Horses May Benefit from Massage

Horses May Benefit from Massage
Debranne Pattillo massages Gentle Touch, a Kellogg Arabian horse.
Charlie, an Arabian horse, walks on a treadmill after getting a treatment.
The research project studies the effect of massage on horses.

Professional athletes rely on regular conditioning and therapy, from strength building to stretching to sports massage, to improve their performance. A research study at Cal Poly Pomona has set out to show that horses are no different.

The university's Equine Research Center recently partnered with the International Equine Body Worker Association (IEBWA) to study the effect of massage on horses. Researchers observed all aspects of the horses' stride, such as stride duration and time of contact (when the hoof hits the ground).

“This is a great opportunity for our animal & veterinary science students to gain some research experience, especially veterinarian applicants,” says Holly Greene, a research technician.

During the study, four horses from the W.K. Kellogg Arabian Horse Center were given a 90-minute full-body massage by Debranne Pattillo, a certified master equine body worker. While the horse is standing, Pattillo uses a range of massage techniques, from applying pressure on some areas to stretching out muscles.

After resting for 30 minutes, the horses walked and ran on a modern, high-speed treadmill. Researchers collected data on the horses' strides from three treadmill speeds using a digital video camera and computer software that will be compared with control data collected previously.

With just anecdotal evidence and little scientific data on the benefits of equine massage, IEBWA sought a partnership with Cal Poly Pomona for the pilot test. The Equine Research Center has a successful track record in physiology and locomotion research.

Undergraduate students in the Animal & Veterinary Sciences department conditioned the horses to the treadmill for five weeks before the test. Christina Goschin, Vihaney Gonzalez, Cory Martinez and Nick Roca assisted in data collection, monitored the horses' heart rate and adjusted treadmill speeds.

Body treatments are sometimes given to horses that compete in dressage, jumping or barrel events, according to Marilyn Garbutt, director of research and development for IEBWA.

“In the field, we do see a benefit to the horses' wellness and health. Clients report less anxiety, better overall performance and more relaxation during competition,” she says.

Greene expects the initial study will lead to further research of the effects of horse massage. “Our hope is to move to the next level and look at the other benefits. How does it affect forces that are generated in the limbs during exercise? Does it enhance the range of motion in the joints? In addition, there is the potential of conducting the massage therapy on horses that have gait abnormalities.”

The study and its preliminary results have been submitted for consideration to the eighth annual International Conference on Equine Exercise Physiology, which will be held in Cape Town, South Africa, in November 2010.