Lower Leg Massage Work

A show horse works very hard to give his best performance, not to mention the long hours he endures to make us proud. Unfortunately, this demanding training schedule often causes various inflammatory problems over the horse’s body. One of the most common is an inflammation of the foot, often known as “sore feet”. In the wild, the horse was never intended to carry weight on his back, especially at high speed, over jumps, during quick starts, turns or sliding stops. Adding weight on the horse’s back (tack, saddle and rider) is often the cause of soreness over the feet. It is quite a common condition seen in all equine disciplines as the causes for a “sore feet” may vary between:

  • Wrong shoeing
  • Bruised sole
  • Inefficient padding
  • A poor riding style
  • Long hours (overworked)
  • A muscular compensation mechanism for sacroiliac or hindquarter lameness
  • Pain from pressure on nerves as a result of spinal subluxations
  • Poor conformation – straight leg for jumpers
  • Direct trauma from various origin
  • Rich feed

sore feet symptoms

The horse with sore feet displays various signs and symptoms ranging from discomfort when being ridden, and/or when the rider is mounting, and during any bending or jumping exercises. The horse travels stiff behind, with short strides, and gets tired early. Those symptoms vary in degree, proportionally to the soreness and inflammation. The more inflammation is present in the foot, the more severe the symptoms are.

The main muscles involved with this condition are:

  • The flexor muscle group
  • The extensor muscle group
  • The associated protraction muscles
  • The associated retraction muscles.

Not to forget the leg fascia as well as the shoulder fascia. They all are affected and show tension and soreness upon palpation. The severity of the symptoms varies depending on the origin of the problem. It can range from mild to severe soreness.

When you assess possible feet problems in your horse, consult with your veterinarian. His expertise will determine the extent of the problem. Also, infrared thermography and X-ray machine if needed can help determine the nature and severity of the problem. With this feedback, the veterinarian can deliver a precise diagnosis and decide on best course of treatment.

recovery period and hydrotherapy

During the recovery period, massage, stretching and hydrotherapy are of great help, as they contribute to loosen the muscles, tendons and ligament involved in the lower leg and increase blood circulation, which in turn provide better oxygenation and nutrition. This results in an overall increase of the healing for these sore structures. Massage will also relieve the compensatory muscular tension seen in the rest of the horse’s body.

Start helping your horse by applying some cold hydrotherapy over the lower leg muscles. Use cold sponging, ice packs or the ice-cup massage technique for about ten minutes. This will have an analgesic benefit by numbing the nerves endings located in the sore muscles fibres. It will also cause some vasoconstriction. When you end the cold application, the body will respond with a strong vasodilatation to bring blood back to that cool are and bring the cool part back to normal body temperature. For visual guidance on the application of the Ice-cup massage technique, you can download the video #EV008.

how to massage sore feet


To start your massage, position yourself on the left side of the horse. Start by picking up the lower leg with your left hand. Apply some light stroking movements over the entire leg with your right hand to let the horse know your intention to work this area. Follow with some light effleurage movements, going from the knee to the elbow. Intersperse with effleurages every ten seconds.

Using some gentle squeezing between your thumb and bent index, work the flexor tendon first, moving form the knee all the way down to the fetlock. Do not forget to effleurage every ten seconds or so. All along, observe the horse’s eyes to see his reaction to your pressure. If the horse appears to be enjoying your massage, next use a gentle double hand friction all along the muscles to further loosen the tight fibres. Complete your work with lot and lots of drainage to get circulation moving. Finish your massage application with lots of stroking movements to relax the muscles. Move on to the other side of the horse and repeat the entire sequence. For visual guidance on the application of the various massage technique, you can consult the video library offered on this site and download the appropriate video(s).

Do not hesitate to re-apply some cold hydrotherapy over the lower leg muscles right after your massage to further numb the nerve endings and to secure a good, lasting vasodilatation.


Duration of massage: A massage treatment could last from 20 to 30 minutes, including hydrotherapy time when applicable. The nature of the injury, its extent, the degree of inflammation present in the muscle fibres and the associated symptoms (heat, swelling, pain) present will greatly determine the time allocation of the treatment. Consult with you veterinarian for proper diagnosis and best course of treatment.

Always keep in mind that inflamed tissues are extremely painful. Use a very light pressure at all times and make sure you do not overwork them. In the early stage, during the acute phase, keep your overall treatment time very short. As the inflammation decreases and become more chronic, you can proportionally increase the duration of your massage sessions as well as the pressure used.


Frequency of massage: According to the severity of the inflammation, three to five sessions might be necessary to see this condition disappear. Give the horse’s back a break for a few days if possible (no saddling) but keep him fit with lunging exercises. Consult with your veterinarian to see if some anti-inflammatory medication might be prescribed to assist the horse during his recovery.

If your palpation over the horse’s back has shown some abnormality in the alignment of the spinous and transverse processes of the vertebrae, or of the ribs, consult an equine chiropractor. Realigning the spine will greatly contribute to the overall recovery from a cold back.


When the back muscles inflammation can be traced to an ill-fitted saddle over the withers, be aware that it can cause the tissues to be bruised. This is serious as there is a contusion, meaning a trauma to the blood vessels of the skin and/or muscles attaching onto the withers, with extra-vascularisation of blood into the tissues. It is characterized by some swelling, heat and pain, in varying degrees of severity proportional to the damage. When in doubt, please check with your veterinarian. Cold hydrotherapy (ice-cup massage technique, ice packs, or cold kaolin poultices) is very efficient to reduce swelling and inflammation and permit blood clotting. On the other end, massage is contraindicated during the acute phase (first 24 hours).

More rarely, an ill fitted saddle over the withers can cause an inflammation of the bursa located on top of the backbone in the region of the withers. This condition might result in a condition known as “fistulous withers”. If a pustular infection is present, massage is contraindicated until cleared. See your veterinarian for a vaccination against brucellosis. Otherwise, first apply cold packs or use the ice cup massage technique to relieve the inflammation symptoms. When in the sub-acute or chronic phase, follow with the massage swelling technique and lots of drainage to clear the excess fluid.

Massage and hydrotherapy are easily learnt, applied, cost nothing and is of great assistance to the horse in that predicament. The dally care of your horse can speed-up his recovery by 40%, which is a considerable benefit that not only helps your animal feel better but also gets him back to work faster. Your devoted attention in that particular time of pain will strengthen your bond plenty.

I hope you enjoyed this article and found the information useful.  My goal is help you provide quality home care for the benefit of your animal.

Please visit our FREE library. Our many articles address important aspects of animal wellness and fitness. Take the time to scroll through our free library to find out how you can actively contribute to your horse’s wellness.

Animal Massage Awareness also offers a large video library with over a 100 mini-videos that will show you how to easily perform the various massage and stretching techniques talked about in this article, and more. These videos offer you the correct start and visual guidance. With this knowledge, you will be able to develop a good home care program for the benefit of your animal friend.  He will love you for it.

Enjoy your new Awareness!

Jean-Pierre Hourdebaigt, MT

Recommended DVD Downloads

The “Hydrotherapy” (EV008) especially with the Ice-cup massage technique and the “Stretching Exercises” (EV007) are two great techniques assist any leg discomfort and promote healing in your horse’s legs.

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