Champ: Nag’in Pain
About a year after I opened my own medical massage practice—humans only—I receive a phone call from the mother of one of my patients.
Debbie’s mother, Sylvia, has been in my office a few times with her daughter so I have met her briefly before, but her call is still out of the blue.
“Anthony,” she says. “Could you take a look at Champ?”
“Who’s Champ?” I ask, trying to remember if her husband or son has such an unusual name.
“Oh, he’s beautiful, you’ll love him—everybody loves Champ—he’s a big bay, white socks, a real sweetheart—”
I try to interrupt. “Sylvia, I’m sorry, but I don’t—”
“Champ was abused. Severely.”
I don’t know what to say.
In a pinched voice, she goes on, “I didn’t know when
I bought him, but his previous owner had tied him up and beat him before competitions. Don’t ask me why; we don’t have any idea. It sure isn’t a way to train a horse. But he’s so tense when I ride him—I thought that maybe a massage could help him relax. Anthony, I don’t care if he ever becomes a top show horse. I just don’t want him to feel scared.”
My heart goes out to Champ, but what can I do?
“Sylvia,” I say, “I’m sorry, but I don’t know how to massage a horse.”
“I think you’d be great at it,” she says, her voice perking up. “I’ll call you next week after you’ve had a chance to mull it over.”
I hang up the phone, knowing full well the next time we speak my answer will still be no.
True to her word, a week later, Sylvia calls me.
“Champ has been asking about you,” she says.
Little do I realize, but there is a whole world out there devoted to horses and massage therapy. In equine circles, massage therapy is not necessarily viewed as cutting edge or alternative—it is an accepted, and even relatively standard, practice.
That night, as I flip through the American Massage Therapy Association Journal, I catch an advertisement I’ve never noticed before: “Become certified in equine massage. Learn how to practice the art of horse massage for performance and well-being.”
I can’t believe there is actually a school for this.
The next day I call the number in the ad to find out more.
“Equine massage has been practiced for years,” the school spokesperson says. “It gives the horse the edge in competition. Think of it this way: in your human practice, if you treat an athlete or a dancer they will find that massage enhances their performance—why wouldn’t the same hold true for a horse?
“We feel our program is one of the top in the country. We offer a certification course and teach you how to set up your own equine massage practice—how to recruit clients and market yourself.”
I certainly am not interested in the business plan aspect—I want to help Champ and then get back to my human practice. Still, the notion that my field is practiced on animals intrigues me, so I arrange for the school to send me a brochure and a videotape.
The massage I see on the video is not what I hoped it would be. I don’t know a lot about horses at this point, but I don’t like how they are fidgeting back and forth. The therapists seem competent enough, giving thorough explanations as they work; maybe this is how animal massage is supposed to be. If it is, I don’t like it. The horses are pulling to the ends of their lead lines and pushing away from the therapists, as if trying to avoid the contact.
On the video, the massage therapist is pressing firmly into the muscle groups—so firmly that it seems impossible for the massage not to be uncomfortable—even painful—for the horses. I picture a person on my massage table who jumps when I hit a sore spot. Do I keep pressing into that spot? Of course not. So why are these therapists?
Every massage therapist has a different mind-set toward therapy and toward treating pain. Many therapists—like many athletes and their trainers—subscribe to the “no pain, no gain” philosophy: you know things are improving when it hurts, or at least is uncomfortable. For me, massage therapy is a tool used to solve problems; but the problem can’t be solved if the patient is tense, or avoiding contact, or is unhappy or uncomfortable while I’m trying to treat him or her. Even if that patient is hurt—with a torn ligament or pulled tendon, for example—my massage will not be about pain: it will be about relaxing, smoothing away the tension or the spasm, so the patient isn’t bracing against the hurt anymore. And once the patient isn’t bracing—be it physically or mentally—the healing can begin.
As I watch the video, I start wondering if there are similar schools of thought for horse massage therapy. Do other schools teach a different, gentler philosophy? A few nights later, I flip through my massage therapy journals and find another advertisement for an equine massage school in Ohio. As I’m copying down the number, the phone rings. Cathy appears in the doorway.
“Guess who?” she says.
I put the number of the school on top of my stack of things to do first thing tomorrow.
“Our main interest is in the nurturing and care of the horses,” Patricia Whalen-Shaw, the owner of Integrated Touch Therapy, says when I call. “It’s a week-long intensive class where the goal is not necessarily to help animals perform better, but to help them recover from injuries and feel better.”
“I want to help one specific horse who’s been abused,” I explain. “I don’t want to cause him any more pain, though.”
“We don’t believe that a massage should be about pain. We practice applying massage with a gentle technique. The focus first and foremost is on relaxation. We want our horses to enjoy their massages.”
We speak for a half hour, and unlike the other school, Patricia doesn’t once give me the pitch about how they can help me set up my own practice, or how much money this certification will translate into. This is appealing because I don’t want to start a new business venture—I want to help Champ.
I encountered a similar situation when I was figuring out where to apply for regular massage therapy school. Many schools I had looked into had very stringent attitudes—they taught that there was only one right way of doing massage, and that was their way. Of course, I knew that wasn’t true: I knew of at least forty different massage techniques; to really master them, and use them effectively to develop your own style, is an art. I eventually made the choice to go to a school that was farther away from my home but was also open and nurturing.
Patricia’s school also seems small and personal, not a cookie-cutter type of place like the other. The only problem is that it’s in a small town in Ohio, about an hour from Columbus, and that means a pretty hefty investment of time and money—all for one horse and one persistent woman.
That night, over dinner, I discuss the situation with Cathy.
“I’ve never known you to pass up a chance of being with animals,” she says, and we decide I should enroll.
It’s a ten-hour drive from Long Island to Circleville, Ohio. When I arrive in Circleville, I check into the Travel Lodge, and the next morning, bright and early, I follow the map the school had sent me. At the entrance of a long driveway off the main road is a small wooden sign: Synergy Farm. I follow the drive past green fields, around to a white barn next to a two-story farmhouse. It looks like a well-kept farm, not a school.
I turn off my car and sit staring at the barn. Reality has hit: I am in the middle of a farm in the middle of nowhere. No, correction: there is one main road (with traffic lights), a Long John Silver’s, a Wal-Mart, and an interstate highway exit toward Columbus, which is an hour away. And I am here to learn how to—what else?—massage a thousand-pound horse.
There is no sign of any other human life as I get out of the car and grab the bag with my notebook and pens out of the backseat. I walk toward the barn and notice a side door with a plaque: “OFFICE.” It is the only indication that there might be a real school here. I pull open the door. Two women are sitting at a folding table.
“Are you here for the massage therapy class?” one asks.
I nod, then remember my manners and stick out my hand. “I’m Anthony Guglielmo.”
“We’re your classmates. I’m Lisa and this is Heike. We’re from Wisconsin.” Three students? The owner had told me they only allowed small classes, but this is personal attention at its finest.
Neither Lisa nor Heike has training in massage therapy, but both work as stable managers, so they have extensive experience riding and taking care of horses. As they talk about their jobs and the people and horses they know in common, I feel more and more out of my element. About the most experience I’ve had with horses was when I was a little kid at a neighborhood fair and I kept hunting for quarters so that I could have just one more ride on a horse who was being led back and forth down a chalked-in line.
Just then, the door opens and a woman in her forties wearing jeans and a T-shirt walks in. She introduces herself as Patricia, our instructor and the owner, the woman with whom I spoke on the phone. She tells us about herself and the other instructor—both are licensed massage therapists and sports equine massage practitioners—and about the farm, which is her home where she lives with her husband, daughters, cats, and dogs (which she admits to regularly massaging, too—she even offers classes in feline and canine massage).
She then hands each of us a three-ring binder. I am alarmed at first by the massive amount of material, but as I flip through the pages I realize it is mostly basic information on massage, such as the techniques of effluerage, petrissage, tapotement, all things that I know inside out and practice daily. As I watch Lisa and Heike try to soak up the massage definitions—all of which are new to them—I feel that I just might be able to hang in there.
What surprises me most, however, is that the equine massage techniques are quite interchangeable with the techniques I use on people. I haven’t actually thought about it before, but now it seems to click into place: living beings are not all that different from one another.
Included in the binder are numerous drawings of a horse’s anatomy, complete with lists and descriptions of the muscles and how they all work together. I thought that after I had graduated massage-therapy school, I would be done memorizing muscles. I didn’t anticipate that this would be anything but hands-on training—but here I am, again staring at a list that we are going to be tested on.
“It’s absolutely vital to know how a horse’s body works and to understand the intricacies in order to understand the problems,” Patricia says. As I look over the diagram, I realize she is right. It’s a common misperception that a massage is just rubbing. A medical massage is something far beyond, and in order to help serious problems you’ve got to really understand the location of the muscles, and which muscle affects what, and how the entire system is connected. There really is no way a person can just go in and start massaging a horse, or any animal for that matter, without understanding its anatomy.
Then Patricia passes out colored pencils. “The best way to learn the horse’s muscles,” she says, “is by coloring.”
We begin corresponding the numbers to the various muscles on the diagram and color them in so that we can distinguish one muscle from the next. I am familiar with the coloring lesson—we did the same in massage-therapy school with a special anatomy coloring book.
We spend the rest of the morning at the table, learning about the muscles—specifically synergists and antagonists, muscles that work with each other and muscles that work against each other. We also learn about the skin—the largest organ on a horse—and the unique nervous system (not present in humans) that controls the skin. If you’ve ever seen a fly land on a horse and noticed that the horse’s skin twitches, then you’ve seen that nervous system specific to the skin working—a horse’s skin can move on its own, unlike ours.
The class is as intricate as my anatomy and physiology class in massage therapy for humans, and the horse’s muscles and bones and movement are just as detailed.
After our lunch break, it is time to venture into the barn. Lisa and Heike are excited; this is their area of expertise. I am a little nervous—if I get stuck with a horse who is in a bad mood and decides to bite off my finger, there goes my career.
Patricia leads us through a side door and into the main barn. On either side of a center aisle, five horses wait in their stalls.
“Anthony, you take Lacey,” Patricia says, motioning toward a white mare with peanut-sized brown spots. “Lisa, you’ve got Sonata, and Heike, you take Zantana.”
I walk over to the far stall and stare at the horse. She stares back. She is quite unique-looking, with a yellowish-white mane and a black-gray patch on her nose. Lisa tells me the horse is an Appaloosa.
“The first thing you are going to want to do,” Patricia says, “is to size up your horse and evaluate its personality. If you are describing the horse’s size, you don’t do it in feet and inches as you would a human, you do it in ‘hands.’ An average measurement for a horse is about 15.2 hands, which is what Lacey is.”
Lisa and Heike are already patting their horses on the neck and between their eyes, and talking to them as if they were old friends. I am still standing a good two feet away from Lacey’s stall door, my hands intentionally behind my back.
“Next,” Patricia continues, “you look at five different characteristics: the eyes, the profile, the nostrils, the mouth length, and what’s called the whorls or swirls. Nice round eyes indicate friendliness.”
Lacey does have nice round eyes. Phew.
“If the profile is straight, as opposed to something called a Roman nose,” Patricia says, pointing to another horse whose nose bulges out in a comically Roman slant and hook, “then that indicates an uncomplicated horse.”
Lacey’s profile is nice and straight.
“Long nostrils tend to mean the horse is intelligent.”
Again, Lacey checks out okay.
“And the last thing to look for is the markings on their forehead. Whorls and swirls look like pinwheels. You don’t necessarily want to be working on a horse that has more than one marking.”
I peer at Lacey’s forehead—only one pinwheel; a good first horse. I find it odd, yet amazing, that you can tell so much from a horse’s face alone. If only humans had those same characteristics, imagine how different dating would be: the two-swirl men or women would be found out right off the bat, and there’d be no surprises, no “I thought she was different,” or “I thought I could change him”—there’d be far less divorce, that’s for sure.
“Now after you size up the horse, you want to greet it,” Patricia says, walking over toward Lacey and me. “First, you can’t be standing across the room.”
Lisa and Heike titter as Patricia takes my arm and leads me up to the stall door. “Then, you breathe into the horse’s nostrils.” She leans forward and exhales into the horse’s nose. The gesture looks odd to me, but Lisa and Heike are quite familiar with it and do the same. “This is how the horse gets a sense of you. Amazingly, they can know you by your smell.”
“Which may be unfortunate for them,” I say, “I had some pretty strong coffee this morning.” Patricia laughs as she moves out of the way so I can greet Lacey. I lean in and, mimicking the motion, breathe into the nostrils. The horse breathes out on me, her breath smelling sweet and rich.
Our next lesson is putting on the halter and lead rope. Of course, Heike and Lisa can do it in their sleep, and they try to stifle a laugh as they watch me struggling, trying to be gentle, trying not to bend the horse’s ears. Finally, Patricia comes over and turns the halter around. “It works better if you put the horse’s nose through the small hole, and buckle it over the top.”
I practice leading the horse out of the stall into the open center aisle, called the breezeway. From the wall hang “cross-ties”: two chains with snaps at the end; these attach to metal circles on Lacey’s halter. The cross-ties aren’t tight enough to prevent movement, but will keep the horse from walking or running off.
“Let’s start at the mandible,” Patricia says.
Tentatively, I rub my hand over the horse’s jaw to get the feel of it. Then I slowly begin moving my fingers in soft circles so that the horse’s skin moves with me.
Usually, when I work on a person, I don’t look at my hands. I often close my eyes and use my fingertips to “see.” The hands can detect the slightest abnormalities that the eye, just looking at a body, never could. But now, with Lacey, I am scared to even blink. Will this horse sense my fear and turn around and bite me? Exactly how much latitude will these cross-ties allow? I wonder if, by the end of the week, I will still be nervous.
Each day is broken up so that we’re in the classroom in the morning, then go into the stable to practice what we’ve learned. We move section by section: the neck is one lesson, then the shoulders, chest and foreleg, then the hindquarters. I identify each spot on Lacey, then do gentle massage, not deep-tissue, just surface rubbing to warm up the horse and to get a feel for the different muscles. Lacey stands as still as a statue and I figure she is always the horse assigned to the novice of the class.
Back in the classroom on the third day, we cut out strips of felt shaped like the muscles and stick them to a diagram of a horse taped to the wall: an adult version of pin-the-tail-on-the-donkey (er, horse). We go through each and every muscle, layer by layer. Then we head out to the stable and put what we’ve learned together, until we’ve covered the entire horse, mane to tail.
For our final test, we write all the muscles on Post-it notes and are led into the stable. It is a stifling hot day, ninety degrees indoors at least. Patricia has a large fan going but it seems to hardly stir the thick air.
Instead of getting to work on Lacey, I am assigned Sonata: a black mare, 15.3 hands, with a white star on her forehead. A “star,” I note, has nothing to do with swirls—which can indicate that a horse may be trouble. A star is just a white spot, a color marking. Sonata has big round eyes and nice long nostrils, although she does have a Roman nose—is that going to mean she’ll be somehow complicated or even difficult?
“All right, you’ve got to work with me,” I whisper as I breathe in Sonata’s nostrils. The horse stands motionless as I pull off the first Post-it note—easy, the pastern. I bend down and stick the note to the horse’s ankle. I walk round and around, locating the muscles, and pressing the Post-it notes onto the horse. I am acing the test. Suddenly I see the Post-it stuck to the flexor tendon slide off. I walk back around to restick it when the Post-it stuck to loins slides to the ground. Suddenly they all start sliding off and I am standing in a puddle of yellow Post-its. Patricia is snickering.
“I guess Post-it notes don’t adhere that well to a sweaty horse,” she says, mopping off her own brow with a bandanna. “Don’t worry, I’ve been watching you. Congratulations, you labeled everything correctly.”
Later, I work on Audi. Audi is a thoroughbred—the kind of horse that races on the flat, like in the Kentucky Derby. He is sleek, with well-defined muscles that show that he is made for running—and he’s tall: 17.2 hands, which means that his back is higher than the top of my head.
Audi fails Patricia’s checklist for determining if a horse is going to be easy to work on. His eyes are beady; his face is long, with a Roman nose; and he has two swirls on his head—so he’ll have a tendency toward unexpected emotional reactions.
What is worse, Patricia asks me to massage Audi in his stall rather than leading him into the breezeway where I’d have more room to work, and—more importantly—room to get out of the way if he decides to bite or kick.
“I know it’s unsettling,” Patricia says, “but you are going to have to work on a horse just like Audi one day and this is the only way you’ll learn how.”
I muster up my courage and enter Audi’s stall. I know I can’t show him how nervous I am so I stand tall, take a deep breath, and, under the watchful eye of Patricia, begin the massage. I push my thumbs into his crest (at the top of the mane, where the mane meets the neck) and make tiny circles in the muscles. Suddenly someone a few stalls away drops a bucket and it clangs against the cement floor. Audi is startled, his forefeet come off the ground in a rear kick. I fly out of the stall. My heart is racing. Patricia runs over.
“Are you all right?” she asks.
I nod. I am fine—unhurt, just shaken.
“Good. Now go back in there and finish,” she says.
My chest is still pounding as I shake my head.
“You’ve got to show that you’re in command. You cannot—hear me?—cannot—allow a horse, or any other animal, for that matter, to think he’s got the upper hand. You don’t have to be nasty about it, but you do have to show them that you’re the boss.”
Reluctantly, I take another deep breath, compose myself, and walk back into the stall. I do a hurried job with the massage, but I still finish, although I vow that I will never again work on a horse I feel I can’t trust.
“For today’s lesson,” Patricia says on our fifth day, “we’re going riding.” Lisa and Heike grin; they are used to riding every day and have been missing it.
“That’s really not necessary for me,” I say, but Patricia shakes her head—no way I can weasel out of this.
“It’s important to be able to detect problems when you ride. Then, after you massage the horse, we’re going to ride again so you’ll feel the difference.”
“But I’m really never going to be—” I try again.
Patricia cuts me off. “You’ll be amazed at what you’re going to feel, Anthony.”
No doubt about it, I am scared. I’m paired with Lacey again and I hoist myself onto her back, mimicking only what I know from watching The Lone Ranger. I feel like I don’t belong in the saddle. Suddenly Lacey begins walking, and I know that Lacey knows exactly who is in control. I have “rookie” written all over me.
“Just let her follow the others around the ring,” Patricia calls.
We all walk around the outside of the ring. After a few minutes I realize that this isn’t so bad, after all. Lacey’s brown-spotted ears keep flickering back as if she is listening to me. She is listening: when I tug on the reins to turn left, she turns left; when I tug right, she goes right.
“OK, now kick the horse to get her to trot.”
“I can’t kick her.”
“It won’t hurt her.”
But I still can’t bring myself to do it. Besides, I don’t want to trot. Walking is just fine by me.
“Now see if you can detect areas of stiffness or places where the horse is not getting a full stride,” Patricia says.
I am more concerned about falling off than I am about trying to figure out where massage might be useful. The others are off trotting or cantering while Lacey and I walk around in a circle. The only part of the horse’s stride I can concentrate on is making sure it isn’t going to go above a brisk walk. Forget about the horse being tense, my whole body is clenched until the moment I finally get Patricia’s okay to climb off Lacey.
On the last day of class, we pile into Patricia’s station wagon and drive to a barn about a half hour away. It is here that I meet the first two extremes that will go on to characterize a lot of my work with animals. It’s here that I’m scared out of my wits, and that I fall in love.
We have already each massaged all five horses at Synergy Farm: a workhorse, a thoroughbred racehorse, two quarter horses, and a pony. Although each one has a different personality, they are all quite accustomed to massage, and are easy to work on. The horses at this new barn are different.
I thoroughly enjoy the first horse I massage: Brandy, a twenty-year-old trail horse with a stiff neck. This is a common problem with some horses who are used for riding: it’s sort of the equivalent of human lower back pain—an annoying condition that’s the direct result of repetitive behavior. In a horse’s case, it’s from the tugging of the reins while they’re being ridden.
Before the massage, Brandy holds her neck rigidly—she can’t move her head up or down, or from side to side, fluidly. For twenty minutes, I do petrissage—deep massage on the muscle that starts behind her ear and travels down to the shoulder. With elongated fingers I make big loops—swooping up, then circling down to create invisible ovals.
After, I watch with a proud smile as the stable hand leads Brandy out of her stall. She holds her neck regally and swings it easily and gracefully. If she were a person who’d come to see me for lower back pain, she’d now be touching her toes.
It is so rewarding to see the near-immediate benefits of massage—even more so on animals than on people, I realize, because there is no placebo effect. When I massage a person, I never quite know how much of the benefit is from the massage or from the simple fact that the person is relaxed. For some people, just knowing that they are going to get a massage is cause enough for them to feel better. That’s the placebo part—where our brains tell us that something is going to work and because we think that, it actually does. But with animals, there is no advanced thought process going on. There is no power of suggestion. They don’t know that their sore muscle should feel better after I’ve massaged them.
So to do a massage, and then to see firsthand that a horse is actually taking a longer stride because I’ve worked his flank and stifle joint, or that it’s holding its neck with proper posture, is proof that the massage is effective.
But then my day turns sour. Enter Rose—and don’t be misled by her sweet name. Rose is a miniature Clydesdale, the type of big cream-colored draft horse with the long white “feathers” on its lower legs that the Budweiser commercials have made so famous.
“Where’s the miniature?” I ask Patricia, eyeing Rose dubiously.
“Hey, she’s about a hand or two smaller than a standard Clydesdale,” Patricia says. I am not comforted.
A stable hand pokes his head into the stall as I am greeting Rose. “Just an FYI,” he says. “Rose is in a downright nasty mood today, a real tizzy.”
It is another stifling hot day, especially in the barn, and especially in jeans, which we have to wear because of the flies. Cautiously, I begin working on Rose. As I make my way down her back and start to squat, I take my hands off the horse so that I can pull up my jeans, which are sticking to my legs.
Since my hands are momentarily off Rose, I have no advance notice as to what is about to happen. Normally, with my hands in place, I will feel the horse’s muscles contract, and be alerted to get out of the way.
Suddenly Rose is lifting her hind leg and swinging it straight toward me—a full-blown cow-kick, the most dangerous and powerful kind, aimed right for my knees. By sheer luck, and because my hands are on my knees, my reflexes take over and I catch Rose’s leg in my hand. I give it a yank before I let go.
Patricia is watching with wide eyes. “That was a good save.”
“No,” I say, “that was a lucky save.”
I head toward the stall door, but Rose moves directly in front of me to block my way. I push my fist into her rump—which won’t hurt her, but which will make her listen and pay attention to me. “You want to push me?” I say. “Watch, I can push back.” I am annoyed now. Rose pushes at my hand; I push back. I brace my leg against the wall for extra leverage. Finally, Rose backs off and I quickly maneuver around her and out of the stall. “I gave you a massage and this is how you thank me?” I mutter as I shut her stall door.
After Brandy and Rose, I want to call it quits. But there is only one left to go: a palomino named Chester, who was used in roping and riding competitions and has been here ever since a steer-roping contest when he was gored by the steer; that was Chester’s final competition. He now lives out his days in this boarding stable. As I study the six-inch-long jagged scar on the horse’s chest, my heart goes out to him. Despite his injury, he stands tall and has maintained his muscle tone even though he no longer works. I spend much time poring over his sore muscles. When I reach the scarred area I gently place my fingertips on his skin. He twitches and I back off for a few seconds before gently replacing my hand. He flinches again, but I hold my hand there, letting him know it is okay, that I am aware this is a sensitive spot, and that I’ll take it gently. Chester lets me delicately massage around the scars. He is patient and gentle. If I could fit him in my Honda, I would take him home with me.
But instead I leave Circleville alone. I think about the two extreme situations you can encounter when dealing with animals: you can absolutely fall in love, as I did with Chester; or you can be terrified, as I was with Rose. Each animal has the ability to affect humans in either of these ways; likewise, humans can have the same effect on animals. Despite some of my experiences today, I like to believe that dealing with animals is sort of like looking in a mirror—if you show respect, respect will be reflected back.
I drive through the night back to Long Island and, at long last, to Champ.
After I return home, I call Sylvia to tell her that I am now a certified equine massage practitioner. She lets out a high-pitched “Well, bless your heart!”
A couple of days later, I embark on the true test. I pull on jeans and a T-shirt and drive out an hour east on Long Island to a small town called Wading River. As I pull into the lot at the stable, I see Sylvia standing out front, waving furiously. She is wearing jeans and a blouse and riding boots and I think she is going to tackle me with a hug when I walk over. Instead, she just grabs my hand and holds it.
“Thank you from the bottom of my heart for coming, Anthony,” she says. “I can’t wait for you to finally meet Champ.”
She leads me into the stable. On each side of the aisle, over a dozen horses stand in their stalls munching on hay or dreamily gazing off into space. At the far end is a large riding arena. Sylvia stops in front of a stall halfway down.
“Here he is,” she says; I am not exactly sure if she is talking to me or to Champ.
Champ is a chestnut bay, about 15.3 hands, who looks as if he were ready for a night on the town. Sylvia had him freshly bathed, groomed to the hilt, with his mane and tail brushed and even braided.
“Grooming relaxes him,” Sylvia says, “and besides, I wanted Champ to make a good impression.”
Champ has nice round eyes, a white diamond on his forehead—with only one swirl—and white socks on all four legs. Overall, good signs that he’ll be pleasant to work on. As I was taught in school, I approach Champ by breathing into his nostrils so that he can get a general feel for me, the horse version of a handshake.
But as I lean close to his face, my stomach drops; there are the telltale signs of abuse: a scar across the bridge of his nose and jaw where his mouth had been wired shut.
“No animal should have such scars,” Sylvia whispers. “Besides the beating, I also heard that Champ had been tied up, but I have no idea where or how.”
I have a strong suspicion I will find out.
“I’m going to leave you two boys alone now,” Sylvia says. She leans in close to me, “I’ll be watching from down there. I don’t want to distract Champ,” she murmurs, as if she doesn’t want the horse in on her little plan.
As Sylvia walks away, I place my hand on Champ’s forehead, between his eyes, and gently rub.
“Here goes,” I whisper, feeling uneasy and excited at the same time—it is just me and this horse, no instructors to guide me. I pick up Champ’s lead line and lead him out of the stall and into the breezeway. If there is one thing I came out of school feeling strongly about, it’s that I don’t like massaging horses in their stalls, no matter how big or roomy. In the breezeway, neither of us will feel penned in; Champ will be able to see what’s going on, have more room to move around, and still be under control at all times. And it will be easier for me to get out of the way if there are problems.
As I’d been taught at school, I clip the cross-ties onto Champ’s halter, which will keep him from running off, but will still allow him enough slack so that he can move; I keep them loose so that he won’t feel as if he is trapped or tied up—this is important: I don’t want Champ to have any memory or association of his days of abuse during the massage.
I start massaging the back of Champ’s neck using effluerage, a basic circular motion that works the surface of the muscle to warm up the area. Almost like a kitten, Champ begins to melt under my touch. As I rub, he stretches his neck, pulling it down, then lifting his head—it is as if he knows this will enhance the massage. I work his neck up to his mane, then head down his back. I take my thumb and glide it into the muscle. If I feel a tight spot—a sign of tension—I press my forefinger and thumb and slide them back and forth. Champ lets out a huge sigh, yawns, stretches his head, then shakes.
Sylvia is standing far off to the side, but I can still hear her mutter to herself: “I have never seen that horse so relaxed.”
I work the top of his head—the poll—right between his ears. Most animals, especially dogs, love this spot; I know that since dressage horses spend so much time tucking their chins toward their chests, the poll is often very tight. I massage down to the crest, through the mane, into the neck, all the way down to the withers. I then move back to the jowl, just underneath his jawline, and run my palms straight down the length of his neck to get a good myofascial stretch. Then I do something to increase the circulation called “angel wings” or “V-wings,” where I put my hands flat against the horse, my fingers touching, and keeping my fingertips in place, I push my palms outward, making an inverted V. I do the angel wings all up Champ’s shoulder, then on the bicep and tricep muscles in his front legs.
And then something amazing happens: Champ turns his head and begins grooming me, nibbling on my hip, using his soft lips to gently pull at my jeans. I know horses groom each other as a sign of affection and respect, but in all the work the instructors and my fellow students did at school, I had never seen a horse groom a human. As I move down his back, he stretches to groom my back. Sylvia, from the corner, gasps.
I move my way down to Champ’s legs. It’s always amazed me how a 1,200-pound animal can stand on legs like spindles, but it’s the massive muscle in the hip that really supports them. As I massage down, Champ gives a little shake, as if he were concerned about where I am headed. Could this be a trigger of a memory of being tied up? I concentrate solely on his right leg and he stands still as a statue. I give his leg a good stretch by placing my hand behind the knee joint, holding the pastern in the other hand, and leaning my body weight forward, I can feel the tension release.
Then I do a circular motion with the leg, called circumduction, which will open the shoulder joint and allow a greater range of motion. If you place your hand behind a horse’s knee and rub down the leg, a horse oftentimes will lift up his leg. Holding the leg, I draw it to the side, making a circular motion, first clockwise, then counterclockwise. After the stretch, I let go of Champ’s leg, but instead of placing it back on the ground, Champ lets his bent leg just hang there, as if it is too relaxed to support his body.
Champ allows me to move him around at my will. He seems lost in a faraway place, as if he’s turned himself over to me and has completely stopped paying attention. On his hindquarters I use a chopping motion called tapotement, which is like karate chops, only instead of just using my hand, I use my entire forearm. Then I take his tail, and without grabbing or yanking, I wrap my fingers around it at the very base and pull. It’s as if someone cupped you under the base of your skull and gently pulled upward, so that your entire spine stretched—it is a form of traction.
In Champ’s case, it works: Champ’s spine actually straightens. Many therapists don’t watch body language, which is a mistake. This is why working on animals is so difficult—you’ve got to watch their bodies because that’s all you have. Champ can’t communicate that the stretch felt good, but by being tuned into the subtleties of his body, I can see the positive effect.
I want to try a back stretch, lifting from the belly. This is a feel-good stretch, sort of like arching your back, and I have a strong sense that Champ will be willing to try it. I squat, as if I am about to lift something heavy, then reach my arms under Champ’s gut. With my hands securely wrapped around his belly, I try to straighten my legs. Champ takes to it immediately and arches his back.
For the very last portion of the massage, I walk around front to do his face. His eyes look heavy, as if he has just woken up from a nap. I rub in a circular motion around his cheeks, nostrils, and lips. You don’t usually notice a horse’s lips because their big teeth tend to overshadow them, but their lips have this almost primordial softness, like velvet.
I let Champ’s head hang over me as I work down the front of his chest, the pectoral muscles. Then Champ lifts his head and gently rests it on top of mine. This is the most endearing gesture—I can almost hear Champ whispering: “I’m yours, you won me over, I’m your friend for life.” Champ is no longer a 1,200-pound horse. He’s become a family dog. He is breathing nice, long sighs. His head, like a sleeping baby’s, grows heavier and heavier against mine. I learned a lot at the certification school, but this reaction, this emotion, was never in any of the material we covered.
I am through with the massage, yet Champ is still in a sort of meditative state, so when I gently move my head from under his, he shudders, as if I have jolted him awake. I unhook the cross-ties and lead him back to his stall.
As of yet, there has been no indication of Champ’s traumatic past. There is only one more exercise I want to do that is a nice way to end because it induces the horse to stretch on its own—but it is also a little risky because it’s done in the stall, not out in the open, and the horse can’t be tied or restrained with cross-ties.
The exercise requires a prop and I reach into my bag to pull out a carrot. I slide it into my back pocket, careful not to let Champ see. Then I lead him into the stall, make a circle, and have him step sideways so that his left side is against the wall. I take the lead rope and draw him back so that his rump is up against the back corner. Then I hold up the carrot, allowing him to take a bite so that he knows it will, eventually, be his to eat. As he is chewing I bring the carrot down to the ground, luring his head to follow. Little does Champ know it, but I’m not teasing him so much as getting him to do a neck stretch. I bring the carrot back up to knee height, then slowly move down so that Champ stretches his head all the way down in between his hooves. Upon successful completion, he gets to finish off his reward. I nab another carrot from my bag and hold it near his flanks so that he turns his head to the right, stretching his shoulder, neck, pectoral, latissimus dorsi. This completes the stretch on Champ’s entire right side, so I lead him over to the opposite wall to line him up for the leftside stretch.
As I try to back him into the corner, he suddenly, and for the first time today, refuses. Something has triggered a memory—I knew it would come out, and here it is.
He fidgets and is no longer calm, but flustered. He won’t follow the carrot, but instead walks forward. I back him up and he walks forward again. I back him up again and he does a bit of a dance showing that he doesn’t want to cooperate. I don’t know if I should continue—should I respect the fact that this horse has been abused and was traumatized?
I decide the only way for him to get over his anxiety is to help him work through it.
“Champ, back up,” I say firmly. “Let’s go, boy.” Reluctantly, he backs up and we stretch the left side, the one that must have taken the brunt of abuse. I want to break the cycle of memories. This is obviously the position he was in when he was tied up. I want to show him that the abuse is over, that he can be in this position and nothing is going to happen, he’s just going to get a good stretch.
Even though the massage is technically over—we have worked every aspect of his body—I don’t want to leave Champ on this negative note, as I know that animals remember what you do last. So I begin to gently work his back again, doing the strokes in the areas that he enjoyed.
“No one’s going to hurt you ever again,” I whisper.
When Champ is relaxed again, I leave the stall and gently close the door behind me. Sylvia walks over and says, “I just want to let you know that I’ve never seen Champ act that way with anyone other than me, and even then, it’s rare that he’ll show that much affection.”
Not only is the massage beneficial for Champ, but I feel an incredible sense of accomplishment. I performed an entire horse massage without needing a teacher standing over me. I knew what to do and I had allowed my hands to do what came naturally.
I continue to massage Champ on a weekly basis. Soon, Sylvia allows me to come to the stables without her, she knows she can trust me to be alone with Champ. One day, when I walk into the stable, there’s only Champ and one other horse I have never seen before. The other horse is a large, very dark brown, almost black, mare who’s a little overweight. She’s in the stall directly across from Champ’s. Since I am going to be working on Champ in the breezeway, right next to where her head hangs out of her stall, I figure I should go say hello. I walk over to give her a little pet on the head, but as soon as I extend my arm, she immediately spins around and bounces her rear legs as if she is going to kick me. I jump back. I don’t understand, have I scared her?
As soon as my heart stops pounding, I go over to Champ’s stall, lead him out, and set him up in the breezeway. The dark horse has turned back around and again has her head sticking out of the stall. One of the hooks from Champ’s harness is right next to her stall, only a few inches from where her head is. I know she can sense my fear, so I decide to try one more time to make peace. I reach my hand toward her head and again she spins around. I back off, quickly hook Champ’s clip to the wall, and walk around to Champ’s far side.
I start working on Champ’s neck, but as I massage, the mare leans her head over, takes the cross-tie in her teeth, and pulls, drawing Champ toward her. I yank it back, and continue massaging. Again, the horse pulls at the cross-tie. Again, I yank, and it becomes a tug-of-war between me and a very mean horse.
Through all this, poor Champ—who’s trying to stay out of it—is caught in the middle, being pulled back and forth. There’s nowhere else for me to hook the cross-tie to, so I try to ignore the other horse. She continues to antagonize us and Champ continues to sway—he’s drawn toward her when she pulls, then back toward me when I pull. Despite all the distraction from the other horse, Champ is letting out deep sighs and nuzzling my shoulder, proof that he’s still enjoying the massage.
I finish the left side, but I hesitate before moving. I need to work Champ’s right side, but that means I will have to have my back to the other horse. I know that when you’re in the company of a distrustful horse, you never turn your back to it. My only option is to try once again to make friends with the mare. Holding my breath, I go over to her, talking gently, “Hey, girl, that’s it, I just want to say hello.” She allows me near her and cautiously I blow into her nostrils and touch her forehead, rubbing in between her eyes. She lets me stroke her jowls and I can’t believe this is the same horse that not more than twenty minutes ago had tried to slam me. I play with her chin, letting her feel my hands and see what they are doing. Is she at ease with me because she has seen me working on Champ and has seen him enjoying it?
A stable hand walks in and sees me near the mare.
“Be wary around Cocoa,” he cautions. “She just had her ovaries removed. Cysts. She’s fine now, but suspicious of everyone because she’s had nothing but needles for the last couple days. I wouldn’t go near her myself.”
So that explains it. Once she saw what I was up to, and that I wasn’t a threat to her and that Champ was actually enjoying what I was doing, she was okay.
I go back to massaging Champ and Cocoa doesn’t pull the tie once. I make a mental note to never forget this incident, for it is a strategy that I can use in the future: if ever I have to massage more than one horse at the same stable, I will know to take the one with the nicest personality and massage it first, in plain sight of the other horse. By the time I am ready to work on the more difficult one, they will both have been eased—either that or the second one will succumb to what I believe is sort of like animal-peer pressure (if Champ was nice and sweet, then I can be too). Animals, either through communication or instinct, understand—here is the evidence, in black and white.
I continue to massage Champ on a regular basis. Champ returns to the show ring, although it’s not likely he’ll ever be the top show horse that he once was. No matter, he is more relaxed, less jumpy, and his posture and stance are much improved.
Sylvia is no longer pestering me. She is so pleased, however, that she has given my name to everyone she knows. So all her horse-owning friends are calling … calling … and calling.
THE WALRUS ON MY TABLE. Copyright © 2000 by Anthony Guglielmo and Cari Lynn. All rights reserved. No part of this book may be used or reproduced in any manner whatsoever without written permission except in the case of brief quotations embodied in critical articles or reviews. For information, address St. Martin’s Press, 175 Fifth Avenue, New York, N.Y. 10010.