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There’s the Rub
Massage Therapy
for Horses

By Susie Sims

What once was reserved only for the super-wealthy owners of thoroughbred racehorses has now made its way to the hills of Franklin County.

Jessica Steward has brought the art of equine sport massage therapy to the masses, at least in northwest Alabama.

"Sport massage is most popular at racetracks," said Steward, who lives near Phil Campbell. "The racers see the benefits right away."

Steward, 27, underwent 50 hours of training in North Carolina in order to offer the service to local horse owners.

Equine Sports Massage Therapist Jessica Steward and her horse Array We Go.

The idea of massaging horses is relatively new in this country. During the late 1980s, the idea took hold at some racetracks and has been spreading ever since.

"Most people think the idea is crazy at first—I did," said Steward. "But as I learned more about it and saw the relief that massage gave the horses, I was convinced it was good for them."

Above, Jessica Steward demonstrates her techniques on her horse Array We Go. The horse drops her head in response to the therapy. At right, tight muscles get relief from Steward’s massage.

Steward has been performing horse or sport massage for the past three years. "I love doing this," she said. "I love to see the look in the horses’ eyes when I’ve helped them."

What is Sport Massage?

Asked to explain what sport massage is and its purpose, Steward gave detailed information. "Sport massage is just like massage therapy a person would get," she explained. "A horse is 60 percent muscle (based on body weight) and those muscles get tired and stiff just like people’s muscles do."

Steward walks her horse around the pasture after giving her massage therapy. Steward says this is an important step in the process as it helps the muscles to relax after being worked during the therapy.

Steward said she uses various methods for different muscles or problems. "I use compression and percussion to open the muscles and then I can find the knots," she said. "Once the knots are worked out, I close the muscle (with other massage techniques) and move on to the next muscle."

"Opening" the muscles allows the knots or lesions to be broken up. Steward said the muscles sometimes release gas vapors during this process, noting it sounds like knuckles cracking.

How Does It Help?

Steward said that although sport massage can be used to promote healing, it is best to use it as a preventive measure.

"I tell my clients to watch for signs that their horses need attention," said Steward. "If addressed early on, problems can be short-lived or avoided all together."

Some of the common signs a horse could benefit from massage therapy include stumbling, bucking, refusing or resisting leads, girthiness, and a short or choppy stride.

Steward, who also holds a degree from Mississippi State University in animal science, tells her clients to be on the look out for symptoms of colic, tying up, equine protozoal mylitis, and botulism.

"Massage can alleviate the symptoms of these conditions," she said. "I didn’t believe it until I witnessed it for myself.

"You can see their bodies relax as the tension is relieved. They look at you as if to say ‘thank you.’"

As a healing measure, sport massage can speed up the process. Steward noted that massage speeds away the toxins in the muscles, allowing the muscle to heal more quickly.

"Massage increases the horse’s circulation, which puts less stress on the heart," said Steward. "It can even improve their overall disposition."

Steward noted that massage can actually increase muscle tone. She said the muscles get a work out during the therapy, only they don’t have to do anything.

Are You a Chiropractor?

Asked if her profession is similar to that of a chiropractor, she said the two disciplines are far apart, though they can work hand-in-hand.

Jessica Steward scratches the head of Jessi’s Pet, a bucking bull. The bull is so named because he will follow Jessica around the pasture nudging her until she pets him. 

Steward said that chiropractors undergo extensive training and must complete veterinary school.

"We work on two different aspects of the horse’s body," she said. "Massage basically deals with the muscles, while a chiropractor may focus on the joints."

How Long is the Therapy?

One of the common misconceptions about massage therapy is that one session will cure what ails the horse, so to speak. Steward noted that most times a regular schedule of massage can greatly benefit most horses, especially those who work or train hard often.

"I normally suggest that clients set up a regular schedule based on the horse’s need and activity," said Steward. "Some need more attention than others.

It takes her just about an hour to complete a normal session on a horse. Once finished, Steward stressed it is important to walk the horse in order to cool down the muscles.

Just the Basics

Steward said that she wants people unfamiliar with sport massage to recognize its use and benefits.

"Sport massage maintains the entire body in better physical condition, it aids in preventing injuries and loss of mobility, it boosts athletic performance and endurance, and it extends both the good health and the overall life of the animal’s athletic career," said Steward. "If you’re curious about it—try it."

Contact Information

Persons interested in contacting Steward about sport massage may call her at (205) 993-4040.

She is also employed by the Winston Farmers Cooperative in Haleyville, where she offers assistance to all customers, especially those with animal health questions.

Susie Sims is a freelance writer from Haleyville.



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Date Last Updated January, 2006