Horse Health

That’s the Spot: Bodywork For the Equine Athlete

youtube/Nicole Birkholzer

It is no secret that our horses often live better than we do. While we duct tape holes in our boots, our horses get new shoes every five to six weeks. While we eat Ramen noodles, our horses get only the best grain, supplements and hay. Another way we compliment our horse’s overall wellness is with equine bodywork like massage and acupressure therapy.

Denise Bean-Raymond is the author of the internationally acclaimed book The Illustrated Guide to Holistic Care for Horses, and one of the most sought-after massage and acupressure therapists in the country. In addition to practicing out of the Greater Boston area, she frequently travels to offer clinics, lectures and to enhance her own education in equine wellness.

Read on to learn more about how equine bodywork could benefit your athlete.


JP: What inspired you to pursue equine bodywork like massage and acupressure?

Bean-Raymond: I suffered a significant back injury and received my healing through acupuncture and massage. When that occurred I thought to myself, ‘why aren’t we utilizing these modalities on our horses?’ So, I decided to go to school and educate myself in those fields & started offering my services. I truly believe and feel that my own personal experience with these healing modalities translates directly into my daily practice. It is not simply something that I do, but rather it is who I am. It is my actual lifestyle.


What are the benefits of equine massage and acupressure?

Equine massage increases the flow of nutrient-rich blood to the muscle tissue which allows the flushing out of cellular waste and excessive fluid which promotes healing. It also can enhance learning and training, decrease inflammation, improve the circulatory and lymphatic systems while enhancing muscle tone. It can even improve the demeanor and disposition of your horse! It is much easier to prevent a problem, rather than have to address one once it has occurred. Massage is often overlooked a preventative tool. It is a wonderful therapy for prevention of injury and/or strain.


Equine acupressure is an appropriate treatment for a multitude of conditions such as arthritis, tying-up syndrome, back pain, colds/coughs, cribbing, colic (preventative), heaving, hock joint issues, immune system strengthening, neck issues, shoulder discomfort, stifle joint issues, swollen joints, stress management, founder, organ function, eye issues, edema, navicular, head-shaking and many other conditions or injuries and diseases your horse may occur.


What are some of the most common problems you encounter in horses you treat?

Some of the most common problems that I encounter when working on horses include neck and poll discomfort, jaw tension, back pain, shoulder tightness, rib sensitivity and compensatory muscle splinting due to arthritis.


Do you notice a difference in muscle soreness in different disciplines, jumpers and dressage for example?

Yes, I do notice the repeat occurrence of common muscle issues in different disciplines. Dressage horses often tend to carry tension in their jaws, polls, necks and withers, whereas jumpers trend towards shoulder and back issues. Generally speaking, many horses often present with lower back tightness, overall hindquarter stiffness and rib discomfort, irregardless of their assigned discipline.


Is there any particular bad habit that riders have that makes you cringe when you see it in regards to what it does to a horse’s muscular development?

There are several actually. First, riding with “heavy” hands that pull, yank and maintain an excessively short rein tend to result in poll, jaw, neck, back and balance issues. Next, spending little to no time warming up and stretching increases the risk of muscular strain and/or injury. Lastly, not having the saddle fit regularly or routinely leads to wither, shoulder and back soreness which restricts movement and contributes to asymmetrical muscle development.


What do you think is the biggest contributing factor to soreness—workload, footing or something else?

I think there are many factors that layer upon one another with respect to soreness. These factors depend on the individual horse and circumstance. Several factors include the type and amount of work asked of the horse, as well as how repetitive the work is, travel or trailering, footing, ill fitting tack, turn out schedule, shoeing, weather and nutrition. Consistency is a critical component, too. Just as humans do, horses need to be worked consistently and with a variety of work to allow them to blossom in their fitness level. Routine cross training is a favorite recommendation of mine. I believe it is good for the horse mentally, emotionally and physically.


What is your favorite stretch or exercise that anyone can do?

My favorite exercise that I recommend to my clients is one I call “Pasture Posture Ground Rails Exercise”. To execute this, you set up four ground rails, about 4-5 feet apart in a straight line. Then, practice walking and trotting over them in “Pasture Posture.” Horses are designed to graze approximately 18 hours per day, therefore one of the most comfortable and more natural postures for their body to maintain is the position they are in when grazing on grass—hence “Pasture Posture.”

Try to recreate this posture by slowly bringing their chin in towards their chest for several seconds and slowly letting the reins out to allow them to stretch down into “Pasture Posture” while sending them forward with leg. The goal is to send them on from their hind end while they are stretching their head and neck down freely, as if to graze. This may aid in lifting the abdominal muscles, while stretching the topline. It may take time, so please be patient. Practice this in both directions, over the poles and at the walk. Once confirmed, practice in trot. This is a wonderful way to both warm up and cool down when riding.

When ridden correctly, this exercise mimics the natural grazing posture of the horse, allowing for stretching while encouraging the horse to lift and bend their limbs, working the joints in a healthy manner.


What is the best piece of advice you can give horse owners regarding their horse’s overall physical well being?

My advice would be to educate yourself continuously, listen to your own horse and try to be as proactive possible. The relationship between a horse and owner is very complex and grows with time. You know your own horse the best, as you spend the most time with him or her. If your horse starts behaving oddly, presents with physical symptoms or becomes emotionally dramatic, then listen to those communications and contact an equine professional for assistance. It is easier to prevent a problem, or at least address it in its early stages, than to deal with it once it arises or festers for a period of time.

About the Author

Jessica Paquette is the Director of Communications for Suffolk Downs and Starlight Racing.

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