Here we go, friends! Over the next several weeks, I’ll be posting a series of short primers about equine massage therapy. I’ll include information about the roles of the different strokes utilized in massage, the ten primary biological systems in the equine body and how massage supports each one, as well as my overall goals as a massage therapist when I work with your horse.
To kick us off, I’d like to introduce you to the origin of equine massage therapy, a field that more or less owes itself to one Jack Meagher (1924-2005). While massage enjoys its legacy as the oldest healing modality east and west, many of the modern therapies we recognize today have been refined over the past two hundred years and continue to carve out specialty niches over time. Meagher, widely considered the ”father of sports massage,” got his start working with professional football players before establishing techniques that would lay the foundation for equine massage therapy.
Meagher was a World War II medic who first attended the Massachusetts School of Physical Therapy before choosing to work exclusively with athletes—just of the human variety, at first. It was through his work as a massage therapist for the NFL that he developed a technique he called “sportsmassage,” designed to address the underlying causes of muscular problems before they become injuries. As he tells it in a 1985 article, Meagher “got into massaging horses quite by accident. One of his customers had a broken-down quarter horse so old, says Meagher, that the poor beast couldn’t pick up his hind legs. The man asked Meagher to try his magic, and the horse turned out to have muscle spasms quite similar to those that bothered his master. ’Well, when I got through with that horse, he was as frisky as a colt, and that got me interested enough to study horse anatomy and practice on every backyard nag I could find.’”
Meagher was on to something, and the horses, their owners, trainers, and vets all knew it. While maintaining his human practice half the week, Meagher went on to serve as the first equine massage therapist for the U.S. Olympic Equestrian Team and at a number of World Championships internationally. Trainers observed that their mounts performed up to 20% more efficiently after massage. The results of his work were profound, and Meagher was in high demand. Before he died, he helped established the Jack Meagher Institute of Sports Massage and wrote two books to detail his technique for use by the everyday horse owner.
“A muscle is a muscle,” Meagher liked to say. ”My clients range in size and shape from ten-pound show dogs to fifteen-hundred pound horses; from hundred-twenty pound marathon runners to two-hundred-and-eighty pound NFL football linemen. The same problems occur in every sport for the same reasons. The physics and physiology of motion and the cause of strain-type injuries is always the same.” He stated that three concerns for any athlete, horse or human, are “1. To be as good as possible. 2. To be as safe as possible. 3. To last as long as possible.” Thanks to Meagher’s pioneering work—and to the fortuitous placement of a quarter horse who got another chance at feeling like a colt—equine athletes can and should enjoy careers in which they perform as well, as safely, and for as long as possible.