On Friday I said goodbye to Valdi, a horse that I have known and treated for a good ten years. In this time I have seen him go from novice to Grand Prix level competitor. He is now in his teens and is going off to become a school master for his new owner. This sort of “semi-retirement” is a good path to take: when horses have been on the circuit for many years they have done their job and should be given a chance to relax a bit. Winding down mentally and physically can often bring a whole new lease of life.
I am exceptionally busy right now and I am working 6 day weeks to fit in all my calls. On Saturday morning I went to see a new case: a horse that has started to put in ‘dirty stops’ and rush his fences. He is only 7 years old, so this has to be sorted out quickly – before it becomes an ingrained habit.
People often ask me if I ever have to treat a horse that dislikes being massaged. My answer is yes, sometimes! Generally though this only occurs when the musculature being palpated is in high tonic contraction – usually due to repetitive strain. When this happens, the nerve endings become highly sensitised. So when I apply deep pressure it can be painful for the horse, which is likely to object! This can make it impossible to administer a complete treatment in a single visit, so I have to release the tonic contraction gradually over several sessions: each time the pain is less and I can apply more pressure.
If you have ever had a sports massage you will know exactly what I’m talking about. The tighter the muscle, the more it hurts to release it and make it more elastile. Ironically my job often gives me repetitive strain and tight muscles, so when I am having a sports massage I frequently end up shouting at my own massage therapist!
The trouble is you can’t tell a horse that what you are doing may be painful, but it is for its own good. The horse is likely to think that you have just turned up to torture it! This is especially true when the horse has never met you before – which is exactly what happened today. The horse did not like it and objected strongly. He tried to kick me! The warning shots were pretty fierce. I had to back off several times, take some time out to reassure the horse and start again when he had calmed down a bit.
Not once in 24 years of running this business have I been kicked (touch wood!). You have to be very alert to the warning signs, so you know when to back off. Don’t let your ego take over and make you try to impose your will on the horse physically: the result could be broken bones – or worse!
In this particular case I have asked the owner to get permission from her vet to administer a mild oral sedative prior to the next treatment. That way he will be more relaxed and less sensitive to pain, so I will be able to apply a lot more pressure to his tight muscles without such a high risk of injury to myself. And of course that means he will get a better treatment and will improve faster. I rarely request even mild sedation because I like to gauge the horse’s reaction to palpation in each area. But in cases like this, it will produce the best results for the horse, with far less risk of injury to me!
In my experience, after a few sessions the pain reduces greatly and over the same time the horse becomes accustomed to my presence and the sensation of being massaged. So after a few visits we can back off the medication and apply more pressure. In most cases the horse will actually start to enjoy the treatments and will be pleased to see me when I arrive. Let’s hope that happens with this one!