I started my career as an equine sports massage therapist in 1998. I worked for 10 years full time and 10 years part time — and I loved every minute of it. It was entertaining for me when people asked me what I did for a living. The idea of getting massage for themselves isn’t on the radar of most people, let alone the idea of a horse needing massage, so it was always fun to see the look on their faces when I told people my occupation . . . nearly as much fun as when I later started telling people I was an animal communicator!
One of my favorite questions non-horse people would ask is: “How do you get them to lie down for the massage?” Of course, the answer is that horses don’t lie down. They get massaged standing up.
I took to equine massage like it was something I’d been doing my whole life. My background in nursing and anatomy was a huge help. While the human and equine bodies don’t have exactly the same muscles or bones, the muscles function the same basic way. As muscles contract and extend, they move parts of the skeleton, so it was easy for me to make the anatomical leap to the way the body of a horse works.
I read everything I could about things that could go wrong with the bodies of horses — injuries, deformities, illnesses, etc. — so I could help their muscles cope with the compensating they needed to do. Everything is connected in the body of a horse, from the ground up and a problem in one area will affect other parts of the body as well.
I was often at barns when farriers visited and learned everything I could from them about hoof problems and horseshoes. Some of those farriers even became clients. I was also blessed, early in my career to work at a barn where I met an equine vet who offered to take me on “ride alongs” once or twice a month for a year or so. I got to see and learn a LOT from this vet. He too later became a long term client.
The magical thing to me was the way the horses took to my massage work. Even before I realized they were communicating with me, the communication process was happening. I talked to them with my voice, body language and my hands. The horses understood that I was going to help them feel better.
Sometimes during the first massage, because the horse was so tight and sore, they would be reactive — which was totally understandable. As I worked with their muscles, I told them I understood that it was going to be OK — and they knew I was listening. It makes a huge difference when animals know we’re listening. The horse would get less and less reactive as the massage progressed and they realized I could help them feel better. By the second massage, they couldn’t wait for me to start!
I have heard more than one person (not my clients) say, “My horse doesn’t work hard enough to deserve a massage.” That is so wrong. Every horse, no matter what work discipline they are used for or what age they are — will get tight muscles. If they’ve had an injury or physical issue, that will affect their muscles even more as they try to compensate. The same is true for humans, but humans can decide to skip or shorten the 5 mile run or swimming workout if they’re sore. Horses don’t have that option. They are expected to perform no matter what is happening with their bodies. To me, all horses are athletes, even if they are retired athletes. They willingly carry us around and do the best they can to do what we want. If they object or refuse — we should not assume it’s a behavior issue — because quite often, it’s not.
I worked at a barn that had a trainer who taught students jumping and who had his own horse jumping at the grand pix level. For anyone who is not into equine sports, grand prix horses jump fences that are 5 feet high and jumps that are 6 feet wide. A horse has to be a serious athlete to jump at the grand prix level.
One winter the jumper trainer asked me to work on his grand prix jumping horse, Renaldo. Renaldo was a character and a lot of people didn’t like him because he was not always predictable or cooperative — but I take every horse as I see them and don’t let other people’s issues cloud my judgment of the horse. Renaldo was a bit of a handful for me (he was a playful horse) but once he realized I was going to help him feel better, we had no further problems.
During the winter at this barn, it was only possible to ride inside in a medium sized arena. Jumping was possible, but only over 2 to 3 fences, due to the space issue and only 2 jumps could be set up at a time — a lot less than a normal jumping course. So the jumpers didn’t get much of a work out in the winter.
As spring arrived, the trainer started working his horse in the much larger outdoor ring, where 8 or more jumps could be set up. Right from the start, he set the jumps to the maximum height of 5 feet. Even without being told, I knew that Renaldo was working a lot harder — his muscles became extremely tight and sore, even though I was massaging him once a week. I mentioned this to the trainer and suggested maybe backing off on the high jumps a bit and gradually working up to the higher jumping heights would be helpful to Renaldo. His response was, “He’s lucky he’s getting massages. Do you want me to just have him jump 12 inches? I’m the trainer — you fix his muscles.” Of course that wasn’t what I meant at all . . . even human runners warm up slowly after a winter of little activity, right?
Nothing changed with Renaldo’s work level and his muscles were sore every week. One day I was at the barn to see another horse. I walked into the barn, past the door to the arena and started talking to the client whose horse I was there to see. After a few minutes, we heard a commotion in the arena and looked up to see Renaldo at the arena door — looking right at me. Someone who had been in the arena at the time told me later that Renaldo and the groom had been walking at the far end of the arena, where he couldn’t possibly have seen me come in. But when he heard my voice, he suddenly stopped walking and then dragged the groom to the arena door!
I didn’t need a translator to understand the look on Renaldo’s face: “Help me! I need another massage!” The groom was struggling to drag Renaldo back into the arena without success. Renaldo was just standing in the doorway staring at me. When 1000 pounds+ of horse doesn’t want to move, it’s not going to move! I went over to Renaldo, rubbed his neck and told him I’d work on him in a few days. He got the message. He dropped his head and let the groom lead him away.
Another horse who showed clearly that he knew my voice was a handsome Arabian gelding named King.
I massaged King monthly for several years. He didn’t like to stand in the cross ties — he would get very fussy — but always stood quietly for his massages.
After a few years, King’s person started having financial issues and had to stop scheduling massages. It was very hard for her to tell me to stop scheduling King. She knew how much King loved his massage and how much it helped him, but she had to trim her budget so she could keep King. I completely understood and told her that if things got better for her we could start massage again. She said she would keep in touch.
Five years went by before King’s person contacted me to schedule monthly massages again for King.
When I arrived on the scheduled day, King’s person and I talked for a while near the parking area, well away from the barn. There was a lot to catch up on! After a short time, I started hearing King in the barn fussing about being in the cross ties — normal behavior for King.
We continued to talk as we talked toward the barn. As we got close to the barn, the fussing suddenly stopped. When we walked into the barn, King had his head up and ears pointed at the door — he’d heard my voice and was looking for me! As soon as I walked over to King and let him smell me, he put his head down and relaxed completely. He hardly moved a muscle the whole time I worked on him. No question that he remembered me and was SO happy to get his massages again!
There will be more stories from my massage career coming in the future!
“Sky massaged my horses for about 10 years. I could always feel a difference in their movement when Sky worked on my horses. The special thing about Sky is her devotion to every horse she cares for. She works not just with the body of the horse — their emotional health is very important to her as well. She is able to communicate to each horse a sense of calm and trust. Sky’s love for horses and her special talent in understanding their needs benefits my horses greatly.” — Kathy L., NJ.