Horse Massage Blog

Bringing a horse back into work

May 2015

When you are bringing your horse back into work after a rest, it is very important to consider their muscle strength as well as their their cardiovascular fitness. 

In general, people are pretty good at this (there will always be exceptions to the rule).  They start with one to two weeks of mainly walking, building up from 10mins-30mins and then they introduce trot and canter quite slowly, followed by maybe some jumping work.  But people often don’t understand why?  Well it’s about this thing called conditioning.

Conditioning eases the muscles into work as well as starts slowly building the cardiovascular fitness and bone density up.  

I mean, think about it yourself, how would you feel if you came back from a four week holiday in Bali where all you did was lie by the pool, drink a number of cocktails and gorge yourself on the amazing food, and then two days back your personal trainer has you doing 20minutes of squats followed by 20minutes on the treadmill?  I think you would be complaining... loudly!!  I know I would.  So why should we expect our horses to do the same?  We need to condition them for what we expect them to do.

But what conditioning also does is prepare the brain…prepare the brain you say?  Most certainly!

Muscles in the body contract when they receive signals from motor neurons, which are triggered from a part of the cell called the 'sarcoplasmic reticulum'. Motor neurons tell your muscles to contract and the better you become at having those signals tell your muscles to contract, the stronger you can get.  Conditioning helps these motor neurons function in the way you want them to.  For instance, do you want to condition your horse for endurance work or showjumping?  Both of these require very different muscle strengths. 

It also helps to explain why, after practice, certain movements become easier to perform.

I regularly see people turn their horses out for a spell and then within a week of them being back in work they have them out in the arena daily working on flying changes or gridwork etc… and they think nothing of it because the horse puts up with it (most of the time).  But really what you are doing without noticing is creating micro damage to the tissues.  They are starting to undergo strain and tearing at a microscopic level. 

“But my instructor told me that muscles grow by tearing and then laying down new stronger fibres” you say.  This is true in a sense, but what you are doing is over damage.  This process where your body repairs or replaces damaged muscle fibres by fusing them together to form new myofibrils actually happens in the rest phase.  So when you are conditioning your horse the rest phase is just as important even more so then the exercise phase.  And this doesn’t just include rest days, but rest periods during your workout, and is one of the reason why a good warm up and cool down are so vitally important.

So how do muscles actually grow?  Muscle growth occurs whenever the rate of muscle protein synthesis is greater than the rate of muscle protein breakdown.  (Which means you actually need to feed for muscle growth).  And there are three main ways in which we can help this to happen.

  1. Muscle tension – This is achieved by applying a stress greater then the horse has done previously in it’s conditioning program.  This might be a longer ride, a higher jump, a more concentrated bout of lateral work.  But in order to reduce damage it needs to be introduced incrementally.
  2. Muscle damage – This is what we talked about previously.  Have you ever felt sore after a workout?  This is because of the muscle damage that has occurred from putting your body under stress.  The same thing happens to the horse.  But they can’t go and have a nice relaxing bath, so we as riders need to manage it with liniments, massage, rest days etc… We also need to condition them for it by building them up slowly, otherwise the rate of damage will far exceed the rate of repair.
  3. Metabolic Stress – This is what is affected by our cardiovascular work.  Metabolic stress causes cell swelling around the muscle, which helps to contribute to muscle growth without necessarily increasing the size of the muscle cells. This is from the addition of muscle glycogen released through anaerobic respiration (glycolysis), which helps to swell the muscle along with connective tissue growth.  We achieve this by doing aerobic activities such as interval training like canter sets, and cross training such as taking the dressage horse galloping, or over a grid of cavaletti’s. 

 The other aspect that you need to consider with your horses, that is different to people (and why you need to be careful about taking advice on exercise programs for horses written by human pt’s) is that we sit on their back.  This adds a whole new dimension to a conditioning program, because not only do we need to condition the muscles to perform the tasks we desire, and condition the cardiovascular system, but we need to condition the locomotive back muscles to handle carrying the weight of the saddle and rider, and this is the most forgotten aspect of the horse!

Often I have people tell me that they are slowly building their horse’s fitness up after time off by doing lots of walking under saddle;  20, 30, 40 minutes.  This is great for their conditioning, only they haven’t had the weight of a rider for a while, so whilst other muscles may be building, the back muscles are probably struggling seriously.  We need to condition the back muscles first and foremost and this can be done via hand walking, long reining and short periods under saddle.

Then the last thing you need to think about is bone density.  It has long been recognized that bone density is related to the amount of strain to which it's subjected.  The greater the load, the larger the bone mass, but the reverse is also true.  A decreased strain will result in a reduction in bone mass, and this happens when your horse has time off.  An incremental return to work program will help increase the bone density of the horse as well.

So if you take nothing else away from this, please take the fact that any return to work program should always start with hand walking first and build gradually.

posted by Jessica Blackwell | 0 Comments

What makes a massage therapist good....

Mar 2015

Something I hear often as I putter about my days is some form of the following conversation... and indeed have heard it about myself!
" Madonna? Yeah I have used her, I think the horse liked it but I didn't really see a change/only went well for a day/nice enough but a waste of money."
Equine therapists can only be as good as 3 things, their education and training, how easy the horse is to work with on the day, and the owners ability to absorb recommendations and follow up on them.
Getting an equine therapist out to you horse is NOT a magic wand to turn Pegasus from a average riding hack into Valegro!

Lets look at the 3 key points in greater detail.

Education and training: Different modalities teach different things, and many therapists in Australia are one of several variations of soft tissue massage therapists, though they may have other tools available such as redlight, kinesiology tape and basic saddle fitting skills. This can limit their ability to address the whole horse, it doesn't mean they are a bad therapist just that the issue your horse has may not be soft tissue related.

Horse Manners: It is very hard to conduct a good body work session of any kind if the horse is fidgeting, pawing, constantly moving around, unwilling to pick up feet, calling out to paddock buddies and generally not happy to be interacted with. Now, I know some horses are babies, some horses are in discomfort and some are just naturally a little scatterbrained, but please, to help everyone get the best they can out of a session prepare for success. If your horse doesn't like being in the stable on its own, bring up a friend or even 2. If you know its learning to pick up its feet or has a history of nipping, kicking etc, please tell the therapist so they can work with your horse. A quick run over with a brush is welcome too. Therapists want to work with your horse, not against them.

Owner Assistance: As much as we therapists might like to think it, we are not Gods! Because of this, we cant make something better in one session, sometimes it requires you the owner to do some follow up work. This might be checking saddle fit, contacting a vet, doing exercises and stretches. If you don't do things that are suggested, then it is very possible that you will not see a lasting improvement in your horse. After all, isn't stupidity doing something over and over yet expecting a different result?

Keep these 3 points in mind next time you engage the services of a therapist, and engage in conversation with them about what you feel you need, what you expect, and how you would like them to help you and you may be surprised the wealth of information that you get in return.

Kirsty Swinton - Lecturer

posted by Jessica Blackwell | 0 Comments

How do I know what therapy is for me?

Aug 2013

Someone emailed me today and asked how I knew which therapy to pick, and why are some better then others & what makes our course special!

I get asked this a bit so I thought I would include it here:

"I completely know where you're coming from as I myself was in the same boat with my own performance horses whilst at uni!

I actually studied Horse Massage at TAFE whilst at university so that I could keep my own horses pain free and supple whilst competing.  I really enjoyed it but never considered a career in it.
It was actually whilst I was doing my second degree that I did my thesis in Sports Therapies for Horses, because like you I felt that there were so many, how do you know what works etc.....
The conclusion I gained from this after looking at Massage, Bowen, Myofascial Release, Chiropractors, Osteopaths, Acupuncture, Physiotherapists, MFR, Equine Touch etc  is that what it really depends on is the issue at hand and the practitioner.  I think that there are a lot of issues that suit certain therapies over others, and of course some practitioners just aren't any good!

After completing this study I believed that there was a huge gap over here in WA in the sports therapy industry and I set about getting experience in using different tools such as ultrasounds and cold lasers as well as qualifications in other fields of therapy such as bodywork, myofascial release and red light.  I set up my business and really focused on injury rehabilitation and performance horses.  Coming from a Biology background I have a very good grasp of anatomy, and how the cellular processes of the body work etc and I found this fascinating.  I had probably been treating horses for around 5yrs when it occurred to me that people regularly asked how they could do what I did.

I have studied at Murdoch Uni, Charles Sturt Uni, Marcus Oldham, and under Equinology, National College of Traditional Medicine, Dr Kellon, and TAFE (plus I have the curriculum's of other courses) and I was well aware as a practising therapist what the pro's and con's of each course were as far as real life skills go!  So I set about writing my own course that I hoped covered everything and then to get it approved.  Our course is approved by the IICT which recognises it for insurance purposes and also through the Equine Therapies Association of Australia which is just in the set up process."

Hope that helps a tad :)

Kind Regards

Jessica Blackwell Lloyd

posted by Jessica Blackwell | 0 Comments

Why backs need to be strong

Jul 2013

Why backs need to be strong

By Kelly Leonard

The horse’s back these days is used in an un-natural way. We as humans have made a choice to sit on a horses back, putting weight on an area that has not been designed to bear weight, and has not yet adapted to this concept.

The horses back resembles a ‘bridge’. If this bridge is not strong enough for the weight it has been forced to carry, then it is going to ‘break’ (become injured, inflicting pain). As we have made this conscious decision to ride horses, I believe it is our duty to insure that the horse is in capable condition to carry this extra weight, as to not cause harm to the horse. The wellbeing of the horse should be of highest priority, and if it is going to be compromised by placing a saddle and rider on its back then this action should be ceased, until appropriate strength is obtained.

The horses back is made up of the spine which is supported by muscles, ligaments and the abdominal muscles. If the supporting structures become strained, tight, stressed or are compromised in any way, it will impact the entire body, as the horse attempts to avoid the pain. A sore back can cause temperament changes, an uncooperative horse, and reduction in performance, along with many other issues.

The ribcage also provides support, as it is attached to the thoracic vertebrae. Between these ribs are the Intercostal muscles that help aid breathing, crucial to the health of the horse. Another muscle that is important when looking at the back is the Longissimus dorsi muscle. It is the longest and strongest muscle in the horse’s body, and is the muscle that the rider sits on.

Back pain can be caused by an ill fitting saddle, poor riding technique, lack of conditioning, overworking, accidents, lameness, and many more reasons. It causes the animals welfare to be compromised, can be costly, and you are unable to ride the horse for a period of time (this could be long or short term) and can be detrimental if it is you relied source of income.

If the horses back is sore and you saddle him up and ride then the horse may associate this pain with riding, causing more behavioural issues in the future. 

It is therefore important for us to keep our horses backs supple and strong, so that it can support the saddle and rider. Keeping it in this condition will decrease the chance of injury.

posted by Jessica Blackwell | 0 Comments

Awards Again

Jun 2013


Perth, Australia, June 27th, 2013. Jessica Blackwell, a well know business entrepreneur in the horse industry of Australia has done it again.

After being named Telstra’s 2010 Most Innovative Business Woman at the 2010 Business Woman’s Awards, her business is once again a finalist. This time in the 2013 Telstra Business Awards.

“I think if you have passion, dedication and determination, then anything you set out to do is possible”, Jessica states.

Jessica owns and operates Equestricare, a multi faceted Equine Sports Therapy Business that offers Sports Therapy Services, Educational Resources, Workshops, a Certificate in Equine Sports Massage and a variety of Therapeutic Products for Horses. The business has been operating since 2006 and has increased in size ten fold since it’s conception.

Equestricare is leading the way for Equine Businesses with more then 13 Awards under their belts, at both state and national level, a feat not achieved by any other equine related business in Australia.

Jessica says she owes her success to her clients who have supported her since she initially set out to shake up an industry. “I couldn’t have done it without them, without the support of the people around me we would not be where we are today”.

We wish her all the best at the awards which are to be held on the 23rdof July at the Convention & Exhibition Centre.



If you would like more information please contact Jessica Blackwell or Equestricare at:

1300 378 768

37 Swanley St

Marangaroo WA 6064


Or Media Contact for Telstra, Jonathan Rose

0418 101 454

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