Equine Essence

A Message From Shannon Wolfe

writer, jumper, foxhunter,
progeny from a family of long reknown professional horsepeople


 About a year ago, I met my friend Anne Shrago while volunteering for our local therapeutic riding program. She told me she was a massage therapist for horses and I was so intrigued, I decided to have her come to my barn to work on my horse, Joe.

Joe is a 9 year old quarter horse who stands just a shade under 16 hands. I have owned him since he was a three year old. I bought him from a cowboy who started Joe in the ring as a reining horse. But Joe has a very different job with me, one that I like to think he enjoys more than his previous life in the ring. Joe and I ride cross country for pleasure a few days a week - we enjoy jumping and working in the ring too. When we ride cross country, we go at a good clip - trotting in the woods, cantering and galloping across fields. We do not shy away from challenging terrain. Joe and I fox hunt during the winter and we enjoy doing hunter paces too.

Joe is a brave, fit, and strong horse. But he can be very stiff - taking as much as 30 minutes to warm up during our rides. He’s not a big strided horse, yet despite that he uses himself well once he is warmed up. So I figured a massage session with Anne might help him and help me to find out how to alleviate his stiffness.

And Anne did not disappoint.

A massage session for your horse? You are probably thinking, “That’s a bit extravagant.” But think again. We groom our horses - not just to make them look pretty, but for their health. Grooming a horse can be an art and it is a practice that goes back to the earliest of horsemen. Grooming keeps their coats clean and free of fungus-starting bacteria, improves circulation, promotes kinship between horse and owner, and allows the owner to inspect the condition of their horse. While grooming, you might find a small cut or swelling that needs attending to. Each horse responds to grooming in their own way - some become relaxed and sleep or they may bob their heads and swish their tales. These responses tell you what kind of mood your horse is in, what kind of ride you might be in for that day, or even that it might be the time to call the vet. Grooming is essential to connecting with our horses and protecting their well-being.

And then there is exercising your horse. We all exercise our horses at different levels and for different purposes. But the main purpose for exercising your horse is to keep him fit. Exercise strengthens his muscles and bones and calms his mind. We wouldn’t think of leaving our horse in the barn for days at a time with no exercise - his health and fitness would degenerate quickly.

So if grooming and exercise does so much for your horse, why not consider a massage for him?

I grew up in close proximity to the race horse business. Long before show horses and dressage horses were being massaged and treated with holistic therapies, race horses were enjoying the benefits of these complementary methods to improve their health. When horses are being used to their maximum ability, massage not only improves their performance, but can actually protect them from injury. Knowledgeable equine massage therapists are as valuable as a good veterinarian, a good farrier, a good exercise rider, and a good groom.

Anne Shrago is one of those knowledgeable and experienced equine massage therapists. She not only loves horses, but she knows how a horse is put together - she knows their skeletons and their musculature.

When Anne arrived at the barn, I thought she might work on Joe for about an hour. But she worked on him for almost 3 hours! In the course of her work, she found that Joe’s biggest problem was his neck, especially the left side. As she worked Joe leaned toward her as though he was asking for more. You could see the stiffness and pain melting away as Anne worked her magic on him.

Anne took care to tell me what she was doing and showed me how I could do certain exercises for Joe myself. She showed me how to do neck stretches and leg stretches (even for his hind legs!) and how to improve his suppleness. I learned more about my horse than I ever thought a stranger could teach me about him.

Anne has a very kind way with horses and they truly respond to her. Joe tends to be a one-woman horse, but Anne definitely won him over very early in her work with him. The real payoff came in the days after Anne’s session with Joe. While riding him, I noticed him to be freer and more relaxed with not only his neck, but his back and his whole front-end. The changes were dramatic - he was so much more comfortable than he had ever been. We enjoy our work in the ring more than ever and his movement cross country is much more relaxed. I continue to practice the exercises that Anne taught me that day and stay mindful of ways to keep Joe’s neck from getting too tight and too tense.

And no one could be happier about the result of Anne’s work than Joe. Thank you Anne!

Thanks, Shannon!  I am so happy you continue to practice the techniques I showed you.  The neck is often quite stiff in the ridden horse.  Without the neck,  one can envision the horse as a table with 4 legs.  Add on a neck, and that offsets the "table balance".  The horse uses his neck for his balance.  Add a rider, and the horse works even harder.  So keeping the neck supple is a sure way to help the horse better work his body under saddle, overall. Give Joe a kiss for me!


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