On the right track

Horses thriving through massage therapy
By Pamela H. Sacks



Theresa Gagnon was puzzled by her horse’s gait – and so was her veterinarian. Timer, a young paint, would trip on one of her front legs.

“There was nothing my vet could find that was wrong and nothing the blacksmith could find,” Ms. Gagnon said. “It wasn’t a shoeing problem.”

Seeking an answer, Ms. Gagnon decided to call on a neighbor in Oakham who was trained in equine massage. The neighbor applied her expertise to the troubled leg, and the tripping stopped. “It was a muscle problem,” Ms. Gagnon said. “She’s been fine ever since.”

Ms. Gagnon, a veterinary technician, wanted to know more about animals and massage. She soon learned about Jack Meagher of Rowley, a massage therapist and physical therapist who worked on humans. Mr. Meagher was out to demonstrate that massage had real physiological benefits. To make his case, he was working on horses.

“Horses can’t lie. They’re not going to do something because they think they feel better,” Ms. Gagnon said.

Ms. Gagnon trained with Mr. Meagher in the late 1980s and then went on to earn her certification in canine and equine massage at Equissage in Virginia. Today, she is the director of animal programs at the Bancroft School of Massage
Therapy in Worcester.

Ms. Gagnon helped develop a training program in small-animal massage in 2003. Three months ago, she realized her long-held goal to establish a course in equine massage therapy.
Over the years, the pet massage course has drawn dozens of students, many of whom want to establish a clientele. “It’s huge right now, particularly in the sporting-dog field,” Ms. Gagnon said.
When the program for horses was announced, the eight available spots were quickly snapped up. The course is offered one weekend a month for 10 months. One student flies in from Maryland, two drive up from Rhode Island and the balance converge at the school, 333 Shrewsbury St., from across Massachusetts.
On a recent bone-chilling Saturday, as the class took a lunch break, Kim Hutchins, a petite blonde from South Boston, explained how she happens to have a horse. She wanted to volunteer at an animal shelter, but she has a persnickety 20-year-old cat and knew she could not take in another pet. She headed to a large-animal shelter in Methuen run by the Massachusetts Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals. She soon met up with Eve, a mare that had been starved and neglected. Overcome by temptation, Ms. Hutchins adopted Eve; she now boards the horse at a stable in Tyngsboro, 50 miles northwest of Boston.
Ms. Hutchins is a 39-year-old paralegal who is flirting with a career change. She found Ms. Gagnon’s equine massage course online. “I saw it and said to myself, `Look, you can do this. You can go to school for this,’” she said.
Massage therapy is gradually gaining acceptance as a way to keep an animal in top physical shape. “The theory is if you manipulate the soft tissue, you can lengthen the muscles and restore range of motion and flexibility,” Ms. Gagnon explained.
Dr. Bud Allen, a veterinarian, said massage therapy is particularly effective when used in conjunction with other types of treatment. Dr. Allen, who co-owns the Family Veterinary Clinic in Haydenville, has been using chiropractic techniques on small animals and horses for 16 years.
“I have a lot of clients who incorporate muscle work for their horses, along with chiropractic and acupuncture,” Dr. Allen said. “It’s definitely a growing way to work with an athletic animal to maintain its athletic endeavors.
“All of this is getting more mainstream. What works best is an integrative approach, combining traditional and holistic methods.”
Elizabeth Harden, a student in Ms. Gagnon’s equine course, is a senior project director at the Center for Community Based Research at Dana-Farber Cancer Institute in Boston. Ms. Harden, 53, took the pet massage course and decided to add horses to her skills.
In her view, animals deserve a full range of treatments for optimum health. She wants to develop a clientele in animal massage after she retires, and she is encouraged by what she sees at Dana-Farber.
“We have the Zakim Center for Integrative Therapy, with acupuncture, mind-body intervention, massage therapy, art and music therapy and yoga classes,” she said. “This is one of the nationally funded comprehensive cancer care centers. When you see this happening here, you know things are changing.”
The equine massage course involves 200 hours of training and costs $4,750; the students agreed that the sessions are challenging.
They must complete 140 hours of instruction in such areas as anatomy and physiology, equine behavior, gait analysis and biomechanics. Ms. Gagnon emphasized that it is essential to understand an animal’s particular physiology before performing massage therapy.
In addition, the students do 50 hours of massage work on horses and undergo 10 hours of testing. Massachusetts has no professional licensing for animal massage. Connecticut requires 200 hours of training.
As lunch wound up, Ms. Gagnon and her students headed to an adjacent area of the building that had been converted to stalls. Ms. Gagnon had brought in two of her horses, Misty and Gus.
Ms. Gagnon started to work on Misty’s jaw. She felt a knot. Ms. Hutchins stepped forward to feel it. The knot was causing pain.
Ms. Gagnon explained that an area that gets the most repetitive action has the most tension. It is called a stress point.
Misty raised her hoof. Ms. Gagnon pressed her fingers into a spot on the mare’s leg. The muscles were tight. As she worked, Misty’s eyes glazed over, a sign that the tension was dissolving. “It’s better off not to get into the habit of using thumbs,” Ms. Gagnon advised her students. “Thumbs are weak.”
She explained that horses will become participants as they are massaged.
“They will regulate the pressure you are giving them,” she said.
“They will move away if it’s too much or lean into you if it’s not enough.”
Ms. Gagnon followed the arc over the top of Misty’s shoulder blade. “I’m looking for a reaction – what I’m feeling under my fingers,” she said.
Misty licked her chops, as if she had just eaten a really tasty carrot.
“That’s a good thing,” Ms. Gagnon said, smiling. “When you release an area of soreness, a horse will start licking and chewing.”