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An Interview with an Equine Therapist

By: Margaret Paxton - Updated: 7 Oct 2012 | comments*Discuss
Equine Therapist Gillian Higgins Horse

Gillian Higgins is a Member of the Equine Sports Massage Association and the International Guild of Professional Practitioners. She is also a registered British Horse Society Intermediate Instructor and a qualified and experienced Human Sports Massage Practitioner.

“I’ve always had horses of my own. It was when I began to ride at competition level, though, that I realised how much management and care was needed in order to maintain condition and performance of the horse. That’s how I started my career as an Equine Therapist.”

Treating Horses as an Equine Therapist

As part of her holistic approach, Gillian observes every single horse she treats ‘as a whole.’ During initial consultation, in order to pinpoint skeletal and/or muscular problems such as abnormalities, tension, stiffness, muscle spasm or tenderness, Gillian watches the horse being ridden, lunged and trotted up, as appropriate.

A thorough understanding of the biomechanics of a horse’s movement is crucial to accurate identification of potential, and apparent, problem areas. This can help to reduce the risk of injury, as well as treat it.

Following observation, and with the recording of a detailed case history, Gillian massages the horse all over in an area of quiet and calm. Next, she concentrates on specific areas that have been identified as problems.

“Some horses relax straight away during their first massage. Others may be a little more wary of strangers touching them, but on my second visit to treat them they can be so much more relaxed that they lean into me when I treat their problem area.” “I believe that the horse feels relief as I massage and manipulate to reduce adhesions and areas of tension.”Good animal therapists must have a deep and detailed knowledge of the structures and forces involved in equine locomotion; it is by no means an easy option career!

However, Gillian believes it is very important that horse owners are better educated to understand how their horses move-and how their riding position effects the movement and performance of their horse.

“This is sometimes difficult and requires diplomacy, particularly when a loving owner wants the best for their horse; but lack of understanding and knowledge may have led the horse to display conditioned behaviour.”

For example, one horse was described as having ‘a cold back’ when under saddle, but moved fine without a rider.“That horse had been allowed to stop every time it bucked with its owner in the saddle. It had become conditioned to buck equals stop.”

Gillian will ride a horse to ‘feel’ things that can’t always be seen when she observes the animal moving. Her national demonstrations and clinics are popular and successful events that give anyone, who is interested in equestrianism, a greater understanding of how the horse moves.

Referrals Equine Veterinary Surgeons

Methods used in Gillian’s ‘Horses Inside Out’ demonstrations include painting the skeleton and musculature on participating horses. This really helps people to see the anatomy, biomechanics and physiology of the horse at work, in a clear and interesting way.In recognition of her dedication and professionalism, much of this energetic and enthusiastic therapist’s work is by referral from Equine Veterinary Surgeons.

For example: “I work closely with the vet if a competition horse has been diagnosed with degenerative joint disease.”While the vet may prescribe appropriate drugs to relieve the horse’s pain, Gillian will support veterinary treatment with a joint supplement- to help slow down the decline of the disease-and a combination of massage and exercise to keep the surrounding muscles soft and supple.

Advice to the owner on management of the problem is important. An exercise programme for each horse is discussed and agreed with the owner-and may include an exercise regime for them, too!

“Continuation of exercises and therapy is equally, if not more, important as the first treatment in some cases.”“Although we can’t stop degenerative joint disease, just a few changes in management can make a big difference to the horse.”Owners can help by assessing their horse:

  • How stiff is he when he walks out of his stable in the morning?
  • Does he loosen up after being lunged?
  • Does his movement feel normal?
  • Has he been ridden on hard ground?
  • I asked Gillian if she treated her own horses (and how she found the time!)
“It can be difficult to look objectively at the horses you know and love! I get my dad to trot them up and lunge them in front of me every couple of months; so I can assess them through fresh eyes, as a professional, not as their owner.” Paperwork always appears to be a huge task for our professionals but Gillian has this one worked out...“I’m very lucky because my mum deals with all the administration side of the business. That leaves me free to get on with the job!”

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