Equine massage helps keep horses fit and happy
Many busy horse farms, like busy households, keep track of upcoming appointments and events on a white board with wipe-off markers. But a horse farm might list that the van leaves for Saturday’s horse show at 5:30 a.m., and that the horses have massages scheduled on Friday.
While massaging a horse might sound like an unnecessary luxury, in reality it's very much accepted as an important part of an athlete’s fitness routine. If a horse’s “job” is racing, foxhunting, jumping or barrel racing, the animal is no less an athlete than a man or woman who swims, high jumps, plays basketball, or wrestles, according to certified equine sports massage therapist Gretchen Davis Swenson of Kennett Square.
“I had been interested in learning equine massage for a while, but the only certification programs I could find were in Florida or the Carolinas,” said the lifelong horsewoman. “Then shortly after I got Marti [from a Thoroughbred racehorse rescue], I was thinking that he could really benefit from massage therapy. He came to me with some soundness issues and I am not big on lots of meds and injections; I’d rather go the homeopathic route if I can.”
Swenson renewed her search for programs and found Equine Kneads, LLC, in New Jersey. “As soon as I spoke to Colleen, who has been teaching equine massage since 2004, I had a good feeling,” she said. “I could tell she was all about the horse and not about making lots of money certifying people.”
Swenson signed up for an equine sports massage certification program in March of 2016, which took place over three consecutive weekends. “We would do classwork in the morning and then spend the afternoons in the barn getting hands-on -- no pun intended – experience,” she said. “It was very personalized, especially since there were only two of us in that class.”
It was very helpful for Swenson to have Marti and several other horses in her barn at home to practice on during the week. “It was great to immediately see the effect it had on them and really made me feel good about committing to the certification process,” she said. While all the horses quickly communicated that they liked the massage, the one who had real issues was Marti, and over the next few months, he became much more comfortable.
With a new client, Swenson begins by asking the owner or trainer of the horse about any issues they may be having. Sometimes, like in the case of an injury, the area that she needs to work on is very clear, but in other cases it is not. With her own horse, Swenson knew he had a problem in his neck, so she concentrated on that area. “Sometimes you don’t know where a horse’s pain is coming from. For example, they can be lame in one leg but are compensating, so you may find soreness elsewhere,” she said.
“Horses can’t tell you what is bothering them in words, but you can pretty much be sure that if they are doing something out of the norm, it is because something hurts,” Swenson said.
Typically, she begins a horse’s treatment by running her fingers over the horse’s entire body, watching for where the skin does not ripple, which indicates pain. She also watches the animal’s other reactions, like shifting weight on its feet, twitching ears, and lowering its head.
Once she identifies a stiff or tight area, she applies more pressure and works that spot, always watching the horse for signs of what does and does not feel good to them. Horses show a “release” in various ways. Some of the most common are stretching out their front legs, lifting one leg, soft or sleepy eyes, drooling, sighing, yawning or licking.
Several months ago, Leigh Berman, owner of Two Bit Farm, had Swenson start massaging a horse that didn’t exhibit a clear problem, but just seemed stiff through his neck and topline. “Gretchen has the gift of magic fingers,” Berman said. “She made this tense Thoroughbred absolutely come around. Since she has been working on him, he just canters down the lines so easily and jumps much better, using his whole topline.”
Swenson has several farms she goes to on a regular basis to treat multiple horses. Typically, a treatment lasts about an hour, but she has gone as long as an hour and a half if warranted. If she is working on a specific issue with a horse, it might require treatment every week, but normally she recommends every two weeks for maintenance.
She stresses that she is not a veterinarian and therefore does not diagnose. “Quite a few vets recommend equine massage therapy,” she said.. “The benefits are pretty clear. Massage helps muscles to perform better, relieves tension and muscle spasms, soothes sore muscles to prevent injury, lowers blood pressure, boosts the immune system, removes toxins and helps with metabolism.”
Another regular client, Shayne Mackey, expressed her confidence in Swenson’s massage technique. “She’s been working on my Amateur Owner hunter since last spring,” Mackey said. Fitz is a big, athletic horse. “He was always a great mover, but since Gretchen’s been working on him, he moves even better from the shoulder; his trot is bigger and his canter is freer. Plus, he is more relaxed and just happier. We’re working hard to get him fit and back into competition, and Gretchen is a great addition to the team.”
“I’ll admit, I’m old school,” said Cindy Simmons, who has a horse farm in Cochranville. “I’ve never had a massage myself, but of course we do more for our horses than ourselves, so I decided to give it a try. Now I’m totally a believer, as Cruise is a different horse.”
Simmons said that that since they have had the big, gray horse which she foxhunts, he has always been a bit stiff in his hind end, and she was aware that he had some arthritis in his back when she bought him. “I can tell when he’s uncomfortable because he will cross his back legs when he stands,” she said. “He was even doing it at the checks out hunting. Gretchen and I are friends, so shortly after she got her certification, I had her massage him.”
The horse was markedly improved after the first session and Simmons' horseshoer noticed the difference right away, as it was much easier for Cruise to hold up his hind legs to be shod. A treatment by Swenson usually lasts him about three or four weeks, but Simmons can tell if he starts crossing his hind legs, she needs to get an appointment sooner.
While most of the horses Swenson works on are mature, Cheryll Francella, owner of one of the farms she works at regularly, The Windrush in Honey Brook, has her massage some of the young horses that are not yet being ridden. “We have a two-year-old who goes out in the paddock and runs and plays like crazy, then comes in sore. Gretchen started working on her when she was here doing the performance horses. It made a big difference which you can really see in her movement,” Francella said. “She has even done some of the yearlings, and they just love it. They close their eyes and go to sleep.”
Francella recalls encouraging Swenson to get her certification in equine massage when she first mentioned an interest. “I’m glad she did it, because I like the way she does massage. I’ve had others who really get to pounding on the horse's muscles, and you don’t have to do that. Gretchen is soft and takes her time; the horses love her.”
“This is rewarding to me, it’s gotten me back to being around what I love – the horses,” Swenson said. “It’s kind of therapy. Plus, I love being able to help horses be more comfortable so they can perform better. Professional athletes get massages all the time. Why shouldn’t these four-legged athletes get the same treatment?”
Learn more about Equine Massage by Gretchen on Facebook, call 251-391-0678 or email EquineMassagebyG@gmail.com.