Body Work

Body work includes massage, chiropractic, and acupressure. If you've ever had a massage, you know how good it can feel. The same is true for your horse. You can buy books that teach you how to give your horse a massage and that explain how chiropractic adjustments, acupressure treatments, and similar body work can help benefit your horse. If you think your horse might benefit from one or more of these therapies, discuss the notion with your veterinarian, who should be your first and foremost trusted advisor in all matters related to your horse's health.

Massage: Stress Point Therapy

The equine muscular system accounts for 60 percent of the horse's body weight and is responsible for movement. It is also the seat of most mobility problems, such as certain types of lameness and reduced range of motion and flexibility, which can diminish performance and cause discomfort. Whether your horse is a competitive athlete or accustomed to leisurely trail rides, it is likely that, at some point in his lifetime, he'll experience muscle strains and spasms.

Muscles create motion by contracting and folding over upon themselves. These folds then release so that the muscle can stretch to full length. Damaged, tight muscles cannot release completely. A muscle's ability to relax is reduced, and concussive stresses are transmitted down the line to other muscles, and finally to the tendons, which have limited flexibility and are thus vulnerable to serious, sometimes permanent, damage. Because the horse often compensates for a damaged part by increasing stress on a healthy part, restrictions in one area of the body can appear somewhere else. Adding massage therapy to your routine before you exercise your horse will help him maintain supple muscles and efficient motion and help avoid tendon damage and torn tissue.

The basis of Stress Point Therapy, used for decades by sports therapist Jack Meagher, is to locate and relieve the tight muscle that leads to the muscle spasm that leads to restricted motion before the muscle is torn. Spasms are areas of clumped attachment tissue that cannot release. They occur at the anchoring end of muscles, near the bone — the stress points for which this therapy is named.

Always consult a veterinarian any time your horse is ill, lame, or injured. If you're lucky enough to find a vet who is knowledgeable about the use of herbs and other holistic therapies, all the better for your horse.

The release process uses direct pressure from your fingers to dilate capillaries, cross-fiber friction to separate knotted muscle fibers, and compression with the heel of the hand or a loose fist to allow the entire muscle to relax and release the original spasm before exercise. Meagher's book, Beating Muscle Injuries for Horses, shows maps of all the stress points and specifics on identifying and correctly treating spasms and restrictions. It takes you through the process of identifying where motion is restricted, so you can provide the release that restores elasticity.

Chiropractic

Chiropractors focus on the relationship of the spinal column both to organic systems (nerves, organs, and immune system) and to the biomechanics of movement. The key approach in chiropractic is manipulation, and the key to success is the skill and training of the person using the technique.

The laws of biomechanics require that each part of the body interact with others precisely. When one part in the equine body loses its specific relationship with its coworkers, thousands of pounds of force can adversely affect the system. Long-term misalignments may be apparent in uneven muscle development or weight-bearing capacities. Even tiny structural changes can result in discomfort for the horse and will probably show up under saddle or in exercise.

Chiropractors use palpation — checking for pain or asymmetries with their hands — and flexion of the horse's limbs and joints to identify problem areas in the skeletal structure. Adjustments are made manually, using a brief thrust at specific locations or by manipulating the body of the horse to provide release in various joints. This should be a relatively gentle process, always without force, and it should be attempted only by someone who is well trained in the therapy.

Acupressure

Acupressure is an easy and rewarding therapy that you can use yourself to promote the well-being of your horse. The benefits seem to be so varied that you may decide to learn the basic principles and develop your skills. Acupressure is based on the meridian system at the heart of traditional Chinese medicine (TCM). Meridians are pathways in the body along which flow the energy that is considered vital to health, known as chi (sometimes spelled qi). In TCM, it is thought that any block or break along a meridian causes a chi imbalance that may appear as illness or discomfort. Therefore, the goal in TCM — and acupressure — is to maintain or repair interruptions in energy flow.

In TCM, the ear is considered a miniature representation of the entire body, making ear work useful to relax a tense horse or rebalance an injured or ill one. Rubbing the ears or forehead seems to help calm horses being shod or examined by a vet. Some basic ear massages involve gently rubbing the tips of the ears to help relax the horse and rubbing in circles at the base of the ear or on the forehead between the ears.

The meridian system contains twelve main meridians, each related to major organ systems. Other points outside the twelve meridians are also important to the strong flow of chi. Zidonis, Snow, and Soderberg's Equine Acupressure: A Working Manual is one good source for point location and provides a comprehensive overview and guidelines to using acupressure, including strategies for relieving many common problems.

Acupuncturists have used the Qi Gong Machine (QGM) in treatment for humans for years, and the device has now been proven effective with horses. Equisonic QGM is designed specifically for horses. The machine emits low-level (infrasonic) sound waves in the range of 8–14 hertz, at the opposite frequency range from ultrasound (20,000–100,000 hertz). Studies have shown that during hands-on healing, qi gong healers emit frequencies in this range. Because tissues do not heat up and there are no side effects, the QGMs can safely be used by anyone. It has helped provide relief or aid recovery in horses suffering from fractures, laminitis, chronic and acute inflammation, sprains, tendon damage, colic, puncture wounds, and navicular disease. Again, this approach may sometimes serve as a useful adjunct treatment, but it should not replace conventional medicine for these or other conditions.

The relationship between the acupoints and their effects may seem strange at first if you aren't used to Chinese therapies — the points used to relieve symptoms are often located at a distance from the apparent site of injury or illness.

Basic acupressure is typically done by gently applying and releasing between two and four pounds of pressure with the thumb to stimulate points. Watch your horse as you work to see whether you need to reduce pressure. He should relax, not tense, with your touch. Often, the horse's lips, chin, or eyelids will quiver as relief flows. He may yawn repeatedly. Work both the left and right sides of the horse from front to rear and top to bottom. Significant improvements are often immediately apparent, making acupressure a valuable adjunct to other more conventional therapies, improving recovery time and outcomes.

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