Horse Previews Magazine website - Posted on 02/07/2001; 2:00:00PM.

Equine Sports Massage Therapy: Part 1

Flexibility and Range of Motion

by Laura Attaway, LMP, ESMTII * Horse Mountain Massage, 509-990-9608 * ljme@attworldnet.att.com

Flexibility, what does it mean to you and I? Flexibility means either we can bend over and touch our toes or just wave at them. What does flexibility mean for our equine athletes? It can mean the difference between a blue or a white ribbon in the show ring or seconds around the barrels or inches in a jump. What can you do for your horse to give him or her the edge that good flexibility can provide during performance? Equine sports massage therapy (ESMT) can give you that edge by increasing and maintaining flexibility in your horse.

A muscle is made up of hundreds and thousands of individual muscle fibers. As a unit these muscle fibers contract (shorten) and relax (lengthen). Muscles are attached to the skeletal system via tendons. Each end of the muscle is attached on opposite sides of a joint thus acting like a pulley system during contraction and relaxation. As a horse is worked and trained its muscles increase in strength which is actually an increase in the number of muscle fibers within the body of the muscle. This is seen as `bulk' in a horse. This increased bulk can create a shortening of the muscles reducing the flexibility and range of motion (ROM) and increasing the stress on the tendon muscle attachments. Tightness/shortening of the muscle body can bring about pain and an unwillingness to perform.

Another component of the muscle structure is called fascia. Fascia has been described as the sweater that surrounds the individual muscle and then muscle groups that have a common action. Think about how it feels to wear a shirt that is tight. Reaching for something or making large movements is difficult and feels restrictive. The same is true when the fascia around a muscle is tight, movement is restricted and pain may be present. Again the result can be an unwillingness or inability to perform at previous levels.

Lets look at a specific muscle group in regards to flexibility and massage. The hamstrings are a group of three muscles that go from the very top back of your horse's leg to the stifle. The hamstrings primary action is to extend the hip. They also aid in lateral movement and kicking. Inflexibility in this muscle group can cause a shortened forward stride, a resistance to lateral work and joint discomfort in the hindquarters. Looking at the horse holistically, i.e. each part affecting the whole, a tight/sore hamstring may cause a horse to pull its weight off its hind leg early thus weighting and stressing the opposite shoulder. Inflexibility within a muscle or muscle group will also increase the risk of injury. This is especially true if the tightness is limited to only one side. In an effort to extend evenly during training or performance, a horse can pull the tight muscle. Tendon injuries/pulls will send shutters down the back of even the most hardy of owners. Because muscles have a direct action upon your horse's joints, a tight/inflexible muscle also affects joints.

Massage stretches the muscle fibers and fascia through manual squeezing and kneading. The use of direct pressure into the muscle will release the knotted fibers and the fascia. Freeing up an inflexible muscle increases the flow of oxygen rich blood to the area. Horses will often lean into my fingers or fists as I press into their muscles helping to increase the depth and release they receive. Often times it may take several massages to get a tightened muscle to relax. Horses are very much creatures of habit and they get used to functioning in the limited way with a tightened muscle. They need to relearn how to move once the tightness and restricted motion has been relieved. One of the biggest joys in my work is to watch a horse realize that a particular area of inflexibility has been relieved and they have an increased freedom of movement. The smile on the owners face when he/she feels their horse moving with freedom is remarkable.

Massage is a powerful tool in maintaining and increasing your horse's potential. A regular program of massage will create built in flexibility to the muscle as it is strengthened. It is no longer something that is on the fringe. I work with several veterinarians who recommend massage as a holistic therapy for maintaining the healthy horse and injury rehabilitation. Strong AND flexible muscles can help you and your horse achieve your goal be it in the show ring, on the endurance trail, on the track or around the barrels.

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