The Horse and Rider Connection

Restoration & Maintenance through Equine Massage Therapy

The Herald Sun - 18 October 1998

The Power of Touch silhouette

In ancient Greece, the centaur was a mythological beast with the head, trunk, and arms of a man and the body and legs of a horse. In the 1500s, when mounted Spanish conquistadors landed on the shores of the New World, the Aztecs thought they were seeing man/horse gods shimmering on the horizon. Today, the centaur is fiction and the conquistadors history, but the notion of horse and rider as a single entity is gaining new believers. Equine massage itself is not new. Horses are athletes. When they get Injured or sore, they benefit as much as humans do from some expert pressing and gentle pummeling of the muscle and connective tissue beneath the skin. What is new, at least in the Triangle, is the notion that massaging the rider along with the horse can improve the unspoken communication between the two, resulting in a smoother, more enjoyable ride. "Horse people tend to take care of their horses before themselves," says Carolyn Foster, one of two massage therapists in the Chapel Hill-based Horse & Rider Connection. "The whole concept of what's going on in the rider having an effect on the horse is revolutionary."

'Thoroughbred, $800'

Gayle AIlor was reading the want ads two years ago, looking under Dogs for Sale when she saw the ad. "I was looking for a Jack Russell," said Allor, a professional horse trainer. "It said, 'Thoroughbred, $800.' I said that's not right." She traveled to Louisburg on Valentine's Day. It was raining and the horse was an emaciated 600 pounds -- she could count every rib. She bought him. "I rehab thoroughbreds off the track. Even as skinny as he was, you could tell he was built pretty nice," she said. "He looked at us like, 'Where the hell have you been?'" Six-year Sambvca -- the v is pronounced u -- had raced until the year before. His owner had bought him for trail riding but hadn't counted on having to retrain him as a pleasure horse. When he took off one day in the woods, she turned him out to pasture and began to neglect him, Allor said.

Two years later, Sam is a healthy 1,600 pounds. But even the best-conditioned horses get occasional stiffness. When Allor noticed Sam wasn't moving as smoothly as she knew he could, she called equine massage therapist Bobbi Whittemore, who had helped one of her other horses recover from surgery. And on a sunny Saturday, Allor got two massages: onefor her and one for Sam. She didn't need to be sold on Whittemore and Foster's philosophy. "I know everything I do affects everything he does," she said, as she sat against a stall wall and watched Whittemore quietly work on her horse. "You don't ride with your hands; You don't ride with your feet. You ride with your whole body." The field of horse-rider massage is small but growing, according to Helen Berschneider, an associate professor at the College of Veterinary Medicine at N.C. State University. "In certain areas it's more accepted than others," she said. "In some circles they'll look at you like you have a little antenna coming out of your head." For people with skeletal problems such as scoliosis, rider massage can be especially helpful. "We don't think about it, but if you twist your spine it changes your weight balance," Berschneider explained. "Put your billfold under your butt and see if you notice a weight difference after about half an hour. You'll see the same thing sitting in the saddle and the horse can feel that."

Anything that helps

Foster did a basic introductory massage on Allor, who suffers from an old shoulder injury. "I tend to be a type A person," Allor said later. "Anything that helps me relax is going to be a positive thing." Sam's massage would prove a little more complicated, if only because he couldn't tell Whittemore how he was feeling. At least not in words. First Allor walked him between the training barn and the stall where she would massage him. Whittemore, who is certified in equine massage, made notes. She noticed he was not moving his left hip as freely as his right. Then, with Sam tethered to a fence post, she gently embraced his neck, just standing with her arms around the animal, saying nothing. After a few minutes, Whittemore quietly released her hold. She placed he r hands along the horse's powerful neck, shoulders and back. When she reached a knot where the muscles and connective tissue called fascia stick instead of slide against each other she pressed into it with her forearms and gently pounded with the sides of her hands like in sports massage. "They're as sensitive as we are," she said. "If you stick an elbow in them, they feel it." As if on cue, Sam turned his head back in Whittemores direction and stomped his left hind leg. "OK, let's just forget the knuckles," said Whittemore, who had been working a spot on the horse's left deltoid. According to the two massage therapists, any pain or unbalance in the rider can affect the horse, just as any discomfort in the horse can often be felt in the saddle. For example, a rider with a sore shoulder can unconsciously shift his or her weight to the opposite side. A horse will try to shift its own weight to compensate. But trying to keep itself and the rider in balance makes it harder for the horse to flex its neck, leading to awkward turns . "You have the neurological systems coming together when horse and ride r come together," Allor said. "If you've got problems going on in your hips, your horse is going to mirror that in his hips. He's going to try to hold himself the way you are. "If you can go in and improve structure , then both will be enhanced as a result."

Practice ride

After about an hour, Allor saddled Sam for a practice ride. Whittemore sat on a crate and made some more notes, circling spots on a diagram of a horse where she had encountered adhesions from improper saddle fit during massage. Inside the training barn, Allor rode her horse in a walk around the sawdust ring. Horse and rider cast a single silhouette against the afternoon sun each time they passed the barn's rear door. After about 20 minutes, Alior ended the session, a grin breaking across her face. "Even right now, after getting off him, I feel balanced," she told the women, who had been watching her and Sam as they circled and did figure eights across the ring. "I feel like the left side of my body is working as well as my right side," she said, excited. "And he was very happy to work. He did everything 1 asked him to do without any resistance at all." An estimated 300,000 horses go to slaughter each year in the United States, Allor said, many probably like Sam -- good horses whose owners didn't know how to take care of them. "Somebody else might have given up on him and said this horse is dog food," Whittemore said. "And they would have missed out on a really good horse," Allor said.