Dream Jobs: Equine Massage Therapist
by Karen Braschayko
Beverly Peck of Buffalo, New York, has built a business that keeps her very near horses — touching them, in fact. Certified as a massage therapist for humans, she expanded her skills and her business to include agility dogs and equines as well.
Both Peck’s love of horses and her coaching in massage began in childhood. She shares with us how she learned to listen so attentively to horses, how touch can help, and the perks and challenges of being an equine massage therapist.
Equine massage therapist Beverly Peck and her pony Skye.
Karen Braschayko for Equitrekking: What is your background with horses? When did you know you wanted to work with horses as part of your career?
Beverly Peck: I have been around horses all my life, as my grandparents had draft horses for working the farm. My older sister and I would run into the apple orchard and follow the two very large, lumbering equines. Tommie, the bay mare, would come when we whistled for her. She loved to be curried and touched. She was very clear about the good spots. Blackie was more aloof.
The work horses got to go out and be horses with normal herd activity. Many of today's horses are confined and often don't get this group time. That is why the horses I have are allowed to be out with a herd.
My childhood 4-H project was a mare we had bought at auction. She was in bad shape, obese and foundered. She had the awful habit of cow kicking, and she had rolled with a rider. With proper nutrition, hoof care, training and a kind touch she came around. We even got three foals from her. Touch was very important to Whinnie, and it helped her recover from all the neglect and abuse. I kept her second foal, and I trained him to ride and drive.
Touch is a part of the bond not only of horse to horse but human to horse. I have always wanted to work with horses. Before I even went to massage training in 1995, that was my dream.
My older sister taught me how to ride. She taught me English riding on a hunter pony that she had purchased. She held that it was important to know how to appropriately fall off of a horse. Much to my mother’s despair, Marilyn would have me ride the horse up next to the big manure pile, and I would fall off the horse intentionally. I learned to tuck and roll. It protected my body, and that’s been a good thing to know. Certainly as I became an adult, it became more automatic.
Equitrekking: How did you train to become an equine massage therapist?
Beverly Peck: I’m certified and licensed as a human massage therapist. The horses have been my teachers for the most part. If one is willing to put aside personal worries, just listen and watch the horse's response to touch, one will know just what to do.
While in massage school I did an intensive directed independent study for an extra 150 credit hours on equine massage. I researched many modalities and styles. Esperanza was a polo horse who had had a leg surgery, and the scar tissue was restricting her mobility. With the permission of her vet, she was the subject I worked on. She was retired, but she became sound enough to be a therapeutic riding horse in Florida.
Some of the techniques that I use on horses are lomilomi, sports massage, Reiki and range of motion with stretches. For example, I’ll do stretches on the legs, neck or tail.
I also use my skills to help agility dogs. The very first dog that I was asked to work on was a service dog for one of my clients who had birth defects on her arms. The dog had strained itself sliding on the floor while playing with other dogs. The outcome was wonderful. We were successful in resolving the strain issues, so the dog could once again help her mistress without having any pain. After that, other clients with agility dogs came along.
Agility dogs are of course athletes, and they are very high energy dogs. Massage helps them to have a longer, more successful career. What I do find sometimes is that if the dog has a really specific complaint, they will often try to hide it. If I’m working on a front leg, and I go to a back leg where I sense that there’s a problem, the dog will pull away and offer a different leg for me to work on. It’s really quite comical. Eventually I have to convince them that I need to be able to work on it. Once I get it released, I often get a lick on the face or the hand. It’s a lot of fun to work on dogs.
Equitrekking: What are some of the highlights of having a job that places you around horses?
Beverly Peck: My favorite aspect is obvious — I get to touch horses! I work with many different horses and meet their owners. The horses give me equine co-pay when they nudge me out of gratitude for releasing tight, sore areas.
Horses are really appreciative. Some horses are leery at first, you get this look like — what are you doing? Once they realize you’re helping, they’ll lean into it, and they’ll point out tight spots. You just have to listen. It’s very rewarding to work on horses. They’re more honest in telling you where it hurts, absolutely more than people.
Equitrekking: How have you seen touch help horses? Tell us about your best outcomes.
Beverly Peck: There are two very outstanding cases that come to mind. Jaws, a polo horse, had a bad fall splaying his front legs, especially his left foreleg. The vet gave the owner the usual blue lotion and stall rest. He remained off after two weeks. The owner called me, and with the vet's permission I worked on him. His pectoralis muscle had become overstretched and knotted as a result of his fall. In one session it was released, and we turned him out. He ran sound as a dollar.
Another remarkable case was an Arabian gelding. In watching as the owner lunged him, I noticed he looked curved. Curious, I stood on a bale of hay directly behind him, and indeed his spine was curved. It took three sessions to totally clear up the muscle imbalance. The owner followed through with stretches and massage techniques that I taught her to do on him herself. He was a very appreciative horse indeed.
Equitrekking: What are some ways we can use touch to help the horses in our lives?
Beverly Peck: My usual tip to horse owners is this: listen to your horse. Watch horses out in a field. When they have a physical need to be touched, they ask a pasture mate. So we may think it’s simply a mundane grooming, but it could very well be sore spots. Horses will work on each other. One horse will say something to the other one, for instance by putting his muzzle up near the withers and doing a certain action with his teeth. You’ll see that the other horse responds. If we pay attention to our horses, they will tell us what needs to be touched.
Also, a good brisk curry before work as well as after helps to minimize strains. A lot of people, especially if it’s summertime, will simply use a dandy brush and brush the dust off. But currying has a more specific function. When you curry a horse, especially where your saddle and girth are going to be, it warms the muscles and prepares them for work. Much like an athlete getting a sports massage prior to playing football or running a marathon, that quick wrist work really gets a lot of blood circulation going into the muscles. It helps warm them up for the task that they are about to do.
We all tend to get lazy, such as I just got home from work and I want to get in a quick ride, but that currying is an important step. There are some simple stretches that can be done with horses before working them too.
Equitrekking: What are some of the challenges you face working as an equine massage therapist?
Beverly Peck: My biggest challenge in working on horses is the risk of being kicked. I worked on a 10-year-old stallion with stringhalt, a sudden flexion of one or both hind legs in the horse, most easily seen while the horse is walking or trotting. He had pain and anxiety about where I was touching him. After making a deal with him, we got along fine. It is always a concern though, so I remain vigilant to the possibility.
I do a lot of self stretching every day, because muscles get tight on me from working on horses. I also try to get regular massages and to take care of myself, which is what I tell my clients to do, of course. Sometimes I’ve got three horses scheduled on a Saturday at one farm, which is a lot. Between horses, I take time to stretch, walk and drink water. That helps my body to deal with hard work.
Sometimes what I see happening with other massage therapists is that they may be certified for equine massage, but they go in with an agenda. They do this step and then this step, and they are not necessarily feeling or responding to the feedback that the horse is giving them. I try to do my equine massage by feeling and paying attention to how the horse responds, and that tells me what they want me to work on.
Each individual and each animal is a unique learning experience. You may know about the injury and what to do for it, but it is different because each person has a unique emotional response.
An equine massage therapist at practice. Photo courtesy Equissage.
Equitrekking: What tips would you give someone seeking a career as an equine massage therapist?
Beverly Peck: If you want true training, in the United States there is a program called Equissage in Round Hill, Virginia.
In London, Ontario, there is a program called the D’Arcy Lane School of Massage Therapy. They teach not only human massage but equine massage as well. In their program, veterinarians teach massage, and it is very extensive. Students get connected with doing massage at the horse tracks and on show horses.
I went for a one-day seminar there, and the vet who taught the class really had a sense of what animals need. He advised listening to the animals, and he recognized that early intervention can prevent the downward spiral that only leads to further unease.
Of course, there are always books and videos that you can purchase as well. If you don’t have the money to go to professional training for equine massage, then finding a mentor is a good idea.
To build a career in massaging horses, I would say advertise, make business cards, contact equine vets for referrals, and even offer to do a freebie to get the word out there. You also need to consider mileage limits and how far you are willing to drive to work on a horse. Remember that equine massage therapists need physical strength and endurance. Self care and stretching are important to remaining healthy.
Equitrekking: Tell us about your horse. What activities do you enjoy together?
Beverly Peck: My 13.2 hand gelding pony Skye and I love to go on trail rides and carriage drives together. Best of all is just being together. He is very intuitive and fun to be around. He is a love, for sure.
Skye drives as well as rides, and he was trained in Canada by world-renowned driving competitor Kirsten Brunner. I took driving lessons with her this winter. She has a large indoor arena, and I’ve learned things from her that I never even imagined. Driving inside an indoor arena can be very intimidating, so if I can accomplish this, my time outside should be a real snap.
So as I start hitching Skye back up to the cart or a carriage again, it should be really good, because now I know the style he was trained in. I have new information to improve my skills in general, and we should have a blast. If you live on a country road or if you’ve got large, wide forested trails as we do around here in Clarence, New York, then driving is delightful.
Contact Beverly Peck and her business, Therapeutic Massage for Humans and Equines, at firstname.lastname@example.org or (716) 632-3266.
Karen Braschayko is a freelance writer and horse lover who lives in Michigan.