The Horse Pamperer

Equine massage therapist brings relief to Juneau's hardworking horses

Posted: Friday, July 13, 2007

Americans are pampering their pets more than ever. According to the American Pet Products Manufacturers Association, we shelled out more than $38 billion on our birds, beasts and barracudas in 2006. That's almost double what we spent just 10 years ago.

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Creature comforts for our creature companions have become almost comically extravagant and lately include pet perfumes, organic hand-prepared treats, and even bird cages designed by name architects. But the soaring spending also owes a lot to growing demand for medical treatments that, until recently, were human-only options. MRIs, chemotherapy, and psychotherapy - including prescription anti-depressants - are now nearly commonplace for cats, dogs and even pot-bellied pigs. And just as humans increasingly explore alternative medical treatments such as aromatherapy and acupuncture for themselves, they've also begun seeking them out for their four-footed friends.

So when you hear that some local horse owners are regularly treating their mounts to $65 full-body massages, do you just want to roll your eyes? According to Michele Drummond, a longtime Juneau resident who last year became the capital's only trained equine sports massage therapist, you shouldn't. "Horses are athletes," she said, "and like any athlete their bodies need special attention."

Abby Madsen, who teaches riding and horsemanship to dozens of Juneau kids and is the owner of six horses boarded at Fairweather Stables in the Valley, agrees. "I want to get the best performance possible out of my animals. So to me if it's special tack or treatment or whatever they need, they'll get it."

Every week Madsen turns over part of her herd to Drummond, who spends an hour or more on each animal, methodically searching out and kneading away their aches and pains. Working right in the horses' stalls, sometimes standing on a stool to get a better purchase on taller steeds, Drummond has a firmly practical approach, one that foregoes the scented candles and new-age music we commonly associate with human massage therapy.

"At the very least, it's proven to increase blood flow to the muscles," she said. "With better blood flow, strains or tears they might have suffered during a training session will repair themselves more quickly. They are able to work harder and for longer periods of time when you include massage as part of their routine."

A pragmatic outlook has been central to equine sports massage since its beginnings just a few decades ago. "A muscle is a muscle," said the late Jack Meagher, widely regarded as the father of the profession. In 1970, Meagher was a massage therapist for professional football and basketball players when a friend with a lame quarter horse came to him for help. Meagher took an interest, so much so that 10 years later he was the official masseur to the horses of the U.S. Olympic Equestrian Team when it won a gold medal at the Montreal games. His book "Beating Muscle Injuries for Horses" has become a bible of the industry.

Nowadays there are hundreds of practitioners of equine massage in the United States and scores of schools offering training. Drummond attended the program at Animal Dynamics, amid the horse farms of north Florida, in 2006. In addition to many hours of hands-on instruction, her studies included equine anatomy and nutrition, techniques to evaluate muscle, tendon, and ligament problems and proper fitting of saddles and other tack to prevent injuries.

Drummond, 41, has a degree in zoology and has worked primarily as a fisheries biologist since coming to Alaska in 1992. But she has experience with horses going back to age 14, when she took up a paper route to pay for the first of more than 10 years of riding lessons.

She was a founding member of Ohio University's equestrian team, and following college and a stint with the Peace Corps in Africa, she put in two years as a groom at a saddlebred breeding farm outside Columbus, Ohio.

Drummond's many years around horses and her close understanding of their temperament are essential to her work. As Meagher once remarked, "A horse is the biggest, toughest, strongest athlete in the world, but he can't tell you where it hurts. You have to go and find the problem. It's kind of a study of anatomy in Braille."

"I watch their eyes and their ears," Drummond said. "I work up gradually to deeper and deeper massage, so the horse has the opportunity to let me know if I need to back down a notch."

And as Drummond watches, she also feels. "A muscle that's stretched really tight can feel like the head of a drum. When I find that kind of strain I'll go over the whole of the muscle to locate the point of tension. I'll find it and apply pressure to it, and often I'll actually feel the muscle give way and relax, like a rubber band contracting.

"Around the joints, where many muscles and tendons meet up, a lot of strain and soreness can develop. When you give special attention to these places lots of times you can release tension throughout whole muscle groups."

Drummond varies her technique, which includes many of the same strokes used in human massage, depending on the horse and the primary purpose of the therapy. An Arab-quarter horse mare with a sore shoulder gets deeply concentrated kneading and pressure-point massage over the troubled area. For a saddlebred-Arab mix with an awkward gait suggesting lower back pain, Drummond focuses on the muscles along his spine that support his undercarriage.

For some clients Drummond's efforts are more broadly therapeutic. At Fairweather Stables, Madsen also keeps a painted pony that she rescued from neglect in fields near Whitehorse, Yukon Territory. The stout little pony, its ears trimmed by frostbite, arrived in Juneau in a semi-feral state - not particularly aggressive, but skittish in the extreme.

"With him there is no 'hurts-so-good' kind of intensity," Drummond said. "It's mainly just putting my hands on his body and letting him feel comfortable with the touch. In the beginning as I'd move toward his hindquarters, where it's more difficult for him to keep an eye on me, he'd get very tense. Now he's learning that it feels good and that having someone nearby is not necessarily threatening."

For similar reasons, Whitney Reeves, who like Madsen is a lifelong Juneau horsewoman, has Drummond massage her year-old quarter horse colt Fancy on a regular basis. "Colts need that hands-on touch all over their bodies in order to get used to humans," Whitney said. "Fancy is a much friendlier horse since Michele's been working on her. Now she loves to be handled anywhere. She knows it feels good. She knows you're a good thing coming when you meet her at the stall."

Like Whitney, Madsen sees clear results from Drummond's efforts. "Horses were not originally designed for riding," she said. "They're carrying all this extra weight and using their muscles in special ways - they get sore pretty easily. I can tell since Michele's been working on them that my horses feel a lot better. It makes it easier to train them and have the kids work with them because they're not having muscle issues. Their overall well-being is just a lot better."

Instilling that well-being was among Drummond's primary motivations for taking up the work. "When I left home and went off to college I continued riding lessons through the university's physical education department. It was a way to bring something familiar from home; horses had always given such comfort to me. Now all these years later I'm giving them something in return. And how could you not like a job where every day the animals you work with are really happy to see you?"

In a world where you can buy UV-protective goggles for your dog, a French feather bed for your cat and a mouse defroster for your boa constrictor, maybe some pampering for an animal willing to carry you on its back for miles isn't all that excessive. Ultimately, equine massage seems to be both a therapy and a luxury, a treatment and a treat.

"My horses are not just pets. They have a job, and they deserve to be properly taken care of and even spoiled every once and a while," Madsen said.

• Tim Clark lives in Douglas and works for the Juneau Docks and Harbors Department.

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