Massage Therapy: Galloping In a New Direction

horse-massage-3Massage therapy for animals is not a recent phenomenon. Historians have traced roots back thousands of years to Greeks who would massage both warriors and horses before battle.

Equine (horse) sports massage therapy in the United States emerged most prominently in the early ’70s. Jack Meagher, a highly respected human physical and sports massage therapist for the National Football League adapted his techniques to be used on horses. “The Meagher Method” is still the classic standard today.

Meagher joined the U.S. Equestrian Team in 1976, and his pioneering work recognizing horses as athletes in need of bodywork established massage therapy as a mainstay of the U.S. Olympic equestrian teams and the horse racing industry. Even amateur horse show competitors began to embrace the field.

Unfortunately, animal massage is not a regulated industry. There is no governing body, no minimum requirements, or standardized testing. A Google search for animal/equine massage therapy schools pulls up several pages of listings advertising various online courses, diplomas and certificates.

The D’Arcy Lane Institute in London, Ontario offers the only registered equine massage therapy program in North America. Students enrolled in the 2,200 hour program are taught to consider themselves as an extension of veterinary health care. The challenging curriculum addresses equine behaviour, anatomy, pathology, kinesiology, hydrotherapy and research.

Anthony Guglielmo, a New York state licensed Massage Therapist and Equine Massage Practitioner, was easily coaxed into the field of animal massage. A patient’s mother called Guglielmo and asked, “Will you massage my horse?” She had bought the horse unaware of the history of abuse that Champ had suffered. The previous owner had tied Champ up and beat him before competitions.

With little exposure to horses in his life, Guglielmo was hesitant, but his love of animals made the decision easy. He soon found himself driving to Synergy Farms in Ohio, to adapt his palpation skills for human muscles to a horse. Intimidated initially by his horse-friendly classmates, Guglielmo’s confidence was boosted by his solid knowledge of massage techniques and anatomy.

After successful sessions with Champ, implementing what he had learned at Synergy Farms, other horses followed. Then there were calls from the nations best zoos and aquariums asking Guglielmo to treat two senior dolphins (40 years old) known affectionately as the Golden Girls. Guglielmo’s burgeoning reputation led him to working on a 2,000 pound walrus named Nuka who could no longer swim as she had lost the use of her rear flippers.

Guglielmo wrote The Walrus on My Table, Touching True Stories of Animal Healing in 2000 with Cari Lynn. He colourfully outlined his years of practice treating not only humans, but a penguin with kyphosis, a shark with scoliosis, and one of the oldest beluga whales living in captivity.

There is still a fierce battle for acceptance of the merits of massage therapy and other non-traditional healing methods for animals by veterinarians. Horse owners recognized the needs of their horses long ago. They understood that their horses suffered the same stress and muscle soreness as human athletes post-competition. Horses have physically demanding roles as jumpers, in polo matches, racetrack competition and even trail riding.

workshop participant performing lumbar traction

workshop participant performing lumbar traction

By nature, horses are stoic about pain. A vicious pain and fear cycle can easily be created when a horse suffers an injury. When the horse resists the painful movement and the rider’s commands, the rider often adds more tack. This increases the pain the horse experiences, and as the rider takes the horse on longer, harsher, corrective rides, the horse begins to associate work with pain. It is only natural that the horse would also become fearful of being ridden as it exacerbates their pain.

Anne Turner, an Equine Therapist at Wit’s End Farms near Vancouver, British Columbia has spent over 30 years working intimately with horses. She has been involved with rehabilitating retired racetrack horses who had lost perception of their hind ends and how to use them. The racetrack horses had become accustomed to a bit holding them back from falling forward in a race. The weight of a rider on their back was new experience as well, as the racetrack horse is only familiar with the weight and positioning of a jockey.

Turner, during the years she lived in Jamaica, was exposed to horses hooked on heroin an cocaine. The horses had learned to eat their own feces to get high again. They attacked anything that moved in their anxious state. Turner tells troubling stories of horses in withdrawal, galloping non-stop in circles around the barn as she hosed them with cold water to calm them down. She expresses deep sadness and teeth-clenching anger for the people responsible for introducing the horses to such addictive substances. A poor diet and reliance on drugs results in minimal nutrient absorption, bacterial infections, dehydration, skin hypersensitivity, and for some, near liver failure.

Racetrack horses are routinely fed high carb diets of corn and beet pulp, which is a sugar byproduct reprocessed with added molasses. Equine diabetes is a common diagnosis. Turner’s detox program involved using iridescent green marijuana pestled and steeped in hot water. Methadone, and the amount a horse would require would be an exorbitant cost. She fed the horses apple flavoured electrolytes, yogurt, iron-rich Guinness and flax to help leach out heavy metals and decrease lactic acid levels. Oats and barley, with their high fiber content helped sweep the guts. Turner also incorporated homeopathic remedies like dandelion (for kidney detox), and white willow bark (a natural pain killer). Proper nutrition is essential for horses as their stomachs are only slightly bigger than humans, and they are susceptible to ulcers as well.

The anatomy of a horse is surprisingly parallel to a human, however, a horse carries 55% of its weight forehand, and 44% in the hind. Their brain is similar in size to ours, they have seven cervical vertebrae, and a nuchal ligament that stretches to allow feeding and lowering. The 18 dorsal vertebrae mirror our thoracic spine, but the horse has 18 ribs as opposed to 12. The lumbosacral joint, comprised of 5 to 6 vertebrae is often referred to as the “coupling transmission” that permits pelvic flexion and the engagement of the hind quarters to jump or gallop. The sacrum is identified as the “croup”, and the tail has an additional 18-20 vertebrae.

Despite having scapulae, horses have no collarbones. The true horse knee is posterior, and a unique locking system of the stiple joint/patella allows the horse to sleep standing up.

The shoulder sling (serratus anterior, scalenes) extends from C4-C7 to the ribs, and the rhomboids are actually found on the posterior neck of the horse.

The “withers” is the top of the horse’s back, and it can be easily stretched by a therapist using a carrot to entice the horse to move its head in certain directions. Carrot stretches are effective for the pectoralis group, posterior neck muscles and the latissimus.

The unique anatomy of the horse is most evident in its skin. A horse can feel a fly land on its back, and the skin twitches in response to messages from a nervous system that independently controls the skin. The knowledge that a horse can feel the weight of a fly suggests that a lot of force isn’t necessary when applying techniques.

Similar to human client assessment, a therapist can observe wear patterns on the horse’s shoes. Poor shoeing and a hoof imbalance can lead directly to incorrect weight-bearing and altered gait.

As Guglielmo discovered, massage techniques are interchangeable between humans and animals. Easier yet, a horse’s face and whorls can indicate a lot of information. If the profile is straight (as opposed to a Roman nose with the comic slant and hook), the horse is uncomplicated; long nostrils indicate intelligence and more than one swirl or whorl can serve as a warning of temperament.

Changes in a horse that indicate a need for massage therapy include weight loss, bucking under the saddle, rearing, aggressiveness, biting while being ridden, fatigue and depression. If the horse suddenly dislikes grooming, flinches, or can’t hold up its feet for a farrier, bodywork is recommended.

The use of tie-downs and side reins can cause temporo-mandibular joint dysfunction and atlas problems. A common lumbo-sacral joint hyper-extension strain is called a “hunter’s bump”. This strain can lead to overuse of hamstrings and inner thigh muscles compensating with added weight.

Lack of musculature in the horse’s top line can be a sign of back pain which in turn affects the horse’s digestive system. The nerves controlling the gut can increase or decrease gut action, resulting in excessive gas and colic risk.

Head trauma to a young horse can lead to a distortion of proprioception that can affect them for life. The birthing process can sometimes result in a head trauma if the horse is dropped. Skittish, highly reactive or spaced-out horses may be displaying signs of central nervous system damage. With an over-firing sympathetic nervous system, the horses react with instant flight to stimulus like noise.

A horse’s immediate environment can also leave them susceptible to injury: trailering accidents, falls in muddy fields and paddocks, ill-fitting saddles and a rider’s hard hands. Riding a horse hard causes increased muscle contraction in their necks and poll (between their ears). Dressage horses who spend so much time tucking their chins love to have their polls massaged.

Horses will naturally lean into you during a massage if they want you to stay in a particular area. If you move your hands they will step forward or back to relocate you back to that sweet spot. In this way, non-verbal communication with a horse is simple. Horses groom each other as a sign of affection. They will nibble, nuzzle, yawn and pass gas in appreciation of a massage.


The massage treatment for a horse is identical to the structure of a human’s. The massage begins with effleurage and progresses to petrissage, tapotment, trigger point work and thorough stretching. The benefits are the same: increased lymphatic circulation, nervous system stimulation, increased digestion, elimination, and improved heart function. Most importantly, the horse can experience a decrease in stress from hard work, competitions or an uptight personality. Massage can also be linked to helping the horse gain weight. Improved circulation helps promote hoof growth which in turn improves weight-bearing issues responsible for altering gait.

Following a massage treatment, the therapist needs to ride the horse to assess the difference in gait. Detecting problems while riding the horse is the most effective method. Successive treatments will allow for muscle and strength training which will become evident in the horse’s rhythm, hind-end engagement and “travel in a frame”.

For riders and horse owners, education is necessary to help determine the cause of repetitive injuries. Ground mounting can cause spinal torsion in the horse if the mounts are always on the same side. Unbalanced riders can cause horses to compensate for the uneven load, as can riders weighting on one hip.

Turner, nicknamed the “Florence Nightingale of the horse world” is currently working on a novel that will address the spiritual, mind and body connection of horses and their owners. She wants to share the healing power of horses with women who have been abused. Her priority is to ensure horses and their riders grow closer together through a relationship of mutual respect and trust. Certainly, introducing horses to bodywork is one of the essential methods.

Gulglielmo and Turner’s work proves the scope of massage therapy is expanding in all directions. As Guglielmo points out in his book, “the great divide between humans and the animal kingdom isn’t all that great.” Animals have emotions, intuitions and “they respond to and crave the same things we do, namely personal contact and interaction.”

Visit for information on upcoming workshops.

Categories: All Things Spa-like, Things with Fur and Feathers | Tags: , , , , , | 4 Comments

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4 thoughts on “Massage Therapy: Galloping In a New Direction

  1. Jules,
    Great write-up. You never cease to fascinate me. First your incredible skill with Cranio-sacral (giggle), that amazing trip to Africa (sincerely) and this great review on animal massage. Kudos my friend, kudos

  2. Yvette

    You can be a massage therapist for animals and I will be an animal psychologist. We could open up our own place! I’ll get started on the paper work.

  3. jules09

    I’m available Monday. We’ll call it Horsing Around?

  4. Yvette

    Ha ha that’s awesome!

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