Massage gives saddle-sore horses relief from the stress of running around all day GAITS OF HEAVEN

May 14, 1994|By Linell Smith | Linell Smith,Sun Staff Writer

WOODBINE — Artorius, all 1,200-pound, dressage-performing hunk of him, is the proverbial limp rag. The handsome bay has the distant gaze of someone visiting a pleasant memory. His tongue lolls. Under the capable hands of massage therapist Elliot Abhau, this hard-working athlete is the most relaxed animal in Carroll County.

Using a combination of body work techniques, Ms. Abhau presses certain spots on Artorius, a k a Tori, talks to him companionably, leans against him like an old friend. They are standing in a stall in Pam and Bill McKnight's barn, a place redolent with the slightly salty smells of earth and horse and the dampness of Chesapeake Bay retrievers.

Equestrian Pam McKnight met Ms. Abhau four years ago at the Eastern States Dressage Team Championships. First, Ms.Abhau worked on Mrs. McKnight, then she began massaging Tori.

Ms. Abhau and her partner, Bruce Henn of Baltimore Holistic Health Associates in Woodlawn, work with both human and animal clients. Trained in human massage therapy, they are part of an expanding field of massage therapy for animals, a practice centuries old but only "re-discovered" in the United States during the past 25 years.

Throughout the country, equine massage therapists -- mostly schooled in human massage -- work to release tension, to eliminate chronic pain by re-balancing the body and to improve the disposition of "problem" horses for competition. They usually work on the show horses and jumpers prized by equestrians rather than on the Thoroughbreds bred for races such as the Preakness.

Because the field is so new, there is no regulation of practitioners -- or their training -- even though equine massage schools are beginning to appear. Many clients seek recommendations from a veterinarian or look for therapists with certification in human massage, a field that requires students to pass several hundred hours in classroom study and hands- on practice.

A step ahead of injuries

When a veterinarian said an injury of Tori's might bar him from competition, Mrs. McKnight decided to try massage therapy as part of a rehabilitation program.

Now, Tori performs better than ever, she says. And he has earned himself a monthly regimen of massage. So has Demetra, one of the McKnights' other horses.

"Massage relaxes them, releases tension in tight areas," Mrs. McKnight says. "If you don't keep releasing things regularly, they will get tighter and tighter and end up pulling muscles and getting injuries. Keeping the animals looser as you go along makes them healthier and sounder and, hopefully, adds to the years you can ride them."

Jack Meagher, a massage therapist in Rowley, Mass., is credited with developing the field of equine massage through his efforts to convince humans of the benefits of sports massage, an injury-preventing technique that prepares muscles for exertion before competition.

"I thought it was ridiculous that athletes had to be hurt before something [massage therapy] was done for them," he says. "But with the doctors and trainers, I found I was up against a double 'E' whammy: Economics and Ego. They were saying if an athlete was performing better after a massage, he did better because he thought he would do better.

"But no one said a horse would do that."

In the 1976 Olympics, Mr. Meagher proved the validity of sports massage by working on horses ridden by members of the U.S. equestrian team. The team won two gold medals and a silver in Montreal. He went on to work on many amateur and professional athletes including football players Jim Nance and Freddy Steinfort, hockey player Jean Ratelle, tennis player Bob Hewitt and marathon runner Peter Pfitzinger.

These days, however, he prefers to work on horses.

"At first, my main interest with them was in proving my point," he says. "What I enjoy most about this work now is it allows me to be out in the country, in the open air, working in barns."

Stressful workweek

For most other equine massage therapists, however, the vocation's attraction is working with animals. Ms. Abhau, who has a deep love and respect for horses, says she can trust the feedback she gets from her equine clients.

"When I'm working on Tori, he will stop what he's doing," she says. "I can see the sensation take over and he goes inward, like people do when they're eating a hot fudge sundae. You know if the treatment is working with horses. They either feel good or they don't."

Ms. Abhau finds a sensitive spot on Tori's neck and presses against it, as if she were probing a sore subject, until the animal relaxes. It seems she has found just the right way to relieve some of the week's stresses.

"More than dogs or cats, horses work for a living," she says. "Whether they are professional athletes, weekend or amateur athletes. They not only do what you ask them to do, but they also carry a person on them, too."

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