The history of equine massage


Massage enjoys its legacy as the oldest healing modality known to humankind.  While the foundations of massage endure largely unchanged, many of the modern therapies we recognize today have been refined over the past two hundred years, and specialty niches continue to emerge.  The tremendous proliferation of equine massage therapy throughout competitive venues worldwide is one testament to the efficacy of manual bodywork.  The practice of equine massage largely owes itself to Jack Meagher (1925-2005), frequently cited as the "father of sports massage."  Meagher first worked as a physical therapist in the NFL before establishing techniques that would lay the groundwork for the field of equine massage therapy.

Meagher (MAHR) was a World War II medic who first attended the Massachusetts School of Physical Therapy before choosing to work exclusively with athletes. It was through his work as a physical 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 told in a 1985 profile of Meagher, he became the first professional equine massage therapist 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."

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 in 2005, 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.

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.
— Jack Meagher

"A muscle is a muscle," Meagher liked to say.  In Meagher's mind, the primary 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.