Tack n' Talk

Online Equestrian Resource

Managing Equine Back Pain With Massage

By:  Larissa Cox

How many of you have looked at your horse knowing that he’s just quite not right, not able to bend, is slightly “off” and wondering what may be the cause.  I am sure that this has happened to each and everyone of us….now if only horses could talk! 

Just like us humans, horses too suffer from sore, tense muscles and depending  upon what discipline you are riding, often the same muscle groups are affected.  Let’s quickly review the discipline stresses that can be placed on your horse’s muscle groups.  Below is a list of particular disciplines, along with the muscle areas most impacted in that competition.

  • Hunter/Jumper  poll, shoulder, T-1
  • Dressage –  neck, shoulder, point of hip
  • Arabian/Saddlebred/Morgan – poll, tricep, stifle
  • Thoroughbred Race Horse/UK –  right shoulder, left hind
  • Thoroughbred Rac Horse/USA – left shoulder, right hind
  • Standardbred Trotter –  left shoulder, right hind
  • Standardbred Pacer– left side
  • Driving/Pleasure/Competition –  deltoid, pectoral, gluteus
  • Western Gaming Horse – serratus thoracis, semimembranosus
  • Reining Horse –  entire top line
  • Endurance Horse – shoulder, back, semimembranosus
  • Three-Day Event Horse  – all of the above


Above you’ll see an image of the muscle groups and in the chart below,  I have provided a brief explanation of those muscle groups with their purpose, cross referenced by number.

1.       Rectus Capitus Lateralis Allows the head to flex and incline side to side
2.       Splenius Allows the neck to bend
3.       Multifidus Cervicus (deep) Allows the neck to flex and the head to rotate to the opposite side
4.       Brachiocephalicus Permits the neck to bend, and move the shoulder forward
5.       Trapezius/Rhomboids (deep) Allows the shoulder to raise, and permits the scapula to draw upward, forward and backward
6.       Supraspinatus (deep) Permits the shoulder joint to extend
7.       Infraspinatus (deep) Allows the foreleg to rotate outward
8.       Deltoid Permits the shoulder joint to extend
9.       Tricep Permits the shoulder joint to flex
10.   Bicep & Anterior Pectoral Permits the foreleg to extend
11.   Serratus Thoracis Allows the trunk to be at the proper level when legs are planted
12.   Posterior Pectoral Allows the foreleg to draw backward
13.   Extensor Carpi Radialis Permits the foreleg to bend and flex
14.   Latissimus Dorsi Permits lateral bending
15.   Longissimus Dorsi Allows the back to extend, and permits lateral bending
16.   Intercostal Supports the rib cage and aids in respiration
17.   Oblique Allows the hind leg to draw under
18.   Rectus Abdominus Supports the back
19.   Gluteus Allows forward movement and hind end action
20.   Semimembranosus Permits the hock to extend
21.   Semitendinosus Permits the hip and the hock to extend
22.   Bicep Femoris Allows for extension of the hind leg and hock, and bends the stifle
23.   Tensor Fascia Latae & Fascia Latae Allows the stifle to extend and the hip to flex
24.   Long Digital Extensor Permits the hind leg to flex

Now that we have basic understanding of what the muscle groups do, remember that 60% of the horse’s body weight is muscle and that muscles respond to stress or injury by hypercontraction.  This may also result in unnecessary stress on an opposing muscle or joint.  Just like us, horses anticipate pain and their way of going becomes short and choppy which can result in uneven gaits. 

The longest muscle group of the horse is the Longissimus  Dorsi/Latissimus Dorsi and it would also make sense that this muscle is the one that often becomes sore either from poor rider posture, improper saddle fit or improper riding techniques.  So what can we,  the rider do to help our equestrian friend?  According to Mary Schreiber “The How To Manual of Sports Massage for the Equine Athlete” and founder of Equissage,  this muscle group can be addressed by this simple massage technique:

With one hand on the thigh as shown on the picture above, place your thumb  behind the shoulder and using moderate pressure slide down to the tail, keeping your thumb two to three inches from the spine.  Next with one hand on the thigh, apply percussion starting behind the shoulder with light percussion.  Avoid  percussion on the kidney area by staying a hand’s width away from the rump.  Percuss back to the shoulder with light percussion, repeat with moderate and heavy percussion, two passes at each level.  Make sure you avoid the kidneys!

Next, do the back rub!  The back rub consists of six passes at Moderate to Heavy pressure from shoulder to rump.  Do this in a back and forth motion, using the heels of your hands or your finger tips.  I find that the horses really like this pressure and heat generated from the back rub!

Draw some large circles, again starting behind the shoulder and going to the rump and back.  These are done with light pressure.  Then, do medium circles with medium pressure followed by little circles with heavy pressure.  Everything but percussion can be used over the kidney area.  Starting behind the shoulder again, do a heavy zigzag stroke along the back, approximately two inches from the spine.  If the horse is too reactive, add some extra percussion in order to desensitize the area and loosen up those knotted tissues.   

Next, rest your open hand on the kidney area.  With this laying of the hand, you are actually creating heat between your hand and the horse.  Leave your hand here for about 15 – 20 seconds.  Then, close off with heavy percussion, going back to the shoulder and then towards the rump, stopping just in front of the kidney area.  This above routine is done on both sides of the horse and should loosen back muscles before/after your ride.

If your horse has had the benefit of a full massage, walk your horse at a fairly brisk pace for at least five minutes.  The horse may pull back at first, as he may still be anticipating pain.  That resistance, however, should last only a few strides and he should then begin to move forward easily.  Walking your horse after a massage is an effective way to prevent after massage stiffness.  Do not delude yourself into thinking that immediately turning your horse out to pasture after a full massage is a good substitute for walking the horse.  It isn’t!

For those of you interested in horse massage, I would encourage you to read as much as possible on the massage techniques or even take a course.  Along with the book I referenced above, which is a wonderful step by step  manual, there are many that provide you with the instruction and steps necessary to give your horse the benefit of an equi-massage.

Good luck and happy massaging!   🙂



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  Massage Business wrote @

great, interesting and informative article. One can really learn a lot from it.

  massage therapist business wrote @

i didn’t know horses also need massages. Thanks for the added information.

  Massage Therapy – Good for your horse! « Tack n' Talk wrote @

[…] massage is an alternative therapy for horses. Riders or owners can be taught how to do the massage at a variety of schools or massage training facilities. Or there are many professional massage […]

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