When you work with horses, you may come across what I've heard called a 'dragon mare.' Perhaps you know what I'm talking about: a horse who is touchy about their stomach, chest, or legs. A horse who pins their ears, swishes their tail, and perhaps even kicks or tries to bite when you touch their sensitive spot. For years I had been told that this was a behavioral issue that had to be "worked through."
I had not thought to question this mantra until an experience I had while working with an older Kiger mustang mare. This little mare was a classy lady; she was very particular, extremely responsive, and had no trouble expressing what she wanted. I thought I had been treating her with the utmost respect, but I was having trouble performing massage on her legs. I felt she could use some additional joint support, but every time I started to run my hands down her legs, she would pin her ears and take a step away. I kept working through this 'behavioral issue' until she nipped at the air, as if to say, "Enough! Why aren't you listening?" It was then that I realized I was approaching her all wrong. Once I changed my approach (and my attitude), her attitude completely changed, and we were able to finish the massage.
A barefoot trimmer I worked with recently was having some trouble with one of her equine clients. The filly had been problematic in the past, but her attitude and training had significantly improved. On this most recent visit, however, it seemed that the 'dragon' had returned, and the trimmer was unable to make any progress on the first hoof she'd picked up. She started to chalk it up to behavioral issues until she noticed that when she picked up the left fore hoof, the filly would slightly lift her right hind hoof and rest it just above the ground. We realized she was having trouble balancing on that diagonal, and after a bit of experimentation, determined that she had some soreness in her sacrum. Once we realized the filly was experiencing pain, I performed a few minutes of massage on the area. After a brief massage, the symptoms of pain dissipated, and the farrier was able to complete the trim on all four hooves.
In humans, the effects of pain are well-documented. Think back to the last time you had a headache; you were probably a bit lethargic, less productive, and irritable. Pain significantly affects quality of life in both humans and animals. In humans, it decreases productivity (1), can prolong or complicate healing from injury (2), and can significantly impact mental health (3). Our horses are no different. According to veterinarian Dr. Muir, "...chronic pain can modify the nervous system, can become an actual disease, and cause distress" (4). Research out of the University of Florida has shown strong correlation between the effect of pain and reproduction (5).
Studies have shown that massage therapy can significantly reduce physical pain in human patients (6). Although research is forthcoming on our equine partners, there is some scientific support showing that manual therapies (which includes massage and chiropractic) can have a significant impact on managing and alleviating pain (7). Given the similar characteristics of our musculo-skeletal systems, it is no surprise that massage in horses would have similar effects to those seen in humans.
If your horse is acting lethargic, 'nippy', bucking under saddle (particularly during transitions), or exhibiting other 'behavioral' issues, it could be due to pain or discomfort. This is especially true if the issues have started recently. Scheduling time for a massage may significantly improve both causes and symptoms of pain in your equine partner.
(1) The cost of pain to business and society due to ineffective pain care. American Academy of Pain Medicine. http://www.painmed.org/patientcenter/cost-of-pain-to-businesses
(2) Jess, P., Jess, T., Beck, H., Bech, P. Neuroticism in relation to recovery and persisting pain after laparoscopic cholecystectomy. Scandinavian Journal of Gastroenterology. DOI: 10.1080/00365529850172151 http://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/00365529850172151
(3) Fishbain, D. A., Cole, B., Cutler, R. B., Lewis, J., Rosomoff, H. L., Rosomoff, R. S. Chronic pain and the measurement of personality: Do states influence traits? Pain Medicine. DOI: 10.1111/j.1526-4637.2006.00239.x http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/j.1526-4637.2006.00239.x/abstract-jsessionid=E8E54A3899501B97693BEA4C93AB84D5.f03t03
(4) Oke, S. Understanding chronic pain. theHorse.com 01Dec2011 http://www.thehorse.com/articles/28233/understanding-chronic-pain
(5) Sanchez, C. ACT 2013: How pain impacts equine reproduction. 09Aug2013. http://www.thehorse.com/videos/32364/act-2013-how-pain-impacts-equine-reproduction
(6) See: Adams, R., White, B., and Beckette, C. The effect of massage therapy on pain management in the acute care setting. Int J Ther Massage Bodywork. 2010; 3(1): 4-11. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3091428
Field, T., Diego, M., Cullen, C., Hernandez-Reif, M., Sunshine, W., Douglas, S. Fibromyalgia pain and substance P decrease and sleep improves after massage therapy. J Clin Rheumatol. 2002 Apr; 8(2): 72-76. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/17041326
Field, T., Peck, M., Hernandez-Reif, M., Krugman, S., Burman, I., Ozment-Schenck, L. Postburn itching, pain, and psychological symptoms are reduced with massage therapy. J Burn Care Rehabil. 2000 May-Jun; 21(3): 189-193. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/10850898
Cutshall, S. M., Wentworth, L. J., Engen, D., Sundt, T. M., Kelly, R. F., Bauer, B. A. Effect of massage therapy on pain, anxiety, and tension in cardiac surgical patients: A pilot study. Complement Ther Clin Pract. 2010 May; 16(2): 92-95. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/20347840
(7) Sullivan, K. A., Hill, A. E., Haussler, K. K. The effects of chiropractic, massage, and phenylbutazone on spinal mechanical nociceptive thresholds in horses without clinical signs. Equine Vet J 2008 Jan; 40(1): 14-20. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/18083655