By Kieran McConnellogue
Originally published in Massage & Bodywork magazine, April/May2002.
Associated Bodywork and Massage Professionals. All rights reserved.
Even though he’s received thousands of massages over the past decade, Nicholas is still a bit stiff. Albeit the horse’s body is clearly marked with locations of pressure points to help students learn equine massage, he’s the only one of 16 horses at Equissage they haven’t been able to loosen up. “We can’t get him to relax,” said owner and director Mary Schreiber. Of course, that’s probably because Nicholas is a life-size fiberglass horse used as a teaching aid.
Faux steeds aside, a considerable number of the estimated 7 million horses in the United States now benefit from massage. As you can imagine, business is booming in this fast-paced field. Programs that teach it are increasing in number, and some, like Equissage in Round Hill, Va., and EquiTouch Systems, Inc. of Loveland, Colo., have been at it for more than a decade.
Ancient Greeks, Chinese and Romans all knew its benefits and commonly practiced massage on their mounts. In recent years, the high-stakes, high-priced world of horse racing, where the benefits of touch are quantifiable, has recognized the value of massage in training and therapy.
Now, equine massage clients are as likely to include working horses, show animals and rodeo horses, as well as the thousands that people own for pleasure. “What people are looking for is results,” said Schreiber, who opened her school in 1991, two years after trading her human clients for horses. At racetracks and show rings, she learned there was not only a significant market for horse massage, but also for training practitioners.
Today, students come to Virginia from around the world for her intensive, week-long training (five, 10-hour days of classroom work and practice). Fewer than 20 percent have experience on humans. The rest are trainers, veterinarians and assorted other horse people. They pay $875 (not including travel and lodging) to complete the certificate program, which Schreiber said is carefully sequenced to give students the tools to become thorough practitioners. “What I teach in five days is what it took me 13 years to learn,” she said. “I tell the students, ‘You will never be so prepared for anything in your life.’” Her estimated 4,000 graduates practice in a variety of settings around the world. One worked on a Kentucky Derby winner and another massaged the Queen of England’s horses. A typical horse massage takes an hour and can cost anywhere from $50 to $125.
Although some bodyworkers make the transition from people to horses, there aren’t that many parallels between human and equine massage, said Susan Mazlum, co-owner and primary instructor at EquiTouch Systems, Inc. “With a horse, we have a whole different set of ergonomics.”
Equine bodyworkers not only need to understand the horizontal structure of a large quadruped, but they also need to have basic horse sense about things like bridles, saddles, behavior, the horse-rider relationship and how to work safely with 1,000-pound animals. Like those in Schreiber’s program, fewer than a quarter of the students in Mazlum’s 150-hour basic program ($1,595 for 10 days) have massaged humans. Her courses cover theory, anatomy, philosophy and kinesiology. Graduates of the certificate program work with race, jumping, event and precision riding horses as well as with veterinarians and their patients.
Veterinarians have generally been slower to embrace massage, but Mazlum said she would like to see that change. “What we teach our students and what we like to see in the field is cooperation with the veterinary community,” she said. “Massage is a well-horse therapy. It’s a complementary therapy; it’s not an alternative, certainly not to vets.”
Part of the problem is that state veterinary boards, as well as human massage oversight entities, have been slow to recognize equine massage, mostly due to wariness about encroachment on their turf. Mazlum said she would like to see some standardization in education (including continuing education) and, eventually, regulation. Her husband and partner, Adrian, said consumers in the burgeoning field need education, not overprotection. “The more the public becomes aware of what kind of training is available, the better off everyone is.”