The Importance of Bodywork for the Healthy Horse
The equine athlete is incredible. Whereas our four-legged partners used to be used for work and war, mankind now enjoys a more leisurely relationship with them. Still, the working cowboy and the elite professional horseman require their horses to perform fantastic maneuvers. When every second counts, a sore horse could be the difference between losing a style point or winning a professional rodeo. Just as any professional human athlete requires methods of bodily recovery, so do horses need bodywork to perform at their best.
The field of equine bodywork is vast, consisting of various disciplines that include massage, stretching, myofascial work, chiropractic, and more. The field of chiropractic medicine is reserved for Doctors of Veterinary Medicine, or Doctors of Chiropractic with the proper animal training and certification, but it is important to understand that the purpose of all bodywork (done well) is tension relief. Though the equine massage therapist may not be performing adjustments like the chiropractor, both approaches help lead to the same result: a more aligned horse.
While the chiropractor uses a direct approach to adjusting the skeletal system, the massage therapist works to stretch, and manipulate muscles into a more relaxed state, which invites the joints surrounding the muscles to align themselves. Acknowledging the complementary relationship between the muscular system and the skeletal system is important, and clients often find that muscle work leads to longer lasting results. However, all bodywork has its benefits, and for the purposes of this article, we will use the term “bodywork” to encompass all disciplines mentioned above.
For understanding overall equine health, viewing the horse in a holistic sense is key. Like humans, we must see that all systems work together, and when one fails, it negatively impacts another. For example, stomach ulcers may lead to tension around the lower thoracic spine and surrounding muscles. Vice versa, a poorly postured lower back could lead to kidney, colon, or ovarian malfunction. Regular bodywork is a crucial part of a healthy equine athlete’s regimen, but one cannot discount nutrition, veterinary work, farriery, and dental work, to name a few. All must work together for the optimal horse.
With over 11 years of experience in the equine bodywork industry, one of my favorite parts of my niche is the diagnostics involved in working with rodeo and western sports athletes. For example, if a barrel racer tells me that her horse is “shouldering in” at the second barrel, I may need to check on muscular tension in the left shoulder. If a tie-down horse used to stop hard but is now stopping poorly, I may seek out an imbalance in the pelvic region. If I believe a problem must be addressed by a veterinarian, I let my client know, but nine times out of ten, I am able to provide noticeable results. Once the issues are resolved, the horse should once again have the mobility to perform at an elite level. The greatest outcome is when we can return a horse to his winning ways.
Gone are the days of believing that a horse can “fix themselves” with any amount of turnout time. Of course, rest is crucial for any horse in certain seasons, but a horse that is turned out with one issue may come back with that singular issue compounded into more. One small area of tension can lead to muscular atrophy, loss of blood flow, nervous system malfunction, and loss of coordination that may lead to more serious injury if not addressed.
The equine industry reached an unprecedented threshold three years ago, and is still maintaining its height. Great horses are now worth equally great money, and it is foolish to risk one’s investment by ignoring a simple problem, fixable with bodywork, until it turns into a serious injury and large vet bill.
Regular equine bodywork increases longevity in the life and career of your horse, prevents injury, maintains peak fitness, and optimizes mobility. Put simply, it helps a horse be the best he can be. The small investment–usually the cost of a set of shoes or less–is well worth it in the long run.
Written By: Kaycee Monnens Cortner
Kaycee Monnens Cortner is an equine bodyworker, specializing in the treatment of the western performance and working ranch horse. She enjoys optimizing performance in and out of the arena to help elongate careers and time spent with equine friends. Cortner enjoys helping on the ranch, breakaway roping on a professional and amateur level and has recently picked up a head rope. She lives on the historic LU Ranch in Wyoming with her husband. You can follow her Facebook page at Outta Line Equine : Kaycee Cortner.