Equestrian Sports Massage

Equestrian Sports Massage

An interview with Pennie Hooper, a leading Equestrian Sports Massage practitioner, by Susan Findlay

The original Olympic events were influenced by military skills needed in times of war such as riding skills. Equestrian events further obtained their inspiration from the chariot races of the ancient Greek games. Until 1952 only commissioned officers of the military could compete in Olympic dressage, a sport in which humans and animals are teammates. As with sailing, equestrian is the only other Olympic sport where men and women compete against each other.

Riders compete in three disciplines: dressage, show jumping,and eventing. They are awarded individual and team medals. In dressage the rider guides the horse through a series of movements that display strength, suppleness and obedience in which as a team they are working in harmony exhibiting both lightness and free-flowing movements. From the perspective of a sports massage therapist the key is their ability to work as a team in which both the rider and the horse are working in tandem, their movements mirroring one another in an optimal fashion. This is the same for all the events, their co-ordinated movements need to be interchangeable hence, when either the horse or the rider develops any restrictions, injuries or dysfunction it can translate from one to the other and both can suffer the effects of the others problem.

In jumping competitors complete a course of 15-20 obstacles within a specified time. It requires both speed and co-ordination of movement and superb communication skills between the two of them.

In eventing it combines dressage, show jumping, and cross-country into three days of gruelling tests. On the first day the riders demonstrate their dressage skills followed by the cross-country phase wherein they gallop 5,700m over varying terrain as well as jumping 45 obstacles. If this wasn’t demanding enough they then finish their last day on show jumping. The preparation required for the cross country event can be likened to training for an Ironman Triathalon, it demands a great deal of time and dedication to obtain this level of skill. In order for both the rider and the horse to reach their goals without incurring injury or developing dysfunctional imbalances the training requires a broader team approach, it will involve specialists in their fields such as a equine sports massage therapist. One of the experts in this field is Pennie Hooper. I have the privilege of knowing her as a client and have asked her to share her wisdom about her role and how it is both similar and different to ours.

Q: Pennie, when and how did you start working with horses?

A: I was an athlete myself and I have been around horses all my life. I have an empathy with athletes and therefore can associate myself with both the horse and rider. I started working with them as an Equine sports therapist after a fall stopped me from riding professionally.

To me, horses represent athletic prowess, they are one of the most magnificent athletes on the planet, just look at their lung capacity and it goes off the radar, I feel very privileged to work with them.

Q: Where did you train?

A: At the Jack Meagher Institute in America.

Q: How many yards and horses do you see per week? 

A: This week I have been seeing horses that are competing at the National Dressage Championship at Stoneleigh. I do five horses per day five days a week all usually in the same yard. I see a maximum of 25 in any week. I do not do more than that because the horses weigh between 500 & 550 kilos and I weigh about 50 kilos.You have to use a lot of pressure to be able to affect their performance hence, at the end of the day I am knackered. 10 years ago I would have had a sports massage every 3 months and now I need one 3 times a month.

Q: What are you looking for when observing a horse and its rider?

A: I am looking for a shortness of gait, any unevenness that could affect the elasticity of the horses movement. I like to chat with the rider and try to work out what would get the best out of the team.  I might call in other therapists as needed such as an osteopath, or a saddle fitter, an equine dentist,or a remedial farrier, which is like asking for a podiatrist to assess and fit a special shoe or orthotic to the horses hoof. A biting specialist is something else I request, you can always tell by the tension in the brachial muscle if they are fighting against the bit as this muscle becomes quite solid. I also speak frequently with my nutritionist as I can tell just by looking at the horses coat whether it needs a liver detox or something of a similar nature.

Q: What kinds of conditions do you come across?

A: Each discipline will have its common problems For example Event horses do a lot of jumping, and will get tight in the lumbar sacral region which will obviously need releasing in order to improve their performance over a fence.Dressage horses, need to perform a lot of sideway movements, horses are not designed to move laterally for great amounts of time and therefore specific muscles get stressed and tight- once released they move much more freely.

Q: What sort of techniques do you use?

A: I find for me personally (and massage is a very personal thing)after having been in the business for 20 years plus, my favorite techniques are compression and cross fiber friction, this works best for me with horses.

Q: What part of your body do you use most in applying your techniques? 

A: Right from the tips of my fingers to my core muscles. I have to be careful to get my body behind the movement to help support what I do. My height can be a bit of an issue, and there are times I would wish for a hydraulic lift. Although I do have a box to stand on, most competition horses are 16/17 hands plus nowadays as this is the current trend. i.e. their shoulders are higher than my head!, which can make it difficult for me to get the pressure behind what I do.

Q: Considering your size, which is on the tiny side, how do you manage to work with such big animals and be able to get the physical force you need and remain injury free, or do you remain injury free?

A: That has taken a lot of practice and for the first few yearsI got quite a lot of green stick fractures in my fingers and forearms. I sought out a coach and ran through somebasic positioning techniques that were for me to use my body s optimum strength. I still get muscular injuries to myneck and back. That s when I come to see Susan.

Q: How important is it for you to address the needs of the horse and the rider?

A: Hugely, if you were thinking of yourself as a weighted backpack on top of a horse, you are going to make a large difference in the way that you are positioned on their back.

You can do a simple test. Sit on the edge of a hard chair and then wiggle your seat bone to the left and you can instantly feel how much more pressure that would put on the horses back. It is as simple as that. What the horse does is to mirror this by rotating its hip towards its ribcage on the side that more weight is being thrown at it. This in turn makes the horse develop an imbalance through its pelvis causing the erectae spinae group to shorten in order to accommodate the extra weight from the rider.

Q: How do you choose which client you are going to work on, the horse versus the human?

A: It depends on where the problem is coming from. Recently I have been treating one of the riders who is competing at Stoneleigh this weekend. I observed that his horses were all rotated to the right through their pelvises and when you see it in that many horses with the same rider you can pretty much assume it is something to do with the rider. I chose to work with him sorting out a right-sided tension in his body, although he felt he was straight, he wasn’t, after two sports massages he noticed the difference. When I returned to the yard this week all the horses were dead straight. In this case is was necessary to treat the rider but sometimes you need to work on both the horse and the rider, it is more about finding the source of the problem and treating that.

Thank you Pennie for sharing with us what sports massage is in equestrian terms. Whether working on horse or rider, it is important to address the origin of any problem, work with other modalities to ensure a holistic approach as a team and encourage sports massage as a regular feature in both the horses and riders training regime. It is about prevention as well as rehabilitation.

Pennie offers mentoring days and weekend workshops, if you would like further information go to www.penniehooper.com. She also has a book titled ‘Sports Massage for Horses’ which is available on Amazon.

6 Frequently Asked Questions

Q: How often can my horse have sports massage?

A: I usually recommend a professional massage every 4/6 weeks,depending on the fitness of your horse. Homework treatment as instructed by me,can be applied daily in most cases for short bursts of 3/5 minutes.

Q: My horse has small round raised patches on his skin after treatment. What is this?

A: These are caused by toxins releasing through the skin s surface.They usually go down after a few hours, however in some cases take up to 24 hours to clear. They may look alarming but there is no cause to panic it is one of the means by which the metabolic waste products are dispersed.

Q: Should my horse be exercised before he gets treated?

A: No this is best done directly after a treatment. This is because it aids in the dispersal of metabolic waste products which are present in the blood after a treatment. Thus the sooner he is sweating, wanting to urinate and drink the sooner the toxins leave his bloodstream.

Q: My horse has gone lame after a treatment. What has happened?

A: This happens, if there is an undetected joint issue. The skeletal muscles will tighten and try to protect any pathology within the joint. Sometimes,by loosening off the muscles surrounding a joint this can occur. If this does happen further investigation is recommended from your veterinary surgeon.

Q: When is the best time for my horse to receive a treatment?

A: Pre or post a competition. As before a competition it will increase performance. After, it will accelerate recovery.

Q: My horse does not even like being groomed/appears ticklish.Will he/she be able to have a treatment?

A: In most cases, it really helps the horse become rehabilitated with the grooming process and I have quite a few owners that have found this process a very rewarding one.

Terminology Corner

Azoturia: Cramping of the large muscles of a horse, also referred to as typing up .

Cannon: The area between the knee on the front leg, or hock on the rear leg, and the fetlock.

Conformation: The physical structure of a horse, it is compared to a standard of perfection or an ideal.

Frog: A wedge-shaped pad in the sole of the hoof. It acts as a shock absorber when making contact with the ground and aides in the pumping of blood.

Galls: Sores and/or swelling.

Gravel: An abscess of the hoof wall extending from the white line to the coronet.

Lameness: Unevenness in the horses stride during movement.

Quittor: Infection of the lateral cartilage of the hoof.

Roaring: A breathing disorder.

Sidebone: Inflammation followed by an ossification of the lateral cartilages of the foot.

Splint boots: Protective coverings worn around the cannons of the front legs to prevent injury.

Weaving: Rhythmic swaying of the horses weight from one foot to the other when confined.

Websites of Interest




Susan Findlay is the Director of the NLSSM and the Communications Chair for GCMT. She keeps her hands in as a Sport & Remedial Massage Therapist in North London. She is also the author of ‘Sports Massage’, a practical book for all massage professionals wanting to work more effectively as a sensitive and deep tissue therapist. Susan can be contacted at www.nlssm.com or email her at susan@nlssm.com

This article was first published in the October/November 2011 issue of Massage World.