Equine massage therapy provides relief for horses as well as owners
May 14, 2015
A summer dusk is falling as Kenny Kocer runs his hands along the horse's flanks. He stops for a moment, his palms flat, and applies a little pressure by the right hip with the tips of his fingers. His eyes are focused intently on the gelding's face. The horse shifts his weight and takes a small step. He looks uncomfortable for an instant, but remains calm. Kocer continues his probing. A few more pressure points are identified and adjusted, and then the horse does something I've never seen him do before — begins smacking his lips, before letting out a huge, gaping yawn. Just what Kocer predicted he'd do.
"Yep, that's how you can tell he is feeling better," Kocer says, smiling.
Kocer, who lives in Meadow, South Dakota, started his equine massage practice nearly a decade ago, by training at the Equine Sports Therapy School, located in the Black Hills. "I was with my daughter at a barrel racing clinic when I saw a trailer that said 'Equine Sports Therapy' on the side."
Kocer had a horse with him that day that was not performing as it used to, so he asked the woman with the trailer, Rhonda Evans, to take a look. After she was done, she told them to long trot the horse around, and Kocer watched the horse "recover" before his eyes. After that, he was a believer.
Kocer decided to seek training so he could use the techniques at home on his own horses. "But the business ended up exploding," he says with a grin. "I can go to a 4-H rodeo and work all day if I want to…When you are done you can tell the horse feels better than they ever have."
It may seem that equine massage is a new trend, but in reality, its roots are ancient. There is no doubt, however, that the modern practice of massage has undergone a massive resurgence in recent decades. According to the website for Equine Sports Therapy, (the school founded by Kenneth "Buster" Harlow, who died in 2007, and is now run by Evans): "Massage has been used for therapeutic purposes on both humans and animals since the very dawn of time," though the medical establishment briefly displaced many of the techniques in favor of pharmaceuticals and surgery. The website goes on to say, "People began to realize that they were often getting as much relief and treatment from 'alternatives' as from the Pharmacist's drugs and the Surgeon's scalpel."
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That is exactly how Leeann Garnas, owner and operator of Garnas Equine, an equine service source located in Bozeman, Montana, became involved in massage therapy. She was working as an exercise rider when she started to contemplate alternative care for the horses. "I was really interested in using things that were helping me feel better — like massage. Why couldn't that be used on horses?"
Through extensive practice and training, she has found massage therapy to be vital in both maintaining and returning a horse to optimal health and performance by increasing circulation, retraining muscles after injury to prevent chronic pain, enhancing muscle tone, and reducing swelling. According to Garnas, it can also be good preventative care, especially for older horses, and additionally can circumvent disease by "invigorating the lymph system."
Kocer and Garnas both caution that massage therapy is not a replacement for veterinary care, however, the two methodologies have become increasingly complementary, with many vets advocating for the use of massage therapy.
Dr. Scott Cammack, DVM, who specializes in equine medicine at the Northern Hills Vet Clinic says, "I once heard it described as spokes in a wheel. You have a vet, a massage therapist, a trainer — all of these work together so a horse can achieve its top performance." Cammack says he often refers patients to massage therapists for rehabilitation. "It doesn't fix everything," he says, "but it can be a great tool, especially if a horse is really sore in the neck or back."
Dr. Lindy West, also a DVM that specializes in equine care at the West River Clinic in Hettinger, North Dakota, describes the way a vet and massage therapist can work together. "If there is an orthopedic problem with [the horse's] feet, that will throw off the back. Massage can help with the back, but you still need the vet to fix the original problem."
One concern when it comes to equine massage, however, is the wide variability of quality in the services available. The National Board of Certification for Animal Acupressure & Massage (NBCAAM) was founded in 2008 "to establish and uphold professional standards for animal acupressure and massage practitioners," and "certifies that a practitioner has met these standards by developing national certification examinations." But, this certification is by no means standard in the industry. Meanwhile, certification through individual massage schools can mean many different things, and can require as little as a few hours of training, or as much as a few hundred. Therefore, it is up to the client to do his or her homework before hiring someone.
"In my opinion, a therapist should be willing to chat without charging," Garnas says. From there she advises going with your gut. "If you like them, and think you can work with them, they will probably be able to work with your horse, since you know your horse better than anyone."
She also advocates for asking a lot of questions. "Find out about their training, their credentials, how long they have been practicing, and see if you can speak to references. This is an industry that still operates largely by word of mouth, so ask around. Checking with your vet, farrier, or even the local feed store is a good place to start."
West agrees, and adds that a trustworthy massage therapist will be honest about their limitations. "You want to work with someone who will tell you when to seek vet care. They should not be giving you medical advice."