Massage is one of the oldest ways in which humans have medicated themselves, stretching back to cultures such as the ancient Chinese, Egyptians and Greeks. In people, massage has proven benefits such as releasing feel-good hormones like oxytocin, increasing blood flow to treated areas and reducing muscle tension.
Researchers at a University in Texas conducted an experiment to see what effects massage had on horses.
They tested fourteen geldings, five controls and nine subjects who underwent treatment. The treatment consisted of twenty-minute massages on four consecutive days.
The horses were observed for 20 minutes before the massage, twenty minutes of treatment time and twenty minutes pre-treatment. The observations taken were heart rate, surface body temperature and stress-related behaviors.
The control horses did not undergo any treatments but were simply tied up and observed for 60 mins with the observations broken down into twenty-minute blocks.
What the researchers found was that on average, the horses that underwent massage therapy had a lower heart rate, a higher surface body temperature and were less likely to show stress-related behaviors such as pawing and moving about. The treated horses were also more likely to show and spend time doing relaxation behaviors such as head lowering and licking and chewing.
These relaxation behaviors were shown significantly both during the massage and for the twenty observed minutes after the therapy.
Massage therapy could be useful for putting a horse in a relaxed state of mind before or after a stressful event such as transportation, the researchers have suggested, because after massage the parasympathetic nervous system is dominant helping put the horse in a relaxed frame of mind.