Have you ever seen a pair of horses scratch each other and wondered why they do that? In this article, I’ll go through the reason behind the wither scratch and how it can influence your relationship with your horse.
Horses are social animals. Since horses are also prey animals, they have adopted sociality as a behavioural strategy – the benefits of sticking together outweigh the disadvantages . For instance, in the wild, horses must identify predators immediately. However, constant surveillance of their surroundings means that there is less time for eating. Therefore, horses that are in a herd can share vigilance and increase their feeding time. Herd life has resulted in ritualised interactions such as allogrooming . Horses can recognise, remember and understand relationships and social status within the herd and can form long-lasting relationships with other horses .
Allogrooming is “a form of caregiving through physical contact, typically where one animal uses its hands, mouth or another part of its body to touch another animal” . Many animals use this technique, including primates, birds, rodents, arthropods and, of course, ungulates . There are many varied benefits and reasons why animals use allogrooming however, it is usually for hygienic reasons or social benefit .
There have been several recent studies that suggest that allogrooming reduces stress within the horse. In 1993, Feh and De Maziѐres  found that the imitation of grooming at the horse’s preferred site significantly reduced their heart rate, indicating a reduction in stress levels. The heart rates were reduced on average by 11.4% for adults and 13.5% for foals  . A 2004 study  also demonstrated similar results. They found that horses during a massage experienced a significant reduction in heart rate, which was more significant when massage techniques were applied to allogrooming sites . Allogrooming was also found to be effective for stress relief in other species, such as primates, dogs, and cattle .
Many studies have concluded that the most effective allogrooming site is at the wither. Thorbergson et al  found that scratching the wither area for one minute will increase relaxation when the horse is under saddle. Other areas on the horse may be used for allogrooming, such as the hip and shoulder, though they are less effective .
Allogrooming is an important aspect of a horse’s wellbeing while also improving the horse/rider relationship. Equine Scientist Andrew McLean suggests that performing allogrooming with your horse can assist in forming and maintaining a strong relationship .
 Dierendonck, M 2006, The Importance of Social Relationships in Horses, Utrecht University
 Henderson, A 2018, ‘Keeping in Touch: Why horses nibble on each other’s withers or necks’, Horse Canada, July/August, pp. 40-41
 Russel, I 2018, ‘Allogrooming’, in Encyclopaedia of Animal Cognition and Behaviour, in J. Vonk & T.K Shackelford (eds.), Springer International Publishing
 Feh, C & De Maziѐres, J 1993, ‘Grooming at a Preferred Site Reduces Heart Rate in Horses’, Animal Behaviour, vol. 46, pp. 1191-1194
 McBride, S, Hemmings, A & Robinson, K 2004, ‘A Preliminary Study on the Effect of Massage to Reduce Stress in the Horse’, Journal of Equine Veterinary Science, vol. 24, no. 2, pp. 76 – 81
 Normando, S, Haverbeke, A, Meers, L, Ӧdberg, F.O, Ibáñez Talegón, M & Bono G 2003, ‘Effect of manual imitation of grooming on riding horse’s heart rate in different environmental situations’, Veterinary Research Communications, vol. 27, pp. 615-617
 Thorbergson, Z, Neilson, S, Beaulieu, R & Doyle, R 2016, ‘Physiological and behavioural responses of horses to wither scratching and patting the neck under saddle’, Journal of Applied Animal Welfare Science, vol. 19, no. 3, pp. 245-259
In this article I discuss some of the recent research that examines the perceived benefits of massage so you can make an informed decision about your horse’s welfare.
While first implemented as a training tool for human athletes, ‘…equine massage therapy is becoming a more common part of the management of equine athletes and pleasure horses alike’ . The reduction in pain, stress and muscle recovery time as well as an increase in flexibility and range of motion all enhances a horse’s ability to perform . However, while there is some evidence that suggests massage therapy may benefit human athletes, equine sports therapy is a relatively new area of study and as such, there is no consensus on whether massage has any benefit to the equine athlete. Here, I will discuss some of the conducted studies that suggest massage therapy has a positive effect on horses in terms of range of movement, the reduction of pain, stress and anxiety, and its effects on performance recovery. However, I will also indicate where studies have failed and where more need to be conducted before we can know for sure that massage has a positive effect on horses.
Flexibility and Range of Motion
In the equine massage industry, it is claimed that ‘massage increases a horses flexibility and range of motion’ . When a horse performs a manoeuvre outside of its range of motion, it is likely to cause damage to the ligaments and the surrounding muscle tissue . Therefore, a horse who has a larger range of motion and increased flexibility is less likely to injure itself and can perform better.
In 1962 a study was conducted by Nordschow and Beirman to assess the effects of neck and back massage on shoulder abduction and neck extension . However, the range of neck extension motion was limited by anterior muscles and ligaments and the bony contact between the spinous processes, and therefore was not a good outcome measurement for the effectiveness of massage in this study .
In 1999 another study of the effects of massage on range of motion was conducted by Leivadi et al . This study did not incorporate horses, instead using 20 university dance students . In the study, they compared students who had a massage to students who had done other warm-up activities such as stretching, before testing their range of motion . While the study did show an increase in flexibility for those students who were massaged beforehand, there are issues with the study as there was not an appropriate control group and the examiner was aware of who had been massaged, which created a bias in the results . While this study may be considered irrelevant to the discussion on the importance of massage in equine athletes, the lack of study done in the equine field means that data from human experiments needs to be transferred across.
Both of these studies have made it difficult for there to be any sort of conclusion on whether massage has any effect on the flexibility and range of motion in horses. However, in 2002 there was a horse-based study done on the effects of sports massage. Wilson  analysed a horse’s range of motion before and after massage by assessing their stride length compared to stride frequency, as well as measuring the size of the main muscles used in horse motion. She found that there was an increase in range of motion by the horses, denoted by increased stride length and decreased stride frequency . She also noted an increase in the ‘transverse diameter of all four muscle bellies and muscle tendon junctions’ . While previous studies provide inconclusive results, this recent study suggests that massage does benefit horses through increasing the flexibility and range of motion in horses.
For many years, ‘A variety of techniques and modalities, including massage, are used clinically to enhance recovery [and therefore reduce pain] after exercise induced muscle damage’ . However, the effectiveness of massage to reduce pain is still debated by many specialists.
Pain is difficult to evaluate in the equine industry, as horses are unable to communicate what they are experiencing . Despite this, a study done by Sullivan, Hill and Haussler  in 2008 attempted to objectively assess three common treatments for back pain in horses in order to identify which is more effective for relieving pain. They measured the effectiveness by using pressure algometry to measure mechanical nociceptive thresholds (MNTs) along the axial skeleton, with low MNTs indicative of reduced pain . The study found that massage therapy significantly reduced back pain in horses, with a daily single massage treatment increasing the number of MNTs over seven days . However, the authors of the study cautioned that, in humans, the effects of massage are reported to be psychological rather than physiological and so suggest that the increase in MNTs could be a result of reduced anxiety, rather than a reduction of pain .
A clinical review conducted in the same year analysed 27 studies in an attempt to determine ‘the effectiveness of sports massage for improving recovery after strenuous exercise’ . The 27 studies were made up of 17 case series and 10 randomised control trials (RCTs) and they represented a wide range of massage techniques . All of the studies were conducted on humans, not horses, due to the lack of horse-based studies in this area. The data from the case series revealed inconsistent results, with some studies indicating that massage did have some benefit, while others indicated that there was none . However, the analysis of the RCTs does provide moderate evidence that massage therapy was effective .
While there is some evidence to suggest that massage is an effective treatment for pain relief, it is also evident that more studies need to be done to fully understand how massage affects the equine body, and whether any effect in pain reduction is due to physiological effects or rather just a by-product of lowered anxiety levels.
Reduction of Stress and Anxiety
As mentioned, some theories suggest that massaging may result in a reduction in stress and anxiety. In the Oxford Dictionary of Psychology, stress is defined as ‘psychological and physical strain or tension generated by physical, emotional, social, economic, or occupational circumstances, events, or experiences that are difficult to manage or endure’ . While horses may not be under the same circumstances as humans are, and are unlikely to experience stress due to economic issues, as flight animals it is likely that horses have experienced stress, and to a larger extent anxiety, at one point or another.
In 2004, McBride and associates  experimented to determine if massage affected stress reduction in horses. They measured horses heart rate to determine the effect of massage at 6 different places on the horse, 3 of which are considered allogrooming sites which horses use as a form of social interaction and connection . They found that most sites indicated a reduction in heart rate, with the allogrooming sites having the greatest effect . They also found that allogrooming seems to have a reward or pleasure aspect, which allows the massage to have stress-reducing qualities . This suggests that massage does have some effect on the reduction of stress and anxiety levels in horses, but how long that effect lasts is an important element to consider that was not observed in the study.
In 2008, Moraska and associates  reviewed 25 studies to analyse the effects massage had on stress and anxiety in humans. They found that studies that used salivary cortisol and heart rate to measure effectiveness were consistently successful in reducing stress during a single treatment . However, the review also found that this reduction could not be sustained over time, though the beneficial effects of a single treatment could be repeated . This means that it is possible that massage does result in the reduction of stress and works to minimise anxiety, but these effects only last for a short length of time before the client returns to their original state. Lastly, the study also suggests that more research in this area needs to be conducted before reaching a definitive understanding of the effects of massage on stress and anxiety .
So, it seems likely that sports massage does positively influence stress and anxiety within horses, however it is unlikely that this influence has any lasting effects and more research needs to be conducted before reaching any conclusions.
Post Exercise Recovery
Another considered benefit of sports massage is its positive effects on post exercise recovery. It is suggested that ‘massage therapy immediately after exercise may lead to improved recovery and may reduce damaging effects to the muscle’ . In 2008 a study was conducted by Arroyo-Morales and associates  to investigate the effects of massage on heart rate variability and blood pressure after a repeated high-intensity cycling exercise. They found that a whole-body massage straight after exercise has a significant effect on heart rate and blood pressure, assisting the return of these parameters to pre-exercise levels . This suggests that sports massage does have a positive effect on post exercise recovery that is not directly related to muscle recovery.
Another study was released in 2008 by Butterfield and associates  that analysed the effects of compressive loading after eccentric exercise. This was done using rabbit legs, which they subjected to a round of eccentric contractions followed by compressive loading . Now, while this may seem unrelatable to what we are discussing, the compressive loading was used to mimic the compression techniques massage therapists use. The results indicate that compression directly after exercise will lead to enhanced recovery of muscle function . Therefore, massage post-exercise is likely to result in increased recovery both in muscle function and in heart rate and blood pressure. However, both of these studies suggest there is a need for more study in this area before a more definitive understanding can be reached.
In conclusion, there is no consensus on the effects of massage on horses. Many studies indicate that massage has a positive effect on range of motion, pain reduction, minimisation of stress and anxiety and post exercise recovery. However, it is clear that in all areas, more study needs to be conducted before any conclusive understandings can be drawn on how effective massage is. I believe massage to be important and worthwhile, but I also believe it is important to know what the research has to say before drawing conclusions. Unfortunately, research into this field is relatively new, so it is difficult for any true consensus to be made at this point.
 Scott, M & Swenson, LA 2009, ‘Evaluating the Benefits of Equine Massage Therapy: A Review of the Evidence and the Current Practices’, Journal of Equine Veterinary Science, vol. 29, no. 9, pp. 687 – 697
 Blackwell, J 2011, Massage Techniques, Equestricare, Australia
 Bromiley, M 2007, Equine Injury, Therapy and Rehabilitation, 3rd edn, Blackwell Publishing
 Weerapong, P, Hume, P & Kolt, G 2005, ‘The Mechanisms of Massage and Effects on Performance, Muscle Recovery and Injury Prevention’, Clinical Journal of Sports Medicine, vol. 35, no. 3, pp. 235 – 256
 Leivadi, S, Hernandez-Reif, M, Field, T, O’Rouke, M, D’Arienzo, S, Lewis, D, del Pino, N, Schanberg, S & Kuhn, C 1999, ‘Massage Therapy and Relaxation Effects on University Dance Students’, Journal of Dance Medicine & Science, vol. 3, no. 3, pp. 108 – 112
 Wilson, JA 2002, ‘The Effects of Sports Massage on Athletic Performance and General Function’, Massage Therapy Journal, vol. summer, pp. 90 – 100
 Best, T, Hunter, R, Wilcox, A & Haq, F 2008, ‘Effectiveness of Sports Massage for Recovery of Skeletal Muscle from Strenuous Exercise’, Clinical Journal of Sports Medicine, vol. 18, no. 5, pp. 446 – 460
 Sullivan, K, Hill, A & Haussler, K 2008, ‘The effects of chiropractic, massage and phenylbutazone on spinal mechanical nociceptive thresholds in horses without clinical signs’, Equine Veterinary Journal, vol. 40, no. 1, pp. 14 – 20
 Coleman, A 2015, ‘Stress’, in A Dictionary of Psychology, Oxford University Press, Oxford
 McBride, S, Hemmings, A & Robinson, K 2004, ‘A Preliminary Study on the Effect of Massage to Reduce Stress in the Horse’, Journal of Equine Veterinary Science, vol. 24, no. 2, pp. 76 – 81
 Moraska, A, Pollini, R, Boulanger, K, Brooks, M & Teitlebaum, L 2008, ‘Physiological Adjustments to Stress Measures Following Massage Therapy: A Review of the Literature’, eCAM, vol. 7, no. 4, pp. 409 – 418
 Arroyo-Morales, M, Olea, N, Martinez, M, Moreno-Lorenzo, C, Diaz-Rodriguez, L & Hidalgo-Lozano, A 2008, ‘Effects of Myofascial Release After High-Intensity Exercise: A Randomized Clinical Trial’, Journal of Manipulative and Physiological Therapeutics, vol. 31, no. 3, pp. 217 – 223
 Butterfield, T, Zhao, Y, Agarwal, S, Haq, F & Best, T 2008, ‘Cyclic Compressive Loading Facilitates Recovery after Eccentric Exercise’, Official Journal of the American College of Sports Medicine, pp. 1289 – 1296
Sometimes it can be difficult to know if your horse is sore or tight. Here I explain the technique palpation and how you can use it to improve your horse’s welfare.
What is Palpation?
Palpating is a technique that massage therapists use to identify muscles that we need to work on. Using our fingertips, we circle and zig-zag over certain muscles, looking for the 4 T’s: Tension, Temperature, Texture and Tenderness.
When muscles undergo too much stress, they can get tight and hard. This can be an easy one to identify on your horse as I’m sure at some point we’ve all felt sore, tight muscles after a day of long or difficult riding. Sometimes the muscles will spasm or twitch when pressure is applied to the tight area, and this can be an indication of a trapped or pinched nerve.
Muscles that are too hot or too cold is another indication of problems within the muscle. The normal external body temperature of a horse is around 36-38.5 degrees celsius so a muscle that feels warmer compared to other muscles could indicate that there are deeper issues, and a cooler muscle could indicate a reduction in circulation. I’m not suggesting you get out there with a thermometer, but it is a good idea to run your hands over your horse to check to see if you can feel any areas that are abnormal when it comes to temperature.
Texture refers to the density and elasticity of the muscles. This can be challenging to identify, but any muscles that feel stringy, lumpy, too soft or too hard should be looked at by a massage therapist.
This is simply how the horse reacts to the touch of your hands on a particular muscle or area. If you put your hands on the horses back and it jumps away from you, this could be an indication that the horse is uncomfortable there and may not want you putting any weight on it. It could also be a behavioural problem, which is why it is important to feel for all 4 T’s instead of just relying on one or two. It is also important to note that horses react in different ways, where one horse might jump away from you, another might try to bite you or maybe it will only just flick its ears back. It is important to know how your horse normally responds to stimuli so that you can know when they are trying to tell you they’re uncomfortable.
Areas to Palpate
So now that you know what you should be looking out for, the next question is: ‘where do I palpate?’ and the answer is: everywhere. It is important that you consistently run your hands over your horse, looking for any of the 4 T’s we’ve just discussed. If something feels wrong temperature-wise or if they move away from your touch, don’t be afraid to go over the area lightly with your fingers to see if you can find any tension or texture. Having said that, there are some areas that I use at the beginning of a massage to identify where they may need to work:
These muscles are right at the top of the head, behind the ears and part of the poll. Doing one side at a time, run your fingers along the muscle in a zig-zag motion with your thumb. Don’t be afraid to put a bit of pressure behind the movement, you want to be able to feel the muscles moving beneath your fingers.
This fun, dinosaur-sounding muscle covers the horse’s vertebra in their neck, so you need to be careful in this area. Starting at the top near the poll slowly work your way down the muscle, giving each vertebra a light squeeze.
3. Point of Shoulder
This is the bony part on the outside edge of the horse’s chest, at the front of the shoulder. When you palpate this area, make a circle around the muscle, noting if you feel anything different or if the horse reacts at any particular spot.
The triceps is the big muscle over the bottom half of the shoulder. As you may have guessed, it is made up of three muscles so have a feel around and see if you can find all three when you are palpating. To test for any potential soreness in this muscle, I draw a line with my thumb straight down from the top of the muscle to the bottom, and then another line from one side of the muscle to the other to make a cross.
5. Latissimus/Longissimus Dorsi
These are the big muscles along the back and so are arguably the most important muscles for massage, as they are the ones that carry us. To test this muscle, you’ll first need to find the shelf of ribs. Run your fingers from the top of the spine down towards the stomach and you should feel a hard line where the ribs start. Once you have found that, use it as a guide to do two rows of zig-zags, starting at the wither and ending just before the flank, at the last rib. Keep a close eye on the muscles for this one, as they will often twitch or move under pressure, which could suggest a pinched nerve.
6. The Last Rib
Did you know that the back of your saddle shouldn’t sit past the last rib? After that point is the lumbar section of a horse’s spine, and it is not as strong as the thoracic section and therefore cannot properly hold the weight of the saddle and rider. To test this area, simply run your fingers up the rib, starting at the end of the rib and working your way up to the spine. This area also suggested to be an ulcer point, and so a reaction in this area could be an indication of ulcers, though I would suggest checking other ulcer points and checking with your vet before jumping to conclusions.
7. Tuber Coxae
The tuber coxae is the pointy bone at the horse’s rump that is typically mistaken for the hip. To palpate this area, simply run your hands up and over the bone and press gently into the rump, as if you were continuing onto the other side of the bone inside the horse. This palpation is a little different to the others, as it is usual that you will get a back-dipping type reaction from the horse, if you don’t this could be a sign that a massage is in order.
The blue circle on my diagram is where the hip is actually located on the horse. To find this on your horse, run your hand from the flank towards the pointy part of the horse’s butt. Once you have located it, run your fingers around the area in a circle, similar to the point of shoulder, and watch for any reaction at a particular area.
The stifle is another palpation where a reaction is a good sign. You’ll need to put your hand on the stifle, at the top of the horse’s leg, and then run your fingers in a quick upward direction, from the hip to the top of the rump. You will need to put some pressure into this palpation, and the normal reaction will be for the stifle to feel like it jumps in your hand.
Palpation helps to identify if your horse requires a massage and it’s also great way to bond with your horse. It is important to go over these muscles on both sides of the horse, and note if there is a change from one side to the other. I hope this has helped you gain a deeper understanding of the way your horse functions, and that it makes you a better team.
Blackwell, J 2011, Basic Massage Techniques, Equestricare, Australia