During your horse’s massage, you will see me employ variations of the five major strokes utilizated by human and equine massage therapists the world around: effleurage, friction, vibration, petrissage, and tapotement. As you’ll learn below, each technique serves a deliberate purpose, and the direction, rate, depth, duration, and site of its application is carefully attuned to your horse’s needs, moment to moment, session to session. Because every horse is different—and because the same horse presents different needs every session—you will never see me perform the same routine twice. (You will, however, observe that your horse very quickly shares his favorite sweet spot with me, as he already shared with you long ago. I’ll revisit that spot any time!)
In this installment of our Equine Massage Primer, you’ll find a description of each of the five major categories of massage strokes, and a list of their effects on your horse’s body. Next time I massage your horse, see if you can identify some of these techniques in action!
From the French effleurer, “to glide.” Smooth, flowing, and gentle, effleurage is the champion of relaxation massage. Effleurage follows the contours of your horse’s body in continuous strokes and is a superficial technique often used to prepare the tissue for deeper massage, and to flush the area after using other more vigorous strokes. For this reason, it is the ideal stroke to open or close a massage session, as well as to transition between one region or technique and the next.
Uses and benefits of effleurage:
- gently introduces a horse to the idea of massage
- warms and allows assessment of the tissue
- prepares any region for deeper strokes, and soothes an area afterwards
- contacts areas too tender for deep work
- flushes waste out of congested areas to reduce edema
- broadens and stretches fascia to create length in muscle
- dilates capillaries and increases circulation in superficial tissues
- increases movement of lymphatic material
- comforting and relaxing overall
From the Latin word frictio, “to rub.” Friction is a compressive stroke that can target either superficial or deep tissues layers. Depending on the specifics of its application, friction can be used to generate heat between superficial tissues or to access deeper structures, layer by layer. It is used to accomplish an increase in local circulation, even in areas with limited vascularity, such as ligaments and tendons. Controlled friction is perhaps most valuable for its ability to affect even old injuries—it breaks down adhered scar tissue and collagen fibers to help restore biofunctional patterns even to longterm injury sites.
Uses and benefits of friction:
- generates heat
- relieves pain in sites of acute-stage closed-tissue injury
- increases hyperemia, or vascular blood flow
- serves as a capillary flush within muscle bodies
- loosens joint stiffness by relaxing muscles
- at scar sites, breaks down adhered tissue, reorganizes collagen, and facilitates the proper alignment of tissue fibers to free restricted areas
- increases local cellular nutrition
- spreads the fibers of and broadens muscles
From the French petir, “to mash or knead.” Petrissage includes manipulations that knead, lift, wring, or roll various layers of tissue. With the deliberate application of petrissage, muscle bodies can be carefully pulled away from the bone and underlying structures, fleshy regions can be broadly wrung and squeezed, and folds of skin and connective tissue can be rolled between the fingertips. These techniques are effective in reducing tension both in muscle bodies and their fibrous components by softening fascia and creating space between tissue layers. The degree of stimulation or relaxation depends upon the rate, pressure, stretch, and size of the area being treated.
Uses and benefits of petrissage:
- increases blood flow within muscle fascia and connective tissue
- assists in removal of toxins by increasing circulation
- reduces local swelling
- mechanically relaxes the muscle and surrounding tissue
- stretches and broadens muscle and tissue
- reduces muscle soreness and stiffness
- invigorates the nervous system
- softens superficial fascia and loosens adhesions between muscle and bone
- produces analgesia by stimulating the release of pain-relieving endorphins
Tapotement (or percussion)
From the French derivation of the word taper, “a light blow” or “to tap.” The use of soft fingertips, cupped hands, and loosely-closed fists are keys to this highly rhythmic and diversely effective technique. I may use one or both hands on fleshy regions of your horse’s body to begin with a soft, slow “tapote” and gradually build in depth and pace before tapering back off again. Depending on the duration of its application, tapotement can promote either systemic relaxation or stimulation, and is excellent for energizing targeted muscles before work by sparking spindle activity.
Uses and benefits of tapotement:
- causes muscles to contract and then relax, which increases muscle tone
- stimulates nerve endings upon initial application; sedates upon continued application
- tones muscle immediately before work to promote maximum energy output
- increases local blood flow to the targeted area
From the Latin word vibrare, “to move to and fro.” From slow rocking to gentle shaking to fine, tremulous oscillations, vibration channels your horse’s first bodily experiences—those felt long before birth—and are both penetrative and deeply soothing. When I work with your horse using vibratory techniques, I can access both the outer and innermost structures of his body, the largest and smallest, topline to toe. Vibration can be used to nonintrusively access deeper structures, loosen the muscle endings that surround a joint, and obtain desired changes in the firing patterns of nerves. Above all, its inherently comforting rhythm promotes trust and relaxation that last long after the end of your horse’s massage.
Uses and benefits of vibration:
- interrupts muscular patterns of pain
- increases circulation to the site of application
- stimulates peristalsis of the large intestine
- stimulates production of synovial fluid in joint capsule
- enhances general relaxation to allow for greater depth of other strokes