Rachel Pople - Equine Physical Therapist (MSc)
Rachel Pople - Equine Physical Therapist (MSc)

Equine Sports Massage

Before studying for an MSc in McTimoney Animal Manipulation, I completed a 2 year Postgraduate Diploma in Equine Sports Massage at the Institute of Complementary Animal Therapies, achieving a Distinction in both theory and practical elements of the course. Sports Massage is the therapeutic application of specific massage strokes combined with passive stretching exercises. It can be used separately as an effective therapy or used in conjunction with McTimoney Manipulation to assist in maintaining skeletal structural alignment, increasing circulation, relieving muscle spasm and tension and enhancing muscle tone. This enables the muscles, tendons and ligaments to function at their full potential.

Horses have over 700 individual muscles in the body which equates to approximately 60% of an individual’s body weight. The role of these muscles is to support the skeleton and create motion through contraction and relaxation of muscles around a joint. When muscles contract and cannot achieve full relaxation they can remain shortened, tense and sore. This leads to muscle spasm and tension, putting strain on surrounding areas and causing compensation elsewhere in the body to avoid discomfort. For example, if the horse is suffering from tension in the shoulders, this can transmit tension to the muscles in the horse’s forearm and in turn the tendons of the lower limb, therefore putting this area at increased risk of injury.


Tense muscles will in turn lead to a decrease in blood circulation, nerve irritation, imbalance and misalignments through the musculoskeletal system, having the effect of restricting range of motion and leading to further tightening; this will ultimately have negative effects on performance. Tension can be a secondary issue relating to an underlying problem or can be the primary problem caused by direct trauma, overstretching or fatigue due to overuse. These sore muscles cannot release themselves from tension causing them to shorten, restrict range of motion and therefore affect performance; they need help using massage strokes, compression and passive stretching from your therapist.

Massage is an excellent maintenance therapy used to ensure that muscles stay strong, healthy and supple and can identify a potential or developing problem before it becomes chronic. It treats the whole body enabling the horse to perform at his optimum level, with regular sessions helping to prevent injury through fatigue or strain. Massage can be of benefit to any horse, from companions and happy hackers to the elite performance horse. It enables early detection of warning signs of tension and injury to the musculoskeletal system because the physical condition of the whole body is assessed, enabling a reference point to be established.


There are many ways in which massage may be beneficial to your horse:

  • Muscular tension, spasm, trigger points and muscle fibre adhesion can be quickly and effectively broken down
  • Increased range of movement
  • Improves suppleness and flexibility, and elasticity of the muscle fibres
  • Optimises performance and gait quality and improves stamina
  • Improves and maintains muscle tone
  • Improves condition of coat and skin condition
  • Promotes mental relaxation, well-being and overall performance
  • Increased blood circulation and lymphatic drainage - massage warms the tissues and increases blood circulation to muscles. The repetitive massage strokes make the body think the area is too warm and therefore an increased blood supply is sent to this area. This is advantageous because it improves the venous return and waste removal following inevitable waste product build-up of toxins such as lactic acid post exercise and the muscle is better fed with nutrients and oxygen, keeping them healthy. In turn massage is beneficial because blood flow can circulate more easily in a relaxed muscle than one which is in spasm
  • Massage aids recovery from muscle strains, increases the rate of healing and reduces atrophy (wasting) of muscles. Minor muscle injuries can take up to 3 months for symptoms to become apparent by which time a more serious injury may have developed. If treated promptly, massage will release and soften the tense muscles tissues and reduce the stress being transmitted to surrounding soft tissue structures such as tendons and other muscle groups
  • It can be used as a preventative treatment to reduce the risk of injury due to muscle fatigue or strain as a result of physical stress and speed up the repair of damaged tissue
  • Massage is beneficial for rehabilitation cases or horses on a period of box rest or restricted work following injury because it reduces tension, maintains flexibility and improves muscle tone


This names just a few of the ways in which Equine Sports Massage can help your horse become more relaxed, happy and healthy. The technique involves a combination of massage strokes, stress point therapy and passive stretching to release and soften tense muscles. The various massage strokes are described below:


Stroking is a rhythmical light movement using relaxed hands, fingers or thumb tips. You can use one hand or both hands alternatively or together. Stroking is used to sooth, relax and calm the body by its effects on the nervous system. It is applied with light pressure in any direction but ideally it is performed in the direction that the horse’s coat lies.


Effleurage is the use of long, slow, rhythmic movements used to warm tissue, weave massage movements together or finish massage work by properly draining tissues of lymph. This movement can be superficial or deep depending on the amount of pressure applied. The effleurage stroke is always directed towards the heart (centripetal) to assist the natural flow of venous blood or towards lymph glands to aid lymph drainage and venous blood return.


Petrissage is a massage movement used once the soft tissues have been warmed up through stroking and effleurage. Petrissage consists of various techniques including kneading, muscle squeezing, picking-up, wringing and skin-rolling techniques. The soft tissues are compressed and released, applying pressure on deeper underlying muscles, tissues and structures.

Cross Fibre Friction

These movements are applied when very local work is required. This massage stroke can be performed using the fingers or thumbs back and forth transversely over the muscles fibres to break up adhesions, localised tension and scar tissue. These movements work deeply and therefore must be followed by effleurage and passive stretching.


This percussion technique is a dynamic, rhythmic technique which can be applied using one or two hands to perform hacking, cupping or pounding movements. This is a very useful technique to use on large areas of soft tissue such as gluteal muscles and the neck/shoulder areas. It triggers the release of endorphins, which are chemicals that relieve pain, allowing the therapist to work deeper into the area which would otherwise have been very sore to the horse.

Stress Point Therapy

Stress point therapy, which is also known as trigger point therapy, is a very effective technique in which direct, focal pressure is applied to a target area of muscle soreness/spasm which increases blood flow (hyperaemia) to the area; this is followed by cross fibre friction, to reduce adhesions and restore movement of the fibres, and effleurage, to thoroughly drain the area.

Contact Me:

Rachel Pople

Equine Physical Therapist

MSc (Animal Manipulation)

BSc (Biological Sciences)

Pg Dip (ESM)


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