Massage or manual therapy is a great way to help horses and riders feel and perform at their best. Massage is an effective and natural way to help support whole body health and wellness. It generally has very little risk, making it a safe therapy to use on your horse to maintain optimal health and potential.
Equine or horse massage is a fairly 'new' profession in the U.S. It started in the late 1970's and early 80's when human physical therapists and massage therapists began applying human massage techniques to horses. Over the last several decades many horse owners and riders have come to appreciate and value the long term and immediate benefits of having their horses massaged regularly.
The equine massage industry however, is an unregulated industry. There is a very wide variety of educational programs for equine massage that range from a one week class to multi-year programs that approximate an Associate's or Bachelor's degree, and everything in between. Likewise, each state has their own regulations regarding equine massage. Some states have no regulation at all, some require an equine massage therapist to work under the direct supervision of a licensed veterinarian.
I say all of this to let you know that you as a consumer must do your due diligence in researching equine massage professionals in your own market. You can start by checking your state's website to see whether your state has any regulations. Once you know that, you can begin to investigate your options. Clearly the easiest way to find a qualified massage therapist is to ask a respected horse industry professional for a referral. Most trainers, instructors and coaches know the reputation of other equine related professionals in their area.
If you don't have access to a personal referral source, you will need to do your homework. Because of the lack of consistent laws and regulations, and the wide variety of educational standards that exist, there is a wide variety of practitioners in the market. Many are very good, but some are questionable. If your priority is to select a truly qualified and capable therapist for your horse, you will want to do some research.
Here are some questions to ask, along with the rationale for asking them.
What degrees, diplomas or certificates do you hold?
Many equine massage therapists have a certificate of completion from their school. This certificate is not certification! Certification is usually done by an independent third party that has established and published candidate educational requirements, professional standards and so forth. There are only a couple of organizations that currently provide 'certification' for equine or animal massage therapy.
A diploma is granted to someone who has met the educational requirements of a licensed school. It usually takes months or years to graduate with a diploma. The same is true of degree holders. Degrees generally are bestowed upon graduates who have completed hundreds of hours of study from an recognized and accredited institution of higher learning, i.e., a college or university.
It always a good idea to ask how long the program took to become 'certified' and what is the relationship between the school and the organization that 'certified' the graduate.
Each State and Province has specific laws or regulations governing massage and equine massage. These regulations are in place to protect the consuming public by making sure that massage professionals meet educational and regulatory standards as well as conform to high ethical standards of practice. In many states massage therapists must pass a criminal background check as well. Again, this is to protect the public from unscrupulous or dangerous individuals who may misrepresent themselves.
Did you graduate from an accredited school or program?
An accredited school is one which has been certified by an independent third party organization. There are several programs that are approved providers through the NCBTMB. This is the National Certification Board for Therapeutic Massage and Bodywork. The NCBTMB certifies programs of continuing education for Massage Therapists who are already licensed or certified in their profession. In other words, the NCBTMB approves classes that are appropriate continuing education for currently licensed or certified massage professionals.
Most states require that trade schools be licensed within the state. If a therapist graduated from a trade school, it should be a licensed trade school.
When did you graduate?
The answer to this question gives you an idea of how long this person has been working in the industry. A recent graduate hopefully has the most up-to-date training, and a great deal of passion and enthusiasm for their new career as an equine massage therapist. Someone who has graduated several years ago has the benefit of years of experience, and hopefully has sharpened their professional skills by regularly taking continuing education classes. As you evaluate new versus seasoned professionals, you will want to also consider your horse's needs. If it is a complicated case or your horse is difficult to handle, these are considerations to take into account when deciding which practitioner is best suited to your needs.
Is this your primary occupation?
Often times people with a genuine passion for horses take a class or seminar and begin advertising themselves as a professional within the industry. In my many years of working in this profession, I have seen a lot of 'part time' massage therapists emerge and disappear within a year or two. If this is not a full time occupation for the individual, you will have to work around their work schedule to get your horse's appointment. Something to think about...
Do you belong to any professional associations?
Medical professionals belong to alumni associations, county, state and national professional associations. This is true of the massage therapy profession as well. Professional associations are important because they offer continuing education and other benefits to the individual that can elevate their business and professional skills. To me, this is a test of how serious the person is about their professional development and investing in themselves and their career.
Do you regularly attend continuing education programs to keep your skills sharp?
Every massage therapist should be able to answer this question affirmatively. If someone has been out of school for three or more years, they hopefully care enough about their clients and their skills to continually invest in their education. Since equine massage is largely unregulated, continuing education is not a requirement imposed on therapists by their state but I always look more favorably on an individual who has consistently invested in their education than one who has not.
Are you licensed or is your business registered in this State?
Human massage therapists are required by law in most states to be licensed. (See above). Whether or not a person is required to be licensed, if they are operating a business, that business should be registered in the state or county where they are operating. You may also want to ask whether their business is incorporated or whether they are operating as a sole proprietor. Again, this speaks to how seriously they take their professional responsibility, and how invested they are in operating their business in a professional manner. If they are not listed with the state, it may be more difficult to determine whether they are operating appropriately.
Are you insured?
Horses are very expensive animals and we invest a great deal of money, time and emotion into their care. Every massage professional should have insurance. Horses can be unpredictable. Even the most careful professional can have an accident. If an event occurs, who is responsible? You are within your rights to ask whether a massage professional has insurance.
If you operate a horse business and a massage therapist is operating on your property, you may want to review their insurance, and possibly consider having your barn / business listed as an additional insured party on their policy. You should consult your legal and insurance professionals to learn more about this possible liability.
Do you have professional references I may contact?
A good massage professional knows that word of mouth recommendations are his/her key to a successful business. Some therapists have a pre-printed list available that you can call. Always ask for references. Who have they worked with? What were the outcomes?
A few more thoughts.....
You have a right to privacy. It is not appropriate for a massage therapist to talk about you or your horse with a third party, unless you specifically authorize this communication. There may be times when this is appropriate. If you want the therapist to speak with your vet or trainer, you can authorize this. Otherwise, you also have the right to expect confidentiality. Your business is not for public consumption. A professional will respect that.
Scope of Practice
Massage therapy is not intended to diagnose, treat, or cure any specific disease or condition. We are trained in soft tissue restrictions and their treatment. Anything beyond this is outside of our scope of practice. We do not have the same training as a veterinarian. When in doubt, it is important to seek appropriate veterinary care first.