Massage? Chiro? Physio? What does my horse need and when?!!

Your horse feels ‘off’. Horses are predominantly stoic creatures, preferring to hide their ailments from potential predators, but maybe you are tuned-in enough to your animal to have spotted a subtle change – sudden reluctance to pick up a certain canter lead, difficulty bending a particular way, fidgeting slightly when you mount, tripping, even just opting for an unusual posture when standing or resting a particular limb. Maybe your horse’s giveaway is his mood – he’s become dull, stale or lethargic, perhaps he’s started nipping or refusing to be caught for work. Or maybe he’s starting to display unwanted vices when ridden – bolting, bucking, napping, refusals, excessive spooking.

In any case, changes in your horse, if not seasonal, age-related or due to an external change you have made to his location, workload or management, often point to a level of discomfort that must be addressed by you.

So you start to run through your management choices:

  • Is his temperature raised? Is he showing signs of illness? Does he need a vet?
  • Is he due a saddle fit check?
  • Is the dentist due?
  • Are feed choices optimal? Has he dropped/gained weight?
  • Is he warm enough? Too warm??
  • Is the farrier due? Are his toes too long? Are they in good condition?
  • Has he sustained an injury from the field?
  • Have his eating/drinking habits changed?
  • Has the herd dynamic changed in his field?
  • Is he bored? Tired? Does he need a break or a change of activity?

The list is endless, but we know our horses, and often there is something that we can pinpoint and address.

But…what if our checklist has brought up nothing? This is where you might need to consider that there might be a level of soreness or discomfort somewhere that needs input from a professional. But which type of bodyworker do you actually need? With so many offerings now that weren’t available a few years ago, it can seem overwhelming. Here is a brief guide which might help…

Massage Therapist

Equine Massage Therapists are becoming more popular as a more affordable means of either maintaining musculoskeletal function (prevention is better than cure!), for more regular follow-up rehabilitation post-injury/diagnosis (perhaps referred after intervention from a vet or one of the bodyworkers below, or where issues are deemed less ‘severe’) and for increased general well-being, perhaps in an ageing or more sensitive horse. The proven benefits of massage include improved muscle function, increased stride length and joint function, enhanced circulation, relaxation and improved overalimg_8780l performance – resultingly, many competition yards will have regular visits from a preferred massage therapist, even where injury or soreness may be non-evident. Most combine soft-tissue manipulation with some complimentary joint mobilisation routines, and may provide suggestions for rehabilitative or strengthening exercise follow-ups. Should the problem require veterinary, physio or chiropractic attention, a good massage therapist should refer as appropriate. It should be noted that training levels and duration for somebody to be able to call themselves an Equine Massage Therapist can differ enormously, from weekend courses(!) through to full level 5 accredited qualifications from reputable training providers (mine of course 😉) – choose carefully, as massage, though perhaps less ‘invasive’ than the following interventions, can still be hugely damaging if performed incorrectly.

Chiropractic

An equine chiropractor will have previously trained in human chiropractic, and focuses on spinal health and the optimal function of the related nervous schiroystem. Postural changes, joint mobility changes and any skeletal imbalance could be a job for this bodyworker. Often people asking for a ‘back person’ may in fact require this service initially. Fix the posture, and muscle function will often follow!

McTimoney

Equine McTimoney practitioners are split into two categories: ‘McTimoney Chiropractors’ and ‘McTimoney Animal Manipulators’. The latter, while not chiropractors, share a similar aim of aligning the musculoskeletal systems. Often this can be confused though, and specialism may need clarification on booking.

Physiotherapist

Physio intervention focuses on the ‘soft tissues’ of the body – muscle, ligaments, tendons – combining a variety of techniques including massage, ultrasound, electro-therapy and physioadvising on suitable rehabilitation programmes. Obvious muscle soreness, including sensitivity to touch, unusual muscle build or atrophy (loss of muscle), might be issues that this bodyworker could assist with. Conversely to chiropractic work – fix abnormal muscle function, and skeletal health and posture are likely to improve!

Osteopath

In very general terms, an osteopath mixes chiropractic and physio approaches together, looking for issues not just within the spine but within bones, joints, muscles, nerves and related circulatory problems.

With your chosen professional, hopefully you will get to the root of the problem, and your horse will certainly thank you for it. Positive physical, behavioural and emotional changes can be almost instant with some issues, and by following any advice your bodyworker gives you, will hopefully be maintained in the longer term. And where there is no quick-fix, consider massage as a maintenance tool to keep your equine partner as comfortable and active as he can be!

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