Equine Foundation Massage Skills


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It is important to recognise that there are legal restrictions affecting the massage of animals. The Veterinary Act 1966 states that therapies which include massage may only be applied by a third person ie not the owner of the animal or the vet, if the vet responsible for the animal gives their consent or refers the animal to an alternative therapist.

What does this mean for you?

It means you can massage your own animals, following this course material, but that to apply massage to your friends’ animals or to provide massage as a service you must have each animals’ vet’s permission. This legislation was brought in to protect animals’ health and well being and if you are ever in any doubt as to whether massage is appropriate, you should always stop and consult your vet before continuing.


There are many benefits of massage both physical and psychological. This week we are focussing on the physical changes which occur during massage. Next week we will look at the psychological and how the physical and psychological interact.

  1. Relax tense muscles

Firstly massage will relax tense muscles by encouraging the muscle fibres within each muscle to release from a contracted or shortened state and return to their normal function. Muscle fibres work properly when they can shorten to actively move a bone, or lengthen to passively allow a bone to move. As an example of this hold one upper arm with the opposite hand and notice how your biceps muscle bulges as you lift your hand to your shoulder. You should also notice it loses the bulge as you extend your hand away again.

When muscle fibres within a muscle contract and then do not relax, the muscle as a whole starts to lose its power and strength to actively move bones, and also loses its ability to stretch and allow bones to move in the opposite direction. This produces stiffness in the body when moving. Initially the muscles can compensate for this slight loss of power but as time goes on and more and more muscle fibres contract, the muscle as a whole becomes more and more fatigued trying to compensate and you can see changes in your horse’s performance.

  1. Boost circulation

Massage has been shown to boost the circulation of blood to the muscles when applied for just a short time. Increased blood supply to the muscles warms them up, reducing feelings of discomfort the horse might be experiencing, and brings extra oxygen and nutrients to the muscles. As the muscle fibres are stimulated to release from their contracted state, the increased flow of blood provides the muscle fibres with the nutrients they require to maintain a normal state rather than return to a permanently contracted state.

  1. Stimulate nerve function

Put simply this means that where your horse may be hypersensitive and touchy, massage will calm this reaction and your horse will relax to touch rather than flinch or react to touch. Similarly if there are areas of your horse’s body where he or she has become “unresponsive” to touch and very inflexible, then massage will stimulate the nerve function in those areas, making your horse more comfortable. Horses are all different and while a common reaction to a tight saddle might be for your horse to give strong signals that he doesn’t like it such as bucking with their rider, there are also horses who will simply become more “shut down” and unresponsive to their rider over time. In both cases, the nerves supplying the muscles can be re-educated by massage to send signals back to the brain telling the horse to relax his or her back. The more the horse relaxes, the greater the effect on the release of those muscle fibres held in a contracted state.


It is important that your horse is in good health before you start to massage. As an example, if your horse has a virus and is not well, then massage will stimulate the circulatory system which could spread the virus further through the body, making the muscles ache and your horse unwell for longer.

Listed here are the signs of good health in your horse.

  1. “Well covered” meaning the horse has sufficient muscle and fat covering the skeletal frame without there being any major prominent areas.
  2. Alert disposition, taking in his/her surroundings and interested in people and horses around him/her.
  3. Normal intake of feed, hay and water.
  4. Mucous membranes (those of the gums in the mouth and the membranes around the eyeball) should be salmon pink.
  5. Skin and coat should be supple and shiny, not dull and staring.
  6. No abnormal heat or swellings on the body or limbs. It is important to check the lower limbs (from the knee or hock downwards) carefully, as it is easy to miss slight heat or swelling if the legs have been muddy or you have been short of time when putting your horse away after riding!
  7. The horse’s droppings will break as they hit the ground. Colour can vary depending on the horse’s diet, and will be greener if the horse is turned out all the time, or on particularly lush grazing (i.e. in the spring). Horses usually pass droppings 8-10 times a day. Very sloppy droppings, or a lack of droppings, may indicate a more serious problem and expert opinion should be sought.
  8. The horse’s urine should be a pale yellow colour, and will vary in quantity depending on how much the horse has had to drink, how much exercise he has had (and how much he has sweated) and the general humidity (amount of moisture in the air on a hot day). A horse on a high concentrate diet may have slightly darker yellow coloured urine as he/she expels excessive nutrients which the body does not need, often proteins. Very concentrated urine, or any presence of dark reddish coloured urine, is a sign of ill-health and the vet should be consulted immediately.
  9. Body temperature should be 37-38 degrees Centigrade, or 100-101 degrees Farenheit. Taking a horse’s temperature should be done with care. It is easiest to use a digital thermometer specifically for horses.
  10. Pulse (heart rate) should be between 36-42 beats per minute at rest. Some horses have a very low heart rate, down to 25 beats per minute, so learn what is normal for your horse. It is best to take the pulse rate to establish a normal for your horse, when the horse is happy and relaxed in the stable.
  11. Respiration rate (how many breaths your horse takes per minute) should be between 8-12 breaths per minute at rest. Take the respiration rate by watching the rise and fall of the flanks and counting each breath over a period of 1 minute.
  12. The horse should be sound on all four legs. There should be no obvious lameness or injury. Always check the temperature of the feet when assessing the limbs for heat and swelling, or if you suspect lameness. 90% of all lameness comes from the feet, and excessive heat in one foot may indicate that is the source of pain.
  13. There should be no discharge from the eyes or nostrils. Sometimes a clear small discharge is seen in horses who have been eating slightly dusty hay, or have dusty bedding, and if that is normal for your horse then it is worth trying to soak the hay or change the bedding. Any discharge, which is thick, mucoid, yellow, foul-smelling and/or in quantity, should be noted as a sign of ill-health and expert opinion sought.
  14. The horse should be sufficiently hydrated (i.e. have enough water in the body). Dehydration can be tested for very easily by pinching the skin on the neck between the fingers and thumb and releasing. The skin should recoil immediately with elasticity, if the horse is sufficiently hydrated. If the horse is dehydrated, the skin will take longer to recoil and may stay ‘pinched’ for several seconds.

Signs of ill health are listed here. If in any doubt about your horse, ask your vet for advice before commencing with massage.

  1. If the ribs, hips, croup, backbone, or top of neck is sunken away and prominent, and the horse is terribly underweight.
  2. The horse is not alert, but unresponsive, disinterested, ears back and low, not paying attention to people or horses in the near vicinity.
  3. Horse not eating or drinking normal amounts.
  4. The mucous membranes of the gums in the mouth or surrounding the eyeball may be yellow (indicating jaundice or liver disease), excessively pale (indicating anaemia and infection) or blue (showing lack of oxygen and poor blood circulation).
  5. Skin and coat appear taut, dull and staring.
  6. Horse is dehydrated. The skin takes time to recoil after the pinch test.
  7. Areas of abnormal heat and swelling, including heat in the feet.
  8. The horse’s droppings are very hard, very loose, or changed in colour.
  9. Red/brown urine.
  10. Raised or lowered temperature and pulse rates. Temperatures over 1 degree Farenheit or 0.5 degrees Centigrade higher or lower than normal should be noted.
  11. Breathing that is rapid and shallow.
  12. Lameness or unlevel steps.
  13. Thick, smelly, mucoid discharge from the nose or eyes.
  14. Eyes not fully open, or the third eyelid protruding across the eye.
  15. Behavioural signs of discomfort such as pacing around the stable, looking/kicking at the belly, getting up and lying down frequently, pawing at the ground incessantly, trying to stale/defecate and failing, patchy sweating and ‘tucked up’ at the belly, (the tummy of the horse is contracted upwards due to pain, giving an appearance of the tummy being ‘tucked up’ under the horse rather than relaxed and down).
  16. Any other behavioural signs which are not normal for your horse to perform.
  17. Excessively overweight.


This week we are focussing on assessing tension in the neck and shoulders of your horse. You will need to watch the accompanying video and we would advise you do this several times and take some notes as well. Do not panic if you don’t think you can feel anything to being with. It will take time for you to build up your skills and confidence. Instead concentrate on how your horse reacts to what you are doing and use this as a guide. The more often you put your hands on your horse, the more relaxed he or she should become which will help you to feel more. Just doing five minutes assessment every day this week will make a big difference to your sensitivity and your horse’s receptiveness.

Once you have started to do your own assessments, write down the reactions that you observed in your horse.



  1. Have a workbook or file to put your course notes in for reference and to help you with your learning.
  2. Read through all the course notes for this week, making sure you understand the information given to you.
  3. Using the lists given to you in the Health Check section, make a note of any potential health issues your horse might have. Do not worry about taking temperature, pulse or respiration rates yet as we will cover this next week in a video.
  4. Watch the video on assessment of the muscles in the neck and shoulders, make notes and then try doing the same on your horse. Write down the reactions he or she gives you.