of Ancient Medicine. Butterworth Heinemann, London, 1996,14.) Quoted by Matthew Bauer in Chinese Medicine Times, Vol 1 Issue 4 – Aug 2006, “The Final Days of Traditional Beliefs? – Part One”; Ahn, A. C., Colbert, A. P., Anderson, B. J., Martinsen, Ø. G., Hammerschlag, R., Cina, S., … & Langevin, H. M. (2008). Electrical properties of acupuncture points and meridians: a systematic review.Bioelectromagnetics, 29(4), 245-256.
15 Stephen Barrett, M.D. (March 9, 2006). “Massage Therapy: Riddled with Quackery”. Quackwatch.
16 Lee, Eun Jin, and Susan K. Frazier. “The efficacy of acupressure for symptom management: a systematic review.” Journal of pain and symptom management 42.4 (2011): 589-603.; Chinese Medicine Demystified (Part III): The “Energy Meridian” Model Debunked”.; Smith, C. A., Collins, C. T., Crowther, C. A., & Levett, K. M. (2011). Acupuncture or acupressure for pain management in labour. The Cochrane Library.;
17 Acupuncture. National Institutes of Health: Consensus Development Conference Statement, November 3–5, 1997. Available online at consensus.nih.gov/1997/1997Acupuncture107html.htm.
18 Lee, Myeong Soo, Max H. Pittler, and Edzard Ernst. “Effects of reiki in clinical practice: a systematic review of randomised clinical trials.”International journal of clinical practice 62.6 (2008): 947-954.;
19 Read more at http://www.cancerresearchuk.org/about-cancer/cancers-in-general/treatment/complementary-alternative/therapies/shiatsu#MumPMtL6QI6med2p.99
20 Lee, Myeong Soo, Max H. Pittler, and Edzard Ernst. “Effects of reiki in clinical practice: a systematic review of randomised clinical trials.”International journal of clinical practice 62.6 (2008): 947-954.;
21 Robinson, Nicola, Ava Lorenc, and Xing Liao. “The evidence for Shiatsu: a systematic review of Shiatsu and acupressure.” BMC complementary and alternative medicine 11.1 (2011): 1.
22 “How to do the TTouch”. Tellington TTouch Training. Http://www.ttouch.com/howtodoTTouch.shtml
23 One study found that TTouch lowered blood pressure and heart rate as compared to no touch, but had no effect on anxiety or pain. Cecilia Wendler, M. “Effects of Tellington touch in healthy adults awaiting venipuncture.” Research in nursing & health 26.1 (2003): 40-52. I was unable to find any other independent studies of the benefits of TTouch.
24 Noteworthy is that the developer of TTouch describes herself as “pioneering”, “an internationally acclaimed authority on animal behavior, training, and healing”, and holder of an honorary doctorate from “Wisdom University.” She has written 21 books.
25 Barrett, Stephen. Why Therapeutic Touch Should be Considered Quackery. http://www.quackwatch.com/01QuackeryRelatedTopics/tt.html
26 Rosa, L., Rosa, E., Sarner, L., & Barrett, S. (1998). A close look at therapeutic touch. JAMA, 279(13), 1005-1010.
27 For a quick review, see Barrett, Stephen. “Massage Therapy: Riddled with Quackery.” Quackwatch. http://www.quackwatch.com/01QuackeryRelatedTopics/massage.html. Wikipedia has this to say about “alternative medicine”: “Alternative medicine is any practice that is put forward as having the healing effects of medicine, but does not originate from evidence gathered using the scientific method, is not part of biomedicine, or is contradicted by scientific evidence or established science. It consists of a wide variety of health care practices, products and therapies, ranging from being biologically plausible but not well tested, to being directly contradicted by evidence and science, or even harmful or toxic. Examples include new and traditional medicine practices such as homeopathy, naturopathy, chiropractic, energy medicine, various forms of acupuncture, traditional Chinese medicine, Ayurvedic medicine, Sekkotsu, and Christian faith healing. The treatments are those that are not part of the science-based healthcare system, and are not clearly backed by scientific evidence. Despite significant expenditures on testing alternative medicine, including $2.5 billion spent by the United States government, almost none have shown any effectiveness greater than that of false treatments (placebo), and alternative medicine has been criticized by prominent figures in science and medicine as being quackery, nonsense, fraudulent, or unethical.” Https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Alternative_medicine