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Benefits of Equine Sports Massage Therapy for Performance Horses
Equine Sports Massage Therapy
Why it’s Not Just for Existing Soreness Issues - by Gwen Bernardo for
Equus Athletics makers of EquiStix

Many of you have probably heard of Equine Sports Massage Therapy, but may be skeptical about the benefits and/or the need of massage for your horse. Although massage does feel great for your horse, you may be surprised to find out just how many amazing benefits equine massage therapy has, and not simply for horses with pre-existing conditions. 

So what exactly is equine sports massage therapy? To help us better understand what this means, we turn to certified equine sports massage therapist, Gwen Bernardo, to shed some light on the shadows surrounding equine massage.
“Equine sports massage therapy is the therapeutic application of massage techniques for the purpose of increasing circulation, relaxing muscle spasms, enhancing muscle tone, and increasing range of motion in performance horses,” says Gwen. “And, regardless if your level of performance is A Circuit or casual weekend trail riding, your horse is performing a level of activity that can have extremely taxing effects on the body.” 

In fact, according to research conducted by Tufts University of Veterinary Medicine, musculoskeletal problems are the most common cause of poor performance. But why?
“Horses are not anatomically designed to carry the weight of a rider,” says Gwen. “His structure naturally puts sixty percent of his body weight on the forelimbs with the remaining forty percent on the hindquarters.  Because of this, a riding horse must learn to lift weight off the withers and shoulders and engage the hindquarters to move forward. He does this in order to avoid damage to his back and joints.” 
Massage thus optimizes the horse’s efficiency of movement and allows the strength and flexibility necessary for him to comfortably support a rider. Equine massage is a very effective way to promote blood flow and increase circulation, which in turn allows muscles to grow properly, work optimally, and recover quickly.

Of course, muscles of the back are not the only groups that become affected when a horse is ridden. Muscle problems are cumulative in nature, and pain or stiffness in one area can lead to overcompensation in other areas, just as you can relate to when you experience stiffness or soreness. 
Especially in the case of a high performance horse, musculoskeletal problems can severely limit a horse’s athletic potential. An over-used or injured muscle will tighten, spasm, and become a knot, leading to a shortening of the muscle. No amount of rest or anti-inflammatory medication will resolve the knot; it must be released and maintained in order to recover properly.

“Equine massage is really a great and simple way for you to prevent more serious injuries from occurring, even when your horse is not displaying any signs of an existing issue,” Gwen says. “By increasing blood flow to a muscle, you are naturally and swiftly re-oxygenating muscles, which is how the body starts its recovery process. Even without a pre-existing issue, massage speeds this recovery process, which means that your horse is less likely to develop serious issues. That being said, it’s also important to remember that just because he is not displaying obvious signs of discomfort, it does not mean there is not an underlying issue quietly forming”.
A horse that is able to recover faster means that they are ready to perform sooner, which is important for competition horses, working horses, and pleasure horses alike. It is also important for young horses that are new to accepting riders and the stresses of regular exercise. 

Not only used to correct a soreness issue, massage is used by both top human and equine athletes to increase range of motion, flexibility, and endurance. “All these things are extremely important to horse and rider, no matter at what level, or what type of riding you perform”, says Gwen. “A western horse needs the strength (endurance) to maintain a slow, rounded frame, while a jumper needs range of motion to be able to get height and distance over obstacles. Even when not asking for show-ring-perfect collection, a flexible horse translates to open communication, responsiveness, and control”.   

“One way to optimize the benefits of massage,” Gwen says, “whether a problem currently exists, or whether your goal is to prevent an issue, is to perform regular - even daily- massage sessions.” 
“A muscle maintenance program is something that I feel is very important. One session every year is a great start, but it doesn’t help you achieve the benefits we’ve discussed”, Gwen continues. “Now I know this might sound like a tall order, but it really doesn’t have to be. Performing massage techniques by yourself before and after your horse’s workout are quite simple, and will produce amazing results in their comfort, prevention, and recovery”. 
Horse Massage Tool EquiStix

“One option I suggest for many of my clients”, says Gwen, “is to use a massage tool to help make the job easier. I personally prefer a product called EquiStix, made by Equus Athletics. I recommend EquiStix for several reasons; it’s more thorough than many other massagers out there, while still being practical and convenient. It’s a quality product that will withstand barn life (mine has held up great, even with all the use it gets on the road with me) and the price point won’t break the bank”.
“The horses of clients who use EquiStix are easier to work on and require much less ‘fixing’ than the horses who don’t use it, and horses with soreness issues transition to a maintenance program earlier than the ones who don’t”. Choosing to perform massage on your horse is something that might seem a little outside of the traditional school of thought, but you will not be disappointed by the results a daily muscle maintenance program can provide. 

Gwen Bernardo is a member of the International Equine Body Worker Association and is the Official Equine massage therapist for the Cal Poly Pomona Equestrian Team. She has completed advanced studies with industry leaders including equine spinal anatomy with Dr. Bill Hampton D.C., equine myofascial release with Jim Pascucci, and equine structural integration with Jim Masterson. 
Her practice, Rider’s Edge Integrated Equine Bodywork and Saddle Fitting, serves the greater Los Angeles, CA area. For more information on Gwen Bernardo, visit her website gwenbernardo.com .
For more information on EquiStix, visit equusathletics.com .

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