Treatment from a Registered Equine Massage Therapist (REMT) is an essential part of the maintenance routine of many top-level equine competitors and pleasure horses alike. Regular massage therapy treatment and maintenance can result in drastic improvements in your horse’s performance and quality of life. It would be fantastic to have an REMT work on your horse before and after every ride, but this simply isn’t possible for most riders.
According to REMT Janet Storey, the next best thing might be grooming, which can be an excellent way to offer additional hands-on care to your horse. Storey, who graduated from Ontario’s D’Arcy Lane School of Equine Massage, created Thrive Equine Massage Therapy in 2019. Although she specializes in treating sport horses like hunter-jumpers and Standardbred racehorses, her practice also handles the maintenance and rehabilitation of “a wide variety of horses ranging from foals to minis to draft horses and any size in-between.”
Storey kindly offered a few tips for making your horse’s grooming sessions safer and more effective from an REMT perspective.
Spot Minor and Major Sensitivity
Storey says grooming is an excellent opportunity to improve your understanding of your horse’s particular needs for that day. Getting into the practice of noticing stiffness, soreness, or sensitivity during grooming will allow you to make a mental note to check if these problems seem to be present during your ride.
“Regular grooming sessions allow riders and owners to become familiar with what is ‘normal’ for their horse,” says Storey. Having a degree of familiarity with your horse’s normal responses allows you to determine when something is off. “Detecting early signs of soreness when grooming is important for many reasons, the first being the earlier soreness or pain is detected, the sooner it can be addressed and treated appropriately.”
Soreness comes in many shapes and forms, and is sometimes very difficult to spot. Some indications of soreness during grooming include pinning the ears, tail twitching, ‘dancing,’ sensitivity without apparent cause, and moving away from the pressure of grooming tools. “If your horse consistently moves away from pressure in a certain area, it may indicate pain or soreness that should be looked at by the appropriate healthcare practitioner.”
One-sidedness is another indication of chronic sensitivity that is sometimes very tricky to spot, unless you look for it on a regular basis. “If your horse shows pain or soreness on only one side,” says Storey, “It could indicate a muscular imbalance or a compensation pattern.”
However, some sensitivity is less subtle and much easier to notice. Storey warns that more drastic reactions to grooming should immediately be understood as your horse’s attempt to communicate something is seriously wrong. “The big indicators of soreness while grooming are extreme reactions: hollowing out the back, cow-kicking, and biting.”
Work the Fascia
Caring for the fascia is an essential part of maintaining soundness and mobility in sport and pleasure horses of all ages. Smoothing the fascia can be part of your horse’s daily exercise, and all it takes is a little mindfulness and the right tools.
“Fascia is the connective tissue that runs continuous throughout the whole body,” explains Storey. “It stabilizes and connects skin to muscle. It has a sticky, spiderweb-like consistency.”
The biggest problem with the fascia is that it often becomes restricted, causing it to become thick and dense. “When the fascia is restricted, it can restrict muscle movement and it can lead to muscle dysfunction, especially at trigger points. When a muscle is restricted, it decreases its ability to contract, which ultimately decreases the horse’s performance,” says Storey.
Working the fascia while grooming is an excellent way to help prevent restrictions. “It’s important to manipulate the fascia through grooming to maintain the flexible nature of the fascia as well as help maintain proper posture and flexibility throughout the body,” says Storey.
Luckily, you don’t need a gua sha (a traditional Chinese healing method using a smooth-edged scraping tool) because your curry comb acts as an excellent alternative. There is no “…magic brush or fancy gadget that’s going to provide a better grooming experience or better results than elbow grease,” Storey says.
Simply concentrate on the muscle groups using the brushes you have at hand, but “…be vigorous. Giving a vigorous full body curry with a rubber curry comb — I personally suggest the type with the bigger teeth — is a great way to enhance the many benefits of grooming, specifically circulation. When you’re grooming, apply as much pressure as your horse is comfortable with and use quick circles, moving with the hair.”
One of the oft-mentioned benefits of grooming is increased circulation, another reason why attentive grooming can elicit results in the arena. Storey says the effect can be so powerful that you will often notice visible results.
Additionally, Storey notes, “Increased circulation can also help decrease muscle soreness after work.”
Stretching is not a common part of most riders’ pre- and post-riding workout routines, and Storey thinks this has to change, especially for competitive sport horses whose bodies are pushed to the max.
“The biggest thing that I can recommend incorporating into every rider’s grooming routine is to include stretching as part of your post-ride routine. Consistent stretching has many benefits, including reducing the likelihood of injury and promoting increased range of motion.” (You can check out some simple stretches here.)
It’s important to tailor each athlete’s care to his or her specific needs, and this must be done in consultation with professionals. “Your REMT can provide you with stretches that would be the most beneficial,” Storey says. As a final tip, Storey encourages you to consult with an REMT to develop the best care plan for your horse.