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Stress and massage

From: Howard

Dear Jessica, I think that HORSE-SENSE is the best thing on the Internet. Thank you for doing this! I have been wondering about stress in horses and whether it's the same as stress in people. Some of the riders at the barn where I board have started bringing in a massage therapist for the horses, every couple of weeks. It does seem to make a difference, but I would like to know what the similarities and differences are in horses and people, when it comes to stress, and whether the same techniques would work on both? My sister is a doctor, and she says that it's an entirely different anatomy so it wouldn't work the same. She doesn't ride or know anything about horses, so I don't know if she is just guessing here, but it seems to me that horses don't have the same kinds of worries and tensions that people have, so I don't know if they could have the same kind of stress, but it makes sense that they could have some stress. Obviously the anatomy is different but wouldn't there be some basic similarities? If you think that massage can help horses, I may go ahead and sign my horse up.

Thanks again for everything you do.


Hi Howard! Obviously the sources of stress may be different - horses don't worry about getting fired, or meeting the mortgage payment, or why their children are so late getting home after the concert. But horses do experience stress, and the stress manifests itself in horses in many of the same ways that it does in humans, including tight muscles, trigger points/pressure points, etc.

What causes stress in horses? Anything that deviates from their natural lifestyle. If you want to cause stress - mental and physical - in a horse almost overnight, just take it out of its field and put it into a stall. It won't matter whether the stall is big and light and airy and well-bedded, or whether the owner feeds the horse three or four or six times a day - the stress will come from the fact that the horse, a creature of constant movement, is now confined in a tiny space. Recent studies of gastric ulcers in horses have shown that the easiest cure for ulcers is to turn the horses out - and the easiest way to cause ulcers is to keep them confined.

Confinement, overcrowding, lack of grazing time, boring, repetitive work, and lack of clear communication with the humans who handle and ride a horse will cause mental and physical stress. Too much or unsuitable physical activity, bad footing, ill-fitting tack, inept riders, pain, fear, and confusion will cause mental and physical stress. Horses are no different from humans in that regard.

Wherever the stress originates, some of it is likely to be expressed in the form of tension in muscles that, held for any length of time, will create pressure points - small areas within a muscle that have been held tense for so long that the circulation to the area is gone. With the circulation gone, the fibers of the muscles stick together - think of overcooked, dry poultry, and you'll get the idea.

The hard, tense muscles put pressure on other nearby structures, such as blood vessels and nerves.

That's where massage comes in. Warmth and relaxation can help to some extent, but there's a point at which pressure points simply need pressure and/or movement to restore the circulation and "unglue" the muscle fibers.

So, yes, the structures are similar, stress is stress, and massage is massage, regardless of whether the patient is a human or a horse. Either way, it's important to involve someone who can actually do some good - not someone who means well but has no idea of how to use pressure or what structures are involved, and not someone whose entire experience in massage has consisted of a three-hour or three-day "course". Inept attempts at deep-tissue massage, like inept attempts at chiropractic adjustments, are likely to do much more harm than good. The best help will come from someone who knows the work AND the characteristics of the animal - the ideal masseur or masseuse would be someone fully qualified to work on humans, AND certified by a serious equine massage institute such as the one run by Jack Meagher.

A good professional can show you some gentle techniques that you will be able to use to help your horse, and tell you what to avoid and why not to attempt forms of massage that require more knowledge than you have. If your barn has a genuine massage therapist visiting on a regular basis, you have a wonderful chance to learn. Take advantage of the opportunity! - sign your horse up for a session, watch closely, ask questions, and learn what you can do between sessions to help your horse maintain the benefits of the professional's work.


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