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Original Cross Fiber Grooming Article

written by Patricia Bona, DC

reprinted from Holistic Horse 2005 


 Maybe you have a horse who is confined to stall rest for orthopedic or medical reasons. Or perhaps you are on the road during competition and traveling from one venue to another.
Sometimes, the weather is the contributing factor. There are many scenarios where the normal physical activity of your horse is greatly compromised.

If you can groom your horses, you can help keep their muscles, joints and even their digestion healthier. Currying your horse and soft brushing are forms of massage. Unfortunately good horsemanship often falls short when the use of daily baths and overuse of sheets and blankets are the primary grooming techniques. Good horsemanship should involve all of our senses: sight, sound, touch (heat, texture, depth), smell and at times even taste, and it should not ignore or overly rationalize our own intuition or instinct. If you do not regularly groom and get your hands on your horse you will be missing a lot of information on the condition and comfort of your horse.

There is nothing like a good grooming to warm-up both horse and rider.  How your horse reacts to grooming tells you so much about how your horse is feeling.  Generally speaking, a horse who does not like to be groomed is a horse who is physically hurting. Pain is a strong indicator of inflammation. "Cold backed" and "thin skinned" are old terms that really should be a red flag indicating pain or discomfort.  Grooming with the Cross Fiber technique can help your horse become more comfortable in his muscles, joints and entire body. The happier and more physically comfortable your horse is the better his performance and overall health.

As you regularly groom your horse you will start to evaluate your horse's muscular health.  If you had a big ride in the hunt field or in a lesson the day before, the reaction of your horse as he is being groomed will tell you how well he has recovered (or not) from the activity.  This information can help formulate what kind of ride or work should be done that day.  If you were planning on doing collection or jumping and your horse's gluteus and hamstrings are sore, then maybe you should do a lighter ride with bending and suppling exercises or just go out for a hack.  Remember, that day of rest and recovery is standard in any properly formulated physical training routine.

Massage is a true form of manual therapy that can stimulate circulation, stimulate lymphatic drainage, relax tight tense muscles, break-up scar tissue, reduce trigger points and stress points, improve flexibility of muscles and increase range of motion (ROM) of joints.  Joints get their nutrition by the mechanical stimulation of the joint capsule and joint surfaces; therefore we want all the joints of the body to regularly move through their entire ROM.  Short-strided action or limited ROM can more rapidly wear and tear at the joint surfaces.  The ROM of a joint is directly affected by the ROM of the muscles crossing the joint.   Flexible healthy muscles will aid in flexible healthy joints.  Then your horse's nutritional supplements can be physiologically more effective.

The traditional way of grooming, a good curry, is in a circular motion.  I promote a linear back and forth motion across the fibers of the muscle groups. It is less chaotic, thereby it can be evaluative and therapeutic.  In human massage there is a technique called transverse friction, aka cross fiber massage, that is the foundation for the Cross Fiber Grooming technique.  It provides the benefit of a basic massage yet goes one step further by aiding in the alignment and suppleness of the fascia. Muscles are shaped and defined by their fascia layers.  When we stretch we are more accurately stretching the fascia of the muscle and not the muscle fibers.  To be quite graphic:  If you have a piece of steak, which is the cross section of a muscle, the thick shiny gristle that encircles the steak is the fascia.  The muscle fiber is what you eat, which can easily be torn apart with a fork. Yet the gristle, fascia, needs to be cut with a sharp knife.  Now picture an inflated balloon.  If you took both ends and twisted them around the inflated part you would be creating the fibrous tendon on either end of a muscle with the fascial outer surface defining the muscle belly. So when we stretch we are really attempting to lengthen and supple the fascial envelope that defines the muscle and tendons.

Fascia is connective tissue without an abundant blood supply like the vascularity we see in muscle fiber, a contractile tissue.  Therefore, our horse should be properly warmed and cooled down to not overly stretch or stress all of the tissues related to joints and muscles. A thorough warm-up is imperative for unfit horses and those in hard work, especially activities that require engagement for jumping or dressage or in speed work of galloping or barrel racing.

Fascial layers also help to define other tissue in the body such as layers between skin and muscle, joint capsules and even the tissues between our internal organs.  Our skin is our largest organ and one of the first lines of defense in the immune system.  If skin is thickened and tight, especially across joints, the joint ROM will be limited.  Imagine going to work all day in a fitted suit; we are much less inclined to stretch and move freely.  Did you ever have a pair of tight jeans on and really try to bend at the knee?  It is pretty restrictive and painful on your knees.  So if the skin is tight across your horse's hocks and knees, he will be less able to fully flex those joints. This happens on a subconscious level as there are nerve endings in fascia, skin, joints, ligaments and tendons that report back to the central nervous system to give feedback if it is safe to go through certain motions.  These are proprioceptive reflexes, similar to reflex reaction of your finger being burned and before you may know it your arm instantly draws your hand away from the hot object.  So to help keep our horse's limbs and joints flexible we need to routinely groom our horse's legs and muscles.

During the Cross Fiber Grooming technique we are influencing many tissues.  As you curry lightly, you are influencing tissues on the superficial level making and keeping the skin flexible across the adjacent muscle layer (Figure 1).  When grooming with deeper pressure we are stimulating across the muscle fibers and deeper layers of fascial that delineate one muscle group from another as well as affecting the related tendons and tissue. 

As the person doing the grooming, you can use the session not only to warm up and evaluate your horse, but as a warm up and workout for yourself.  I recommend doing one side at a time, starting at the hock, grooming forward to the poll, facing forward to evaluate your horse's reaction and response (Figure 2). This also helps you learn to groom with both your right and left hands. Good posture is imperative. Stand in a modified lunge position or with your feet shoulder-width apart, with your knees slightly to moderately bent. With your spine in neutral natural curve, pull your belly button to your spine to contract the transverse abdominal muscle, which will give you the sense you are wearing and supported by a corset.  As you groom, hold this contraction and remember to breathe. Tightening and strengthening your core muscles will help reduce stress on the lower back and upper body while grooming.

As you begin to groom you may only be able to use the weight of the curry over more sensitive areas.  If the horse is sensitive across certain areas, do not ignore the area.  Evaluate with your free hand the skin and muscle condition. As you continue to curry lightly for a minute or two, the area will usually become less sensitive.  The more regularly you apply the overall technique the more receptive your horse will be to deeper grooming, an indication of healthier muscles and joints.  You may observe positive results within just a few days to a couple of weeks.

            Generally speaking, the muscles of the top line run lengthwise down from the poll along the spine down to the top of the hock.  The muscles of the shoulder are generally in the vertical orientation as are the muscles in the hind leg.  To groom with the Cross Fiber Technique you would groom vertically (perpendicular to the level of the spine and pelvis) across the muscles of the top line and horizontally across the muscles of the shoulder, haunches and legs (Figure 3). Groom across the abdominal area in the vertical direction and the across the chest muscles on the horizontal plane.

Groom across the entire muscle, gently across the spine and other bony protuberances, remembering to groom lightly to evaluate the area first.  Begin the session from the top of the hocks and curry from the inner portion to the outer area of the hind limb. As you move up the hind leg vertically groom across the hipbone up across the pelvis.  As you groom across the back you want to groom the upper portion of the rib cage across the back muscle and spine.  When you get to the withers you actually switch and groom horizontally, across the top of the shoulder. Then switch hands and groom with your upper hand deep into the junction of the shoulder and neck.   To groom the rest on the neck, curry up and down across the neck muscles on the top line right up into the crest.  It is worth the time to really evaluate the crest and neck of your horse as the presence of  trigger points or a tight crest can make your horse stiff to one side and may even cause the horse to tilt its head and pop the shoulder while under saddle.
Groom horizontally across the shoulders with either hand keeping your core strong and knees slightly bent.  If your horse is tight or sore in the muscles of the right shoulder, especially the infraspinatus and deltoid muscles, he will often be stiff in bending the neck to the right and may pop the opposite shoulder while under saddle, not wanting or not able to weight the right fore limb.  This is because the shoulder blade and muscles of the shoulder girdle act as a shock absorber and must be flexible and healthy to do so.

I recommend grooming the legs and cleaning feet last because we are better warmed up for bending and reaching. When bending or lifting try to keep your weight evenly over your entire foot or even little more onto the heel.  This will keep the stress off of your knees and keep your center of gravity over your feet. To help stabilize your spine, remember to pull your belly button to your spine and breathe. Think two-point or jumping position.

When you groom the legs it is better to use a soft face or leg curry as you groom horizontally around the entire leg. As you groom note to see if the skin is gliding across the tendons and boney areas of the leg (Figure 4).  Try to start at the coronary band and work up, toward the heart. Do not be surprised if the skin is tight on the inside of the hock or even the entire hock.  Lightly check for heat, make a note of it and any difference from one side to the other. Gently continue to groom or even use your hand directly to see if you can get the skin to glide a little freer over the anatomy beneath. You may be pleasantly surprised the next time you ride to find that the horse flexes his hocks or knees better or just warms up quicker.

Always groom and handle your horse safely and within your horse's comfort zone and tolerance. As your horse's muscles become healthier they will like deeper and deeper grooming especially over large muscle groups such as the gluteals and hamstrings.  Experiment with your curry selection. It will vary from horse to horse and may vary with the season as coat length and condition changes. At the end of a ride, even if you plan to give your horse a bath or a liniment wash, take a minute or two to rub down your horse's back and other sweaty areas. How your horse responds to this session will aid in your overall training evaluation as well as prepare the skin for the bath.

Grooming should be a regular part of your relationship with your horse and will only enhance your partnership.  If you find excessive discomfort or anything unusual, make note and call your veterinarian for further evaluation if necessary.
I have practiced this cross fiber grooming technique for nearly 10 years and I am still amazed how effective it is when I teach it to others.  A reference book with illustrations of the muscles of the horse (as in Figure 3) and some information on anatomy and physiology would be a worthwhile investment and a valuable tool.

You don't want to miss Dr. Pat video demonstration of Cross Fiber Grooming at
Patricia Bona-Kustra, DC, lives and practices in Blue Bell, Pennsylvania. She graduated from Logan College of Chiropractic in 1986, and was certified by the American Veterinary Chiropractic Association in 1992.  An avid equestrian most her life, currently riding and training her two horses, she is active in dressage, jumping and more recently Side Saddle competition.