Editor’s Note: This story was originally published in the Equine Enthusiast Spring Edition. Look for the Summer Edition of Equine Enthusiast on racks throughout the area on July 19.
TORRINGTON – Working horses and equine athletes can face much the same physical challenges as their human counterparts, from injury to stress.
An increasingly-popular therapeutic practice to address those problems, and hopefully to lessen their effects, is equine massage therapy. And one of its local practitioners is George Rinehart.
The owner and certified equine massage therapist at Iron Horse Equine Therapy in Torrington, Rinehart came to the discipline through an interesting chain of events. After a decade in the maintenance department at Community Hospital in Torrington, he was looking for something else to do.
Rinehart’s wife, Lacy, is a certified people massage therapist. She noted that Rinehart, who’d grown up around horses, had a way with animals.
“I’ve always had a big heart for animals,” he said. “My wife said I had a unique touch with animals.
“It kind of sounded interesting, something you didn’t see around here,” Rinehart said. “After I started doing it, saw the results with the horses, it really got me hooked on it.”
At first, some of his friends didn’t quite understand why Rinehart had decided to study equine massage. One of his previous jobs had been breaking riding horses and he’d been seriously injured, resulting in a crushed vertebra in the lumbar region of his spine.
“A lot of people look at it and say, ‘Why are you trying to help an animal that hurt you?’” he said. “If you have a little compassion toward the animal, know the animal, there are benefits to the horse and to the person who owns it.”
Rinehart studied at the Rocky Mountain School of Animal Acupressure and Massage in Elizabeth, Colo. One thing he noticed, working and studying around people in the central Colorado community, was a difference in attitude toward horses.
“They’re more open to different approaches to taking care of their animals,” he said. “They’re not just a tool, they’re family members. That really caught my interest.”
Massage therapy is seen by some as more of a luxury item, a form of pampering, whether the recipient be human or horse. But an article in the September 2009 issue of the Journal of Equine Veterinary Science noted that massage offers real benefits.
Equine massage therapy uses techniques originally developed for human massage, the article states. Benefits in horses include increased range of motion and length of stride, decreased activity in pain receptors and reduced stress.
“It relaxes them, puts their mind where it needs to be,” Rinehart said. “If I’m hurting, my mind isn’t focused on my job. If a horse is hurting, it’s not going to give 100 percent.”
‘It’s done wonders . . .’
All the science aside, horse owner Becca Cox has noticed the real benefits of Reinhart’s ministrations on her mare, Bailey. Cox came to own Bailey about five years ago. The mare’s personality and attitude had landed her in the kill pen of a stockyard. Bailey wound up there after bucking off a rider, her first owner, leaving him seriously injured.
“If she doesn’t feel good, she’ll buck you off,” Cox said. “As a rider, I notice my animals feel better” after a session with Rinehart.
Cox and fellow rider Kelsey Wade both work their animals hard, ranching and as pen drivers at Torrington Livestock Market, moving cattle from the sale ring to holding pens during regular sales. Cox had known Rinehart and his wife even before he started massage therapy training and she introduced Wade to the idea of massage for her horses.
“She told me about him and what he’d done for her horses,” Wade said. “It’s done wonders for my horses.”
Rinehart has worked with two of Wade’s animals. His work has resulted in a more even temperament for both her younger and one older horse, she said.
“It’s just like when you do a hard day’s labor, putting something out and needing it fixed,” Wade said. “It wouldn’t be pampering. They work hard for you so you need to take care of them.”
Rinehart equates what he does with the animals with doing routine maintenance on a vehicle. A car that gets regular care — changing the oil, maintaining the filters and fluids — will perform better and longer than one where regular service is ignored.
It’s the same with the horses he cares for, he said. Regular massage therapy sessions improve the horse’s quality of life, keeping them in a more focused mindset.
There are also real physical advantages to massage therapy for horses. It increases blood flow and promotes removal of lactic acid — a metabolic byproduct, which contributes to muscle fatigue and soreness — and other toxins from the tissues.
Typically, when seeing a horse for the first time, Rinehart has the rider walk the horse to observe its gait. How the animal walks — if it’s favoring one side, if its stance is unusual — can indicate problems, which need to be addressed.
Rinehart stressed that he’s not a veterinarian and he can’t diagnose injuries or disease that may be affecting the horse. He often, however, recommends an animal be seen by its vet if he believes the issues are beyond his ability
Once he’s learned what the animal’s needs are, Rinehart uses a variety of techniques to alleviate pain, stiffness and fatigue. Most of the techniques are direct descendents of those used with human massages, which have been tailored to fit, due to the nature of the horse and its musculature.
The key word for equine massage is gentle, Rinehart said. A horse’s muscles can’t put up with the same amounts of pressure as a human’s could, for example. Too much pressure, applied incorrectly, can actually cause more harm than good to the animal, he said.
But, overall, equine massage can benefit the animal. Rinehart recalled one of the first horses he worked on, an animal he owns.
Once the Rineharts acquired the horse, it quickly became obvious a previous owner had abused it, he said. It suffered with constant pain from old injuries and just didn’t have a very high quality of life.
But, determined, Rinehart applied the equine massage therapy techniques he’d learned. And the animal rallied.
“Once I saw the results, I thought, if it can do that for him, I can help other horses in that situation,” he said. “It’s rewarding, what it actually does for the animals.
“Yeah, it’s pampering them,” Rinehart said. “But it’s also giving them a better quality of life.”