Although massage has been practised by humans for thousands of years, it’s a modern concept in the equine world. But with more and more people fast becoming aware of equine massage therapy and its benefits, demand for the service is growing.
Now the Borders has its very own horse masseur with the arrival of Niall Morrison, a member of the international Equine Body Workers Association, and the only certified equine body worker in the area.
“It’s becoming more popular, but until a few years ago people looked at you sideways if you said you massaged horses,” says Niall, who moved to Duns last year. “The wonderful thing about it is that the horse can’t tell you what’s wrong or if it’s getting better, but when you find the problem and the owner says the horse is much better, you know it’s working.”
After giving up “conventional” work almost 30 years ago, Niall learned massage in Fife.
Originally trained to massage people, he explains: “They also had techniques for fixing horses’ backs, so I learned it then, and a few years ago I thought I’d take it a stage further with the full body massage.
“I started with backs on specific areas, and I thought there must be more than this, it’s a complete body,” he says.
“Horses had never been part of my life until I started working on them, but the relationship and workings of the muscles and skeleton of a horse are fundamentally the same as humans.
“It’s the same knots I’m looking for that you get in your necks or shoulders. Any problems humans can get, so can horses.”
To draw a comparison, Niall says a racehorse can be likened to a top-class sprinter, hurdler or middle-distance runner, while a polo pony might be a footballer or rugby player.
Dressage can be likened to a gymnast where balance, flexibility and precision are needed, and endurance horses are like marathon runners.
“Participants in these sports regularly receive massage and stretching as part of their training programme,” Niall points out. “As do those who are retired or recovering from injury.”
Sports massage, stretching and a range of motion exercises form the hands-on foundations of equine body work. But it goes beyond just treating the area that appears to be hurting, as Niall explains.
“It’s about getting to the cause of the problem,” he says. “Equine sports massage concentrates on muscles that don’t function properly and may limit the range of movement and cause pain.
“A knot in the muscles or tendons effectively shortens them, making the rest overcompensate. The owner may feel that the problem is in a specific area, but I often pick up issues far removed from where they think the problem is.”
Equine bodywork can benefit any horse of any age and any discipline, particularly those that aren’t performing 100 per cent, whether it is to address a particular problem, or for the general well-being and comfort of the animal.
“How about a horse whose performance level suddenly decreased: he wasn’t doing things as well as he used to, or the previously sure-footed animal that started stumbling?” Niall asks.
“When things start going downhill or when a horse starts behaving or performing in an atypical manner, a closer examination is required.
“Sometimes people will notice a change in their horse, they’re starting to stumble, or don’t like the saddle being put on – certain issues that they can’t put their finger on. But with massage I can find them. If I get a reaction I can address issues that they may not necessarily have thought of,” says Niall, who practises on wife Heather’s Icelandic horse, 13-year-old Rygur.
The benefits of equine body massage are extensive, ranging from increased mobility and better balance, alignment and coordination, to enhanced muscle tone and improved disposition.
It can benefit horses with behavioural issues too. “One of the benefits of equine body work is that the horse gets used to being handled,” Niall says.
It also improves speed and efficiency, which is particularly useful for racing.
“If I can increase a horse’s stride by a couple of inches we could be talking a couple of lengths over the race,” he says. ‘‘And that may be the difference between first and second place!”
Owner and racehorse trainer Mick Murphy vouches for this. He says: “Over the years Niall has worked on both Croc of Gold and Good as Gold, and their combined number of wins speak for themselves.”
Niall has also worked on horses for the equestrian and eventing competitor, and quadruple Olympic silver medallist, Ian Stark, who is a great believer in horse massage.
Ian saw a huge change in his horse Ivan after Niall had worked on him.
“In just a few sessions the change in his whole appearance was remarkable,” explains Ian.
“He was more relaxed and obviously more comfortable. His paces have improved and so has his performance.”
He adds: “I am greatly in favour of massage for all types of horse, having seen first hand the many and varied benefits it offers.”
Niall insists that horse massage is not a replacement for proper veterinary care, and he always requests that horses under the care of a vet must first be cleared by them to ensure massage is appropriate.
“When addressing soundness and health issues, deeper causes should always be investigated by the vets,” he says. “But often it can be difficult for them to find some sub-clinical problems.
“The full-body hands on massage that I perform works on all the individual muscles and tendons and, as such, can usually locate the root cause.”
He continues: “Think about how uncomfortable we are when we have an ache or a pain.
“I know when I hurt I’m not the most pleasant person to be around, my job becomes difficult and I’m not as efficient, enthusiastic or energetic.
“In any circumstance where a human would benefit from massage, so would a horse.
“In fact I’m thinking of doing a deal where I do the horse and the owner as well,” he adds. “Often the person has more problems than the horse!”
For more information, or to make a booking, visit www.massageformobility.com