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Sports massage during training and competing in the equine athlete

From a very young age horses were amazing animals in my mind. More so for their pretty colours, the fact I could ride one, and could play with their manes and tails like all little girls loved to do. Now I consider them as one of the greatest athletes on the planet for not only for their speed and stamina but the variability displayed between disciplines, especially considering they aren’t built to carry a rider. Any athlete that increases their workload, whether that’s a human or animal, may need extra help to increase performance and decrease the risk of injury. One form of alternative therapy is sports massage therapy, one of the oldest forms of healing in humans.

Sports massage therapy has been practiced around the world for thousands of years and more recently is being administered along side a multidisciplinary team of doctors, physiotherapists, osteopaths, chiropractors, and in the equestrian world, veterinarians. Determining how massage techniques affect the body and knowing what physiological and psychological implications may be taking place at different times during performance will enhance the massage outcome. It can be used in the preparation leading up to (Pre Massage), between (Inter-competition Massage), and assisting in recovery (Post Massage) of training and competition (Weerapong, Hume, Kolt, 2005).

Here are some benefits to each type of massage and research to back it up!

Pre Massage:

  • Increases flexibility, range of motion and stride length

  • Research on horses found an increase in range of motion, demonstrated by an increase in stride length on the treadmill for both walk and trot (Wilson, 2002). Another study analyzing the relationship between massage to the equine caudal hindlimb muscles and hindlimb protraction found positive results demonstrating an increase in hindlimb protraction (Hill and Crook, 2010). Therefore, this suggests massage plays a valuable role in the development of strategies used to improve locomotor function for optimum performance for competition.

  • Effects neurological mechanisms

  • One study looked at the effects of massage to reduce stress in the horse. Their results concluded that during massage in all sites, except for the forearm, the horse’s heart rate had a significant reduction, with massage at the withers, mid-neck, and croup having the greatest effect (McBride, Hemmings, and Robinson, 2004). Sports massage can also be used as a stimulant for a horse that may need arousing for training or competition. It is the difference in the massage therapist’s techniques, rhythm and tempo that will result in a specific stimulus to occur.

Post Massage:

  • To aid in recovery and overcome fatigue

  • Although reduced pain has been researched within the human field, it has been more difficult in the equine due horses being unable to communicate the same way a human would when discussing pain. However, an equine clinical study dealt with this issue by measuring spinal mechanical nociceptive thresholds (MNTs) after massage therapy, chiropractic adjustment, and phenylbutazone administration, which have been used to objectively measure the minimum amount of pressure that stimulates a pain response (Sullivan, Hill, Haussler, 2008). They concluded that massage therapy treatment given to horses not exhibiting signs of lumbar pain increased spinal MNTs, therefore indicating a reduction in pain (Sullivan, Hill, Haussler, 2008).

  • The results from previous research only partially support a positive effect of massage on lactate removal since a warm down intervention was proven to promote the most efficient lactate removal (Bale and James, 1991; Hemmings et al., 2000). However compared to a passive rest condition, which is common at equestrian events where the horse is often standing still for prolonged periods of time after exercise, massage has resulted in significantly lower lactate levels (Hemmings et al., 2000).

  • It is important for the masseur to thoroughly assess the equine athlete post activity before beginning massage to determine whether the horse is in a proper state to receive treatment. It may be more beneficial to massage in a few hours or the following day once the horse has fully recovered (re-hydrated, vitals normal, injuries ruled out, etc.).

Inter-competition Massage:

  • During repeated performance where the ability to recover quickly from the effects of fatigue and prepare muscles once again for work is critical

  • Although no research has been carried out regarding the use of inter-competition massage on equine athletes we can assume it would be similar to human athletes, as previous studies have shown in pre and post massage. In humans, amateur boxing is a perfect example since they, the athletes, have as little as one hour rest period before boxing new opponents and therefore has traditionally been using sports massage as part of the recovery and preparation in competition (Hemmings et al., 2000).

This very short summary was taken from a previous paper I wrote but I thought some of the information might be interesting to post. It can be seen by the way in which the equine athletes react and the increase in sports massage therapy treatment over the years within the equine industry that it assists in the prevention of injuries and overall athletic performance.