What is sports massage and how does it differ from other forms of massage therapy? 

There are many different types or modalities of massage therapy.  To name a few, you may recognize terms such as myofacial, craniosacral, Swedish, Feldenkrais, trigger point, neuromuscular.  Although a bit different with each method, the end goal is the same.  Get to the source of the problem, let the body free to repair itself and prevent further injury.  Sports massage logic and technique was developed by Jack Meagher (pronounced Mar) more than 40 years ago.  A massage therapist for two United States equestrian teams, NFL athletes, world championships both here and abroad, he split his work weeks between horses and humans.

Sports massage is based on combining the physics of motion and physiology of motion.  It was developed for sports.  It considers anything less than maximum efficiency to be a problem and the lead in to a more serious one.  It goes beyond the problem itself to the underlying cause. 

Sports massage is designed to improve athletic performance by increasing muscle response and flexibility.  The goals are to alleviate muscle tension, remove lactic acid, increase pain threshold, increase flexibility and stimulate circulation.

How does equine sports massage work?

Equine sports massage utilizes non-invasive, hands on techniques to reduce muscular fatigue, tension and stress: the primary causes of muscular problems.  These hands on techniques, developed for use on human athletes, accomplish this by increasing circulation and diminishing muscular spasms which result from repetitive training and the rigors of competition.  It allows the muscular system to maintain a healthy tensional state for optimum performance without the injury factor.

Where does sports massage fit in?

There are mysterious problems with horses.  Problems that many times are not clear after being checked, scoped, x-rayed - the horse is still off .  There was no accident or illness but still he refuses a lead change, fatigues early in his workouts, can not canter a circle or turn that last barrel.  His attitude and even behavior may change.

The unexplained problems outnumber accidents, ask any horse owner.  They have no visible symptoms.  The veterinarian may have diagnosed a problem, treated it but still the horse has not recovered his full capabilities.

The muscular system can be the entire cause of the problem.  60% of the horse’s total body weight is the muscular system and is responsible for motion.  When that system has been compromised, mysterious problems arise.

Let me emphasize here that when a problem arises it is mandatory to require and utilize the veterinary diagnosis before speculating a problem exists otherwise.  Massage therapists do not diagnose and sports massage is not an alternative to veterinarian medicine.  There is no alternative to proper treatment.

Sports massage is adjunctive therapy which can be an extremely useful treatment to complement the care and management of injury and trigger the body’s ability to help itself back to health.

Physiology of Muscle Problems

What is the function of the muscular system?

  • Support of the skeleton system.
  • Individual muscles generate a pulling force from both ends to their center by contracting.
  • Muscles are attached to bone and act as levers to do work.
  • All skeletal muscles are attached by tendons to at least two bones and span at least one joint.  One attachment is the origin and the other is the insertion.

What are muscles composed of?

  • Individual microscopic strands of fibers composed of collagen bound together in compartments and surrounded by connective tissue.

What happens when a muscle is strained?

  • Individual fibers tear end to end through over stress.

What is a spasm?

  • The residual effect of a muscle strain as the body repairs the damage by laying down random patterns of collagen to begin the healing process.  This random pattern is what is known as scar tissue.

What are the reasons muscular injuries occur?

  • Overexertion
  • Fatigue
  • Sudden off movement
  • Cold starts

What long term problems do muscular injuries cause?

  • Decrease of circulation inhibiting oxygen to muscles thereby increasing lactic acid in the muscles.
  • Limitation of movement and flexion, range of motion.

What can be done to prevent muscular injuries?

  • Keep the muscular system in a healthy tensional state.
  • Warm up prior to exercise.
  • Stretching.

How do muscular injuries affect performance?

  • Increase stress on other muscles through chain reaction.
  • Limit range of motion.
  • Affects endurance.

Psychological influence on the horse of long term muscular problems.

  • Natural inclination to protect injured area long after injury has healed.
  • Injuries affect the alignment of the horses body and how it carries itself.
  • Have the confidence to fully exert the body without injury.

How long the therapeutic session is depends on how many issues in the body, how quickly the body responds to treatment and most importantly the body’s tolerance level.  Both the horse and his tissue will be very clear and express when enough is enough manipulating problem areas. 

Most often one session will not be sufficient to work out all the knots and adhesions.   The longer standing or more chronic the problems, the longer it takes the body to accept release and clear these areas.   The session will end with a series of stretches and leave the horse in a relaxed state physically and emotionally. 

Following the session the horse does not need to be exercised as the muscular system has already had an hour or more of work.   What is ideal is to allow the horse to walk and stretch naturally on turn-out.   The body continues movement which provides for continual increased circulation to eliminate the metabolic wastes that have been freed from the tissues during the session. 

The body then has greater ability to maintain flexibility and not become sore the day following deep tissue manipulation.  It is not uncommon for the rider to describe the horse to be like a loose rubber band for days following a session.  The goal is to keep fluid and flexible movement and achieve optimal performance in a healthy state!

Benefits of Massage / Contraindications for Massage


Vascular System
  • Manually increases blood flow which increases cellular nutrition.
  • Activates reflex vasodilation which decreases edema.
  • Increases diameter and permeability of capillaries which increases toxin removal from muscles and decreases muscle soreness.
  • Decreases muscle fatigue and pain.
  • Increases metabolism and work capacity.

Muscular System

  • Relaxes muscular system.
  • Increases flexibility.
  • Manually separates muscle fibers.
  • Decreases undesired adhesions and spasms.

Skeletal System

  • Aids fracture healing by increasing retention of nitrogen, sulphur and phosphorous.


  • Recent surgery
  • Open wounds
  • Edema
  • Fever
  • Hematomas
  • Non-Union fractures
  • Ringworm

Definitions of Massage Techniques

Tapotement - Any series of brief blows.  The prizefighter massage.  Utilized for stimulation.  Prior to completion.

Petrissage - Consists of kneading manipulations which press and roll the muscle under the hands.  In given instances it will help to free adhesions and assists in venous return and serves to Amilk the muscle of waste products@.

Effleurage - Any stroke that glides over the skin without attempting to move the deep muscle masses.  Deep effleurage will provide a passive stretch to muscles or muscle groups.  Used to accustom the horse to the touch of the therapist and allows the therapist to feel for areas of spasm and soreness.  Usually used to begin massage and move from one area to the next.

Compression - A rhythmic pumping action used to manually flush the muscle of waste products by pumping fresh blood into the tissue.  Can be used for pre or post event and to warm up the muscle prior to deeper work.

Cross Fiber - Friction is performed by small circular movements with the tips of the fingers, the thumb, or the heel of the hand according to the area to be covered.  Used to penetrate into the depth of the tissue, not by moving the fingers on the skin but by moving the tissue under the skin.  Friction is used to massage deep into the joint spaces or around bony prominences such as the patella.  It is especially useful around a well-healed scar to break down adhesions between the skin and tissue which are beneath it.

Deep Friction - Transverse friction is used to forcibly broaden muscle fibers particularly fibers of attachment of muscle into bone where the vicinity of stationary tissue restricts the mobility of adjacent muscle.

Neuro Muscular Therapy - N.M.T. is the application of direct pressure to certain points of the individual muscles to relieve muscular tension.