Sore aching muscles, stiff joints, overall tired body– these are some general symptoms that our equines feel a lot more often than you probably think. Being ridden places strain on the back, a large body part that isn’t directly supported by the four legs. Even if you’re not training for the showring, regular riding can inflict general soreness. And if you are a competitor, you know the damage that can be done due to ill-fitting tack, unbalanced or insensitive riding, or increasing the workload.

Massage therapy is one go-to method that not only feels good, but can also detect when a horse is in real pain. Marnie Raymond has been an Ontario-based certified equine massage therapist for 18 years; she works hand-in-hand with the vets at McKee-Pownall Equine Services and she is also an upper-level dressage rider. She sat down with Horse-Canada to explain the work she does, as well as some other tools in her toolbox.

Horse Canada: How can an owner tell if their horse needs equine massage therapy or would benefit from it?

Marnie Raymond: Truth be told, any horse will benefit – who doesn’t love a good massage? Some owners use massage almost as a treat because the horse has been really good and they want to pamper it. But in terms of needing the work, you’re going to want to look at a difference in how they’re reacting to you day-to-day.

Let’s say your horse really loves the currycomb and all of a sudden, you’re using it and he’s putting his ears back when you’re going over certain areas. Or doing up the girth has never been a problem, but all of a sudden, your horse is girthy. These types of physical reactions are the only way they have to tell you something’s hurting. You need to pay attention to these little cues.

Marnie and her mare Hottie (Haute Couture). (photo courtesy Marnie Raymond)

How often should a horse receive this therapy?

It’s a loaded question! If you’ve got an acute injury, such as a horse that has experienced trauma, or I come out because an owner has told me something’s not right, that’s going to take more than one treatment. I’d say weekly. Now if it becomes more chronic, maybe we’ll look at bi-weekly. I want to see how well the work I’ve done is holding up over two weeks. If I come back two weeks later, and it’s helped really nicely, then we can start pushing it out.

If I’ve got a horse in an intense training program that’s working really hard, it’s in the middle of show season, we might want to consider one to two weeks again. But maintenance for the average horse that’s going well and hasn’t experienced trauma, you’re looking at four to six weeks – that’s my happy maintenance schedule.

What is the most common issue or issues that you find with riding horses?

Poorly-fitting tack is number one on the list. It is so important that those saddles fit. It’s important that those bits fit, too, as those also to affect a back. When I’m talking to people about a saddle not fitting, I say, imagine you put on a pair of shoes that don’t fit your feet and now you’re going for a run. It’s not going to feel good and it’s going to have a long-term effect on how you run. You’re going to be running differently and things are going to start to hurt. It’s the same principle.

I’m a big believer in fitting all tack and bits are as important as the saddle. The head is connected to the sacrum. So as soon as you’ve got a head resisting, you’ve got a back resisting, it goes through the entire horse. So fit your bits! Bad footing is another big player for me. I’m not just talking about the riding surface, but also turnout. Deep, firm, uneven, slippery, frozen surfaces will all impact how a horse moves and how its body responds.

You use different pulsed electromagnetic field therapy (PEMF) treatments. Can you explain what that is and how it’s used?

There are PEMF machines with long hoses that go over the body, or the blanket/cuff form like Bemer. The basics behind the PEMF machine is that it helps horses recover at the cellular level. It sends a pulsed electromagnetic field within the tube and when it pulsates it pulls damaged cells to the surface and helps recover those cells. The electromagnetic charge stimulates the metabolism of the cell, so it oxygenates your red blood cells and helps with pain, inflammation and helps you recover faster. And then the Bemer blanket works more on increasing microcirculation and vasomotion and the parasympathetic processes in the body; it improves muscular back pain and so improves movement and range of motion.

Is PEMF something that you would use on every horse, or is there a specific use for this kind of therapy?

I like it in conjunction with my massage. I think there’s a time and a place for each version of PEMF depending on the horse and the issue I’m treating. If you’ve got a tendon injury or ligament injury or particular kinds of fractures, I’m going to rely on my PEMF machine. Bemer is also useful for this, but adds improved circulation and microcirculation and soothes the parasympathetic nervous system. What I use personally just depends on the scenario. I’m lucky to have both technologies at my disposal.

Can you talk about equine physio taping?

There’s specific tape for horses and the adhesive is a bit stronger because they’re dirty and they roll around in mud and it rains and you want it to last as much as possible, but essentially the principles are the same.

First, it’s really important to know your anatomy and physiology when it comes to taping. You need to know which direction muscles work, what movement and body parts they support, where they originate, and where they insert. You apply the tape with varying amounts of stretch depending on what you’re looking for, and you have a recoil once you let it go, and that’s going to lift up the skin and the hair. What that does is increase the space in between the skin and the tissue underneath, so that’s going to allow for more blood flow and more lymph fluid flow. It’s going to help wash out waste products and bring new blood and lymph in there. It’s also relieving pressure on all the underlying layers, which will give you pain relief, increase circulation, and support the muscle. And depending on how you tape, you can support the muscle activity or you can tape a muscle to relax it.

I use taping in conjunction with bodywork or physiotherapy; it’s a supportive therapy for me. If I find I’ve got a tight back that I can only do so much for that session, by taping it, it’s going to help support it for another two weeks until I can come back. It really makes a big difference, and it can enhance what I’ve already done.