SCOTT COUNTY — "The funny thing about massaging horses is when I come to work on them they act like, 'OK, this is my "me" time,'" says Jennifer Oliver of Central Kentucky Equine Massage Therapy.
Insiders in the world of horse competitions know all about equine massage. But to those whose main contact with horses is from the other side of a rail, the fact that there exists such a practice might come as a surprise. In Oliver's case it was a bit different: "When I found out there was equine massage, I thought, 'That's awesome.'" She knew she had found her calling.
Go right to the source: To get a better idea of how Oliver works, it's necessary to visit the stables where her clients live. A drive down Carrick Pike in Scott County leads to Maplecrest Farm, an all-dressage farm where a fellow named Kasper awaits his appointment.
Equine massage, Oliver says, is usually done in the stall with the horse untethered, but for this session, Kasper, who is ridden in competition by farm owner Reese Koffler-Stanfield, is tied up by the stable's side door. This reporter had envisioned warm towels, an equine bed where the client could stretch out, and soft music in the background, but there is none of that.
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Dutch treat: Oliver's business is hands-on and hands-only. As she starts to massage Kasper's shoulders, his ears turn out to the sides — one of the sure signs he's enjoying it: "They go into a trance," says Oliver. "There's a softening of the eyes, the ears will go out, the lips will quiver, they'll yawn ..."
This day's massage is largely for demonstration purposes. During a complete session, "there are a certain set of strokes to warm an area up for massage, then deep treatment, then softer strokes to close the area." Kasper, meanwhile, is enjoying his extra bit of me time.
One of a breed called a Dutch Warmblood — neither as hot-blooded as a Thoroughbred nor as cold-blooded as a draft horse — he's a dressage pro who performed to the Muppets' classic Mah Nà Mah Nà in the selection trials for the Alltech FEI World Equestrian Games Games. Oliver has worked on him for two years, knows what he likes (treats) and can vouch for his upstanding character and sense of humor. Is he her favorite? "I have a long list of favorites," she says diplomatically.
Horse-drawn career: Oliver, 24, came to Kentucky not because of horses but because of volleyball. The Richmond, Va., native earned a scholarship to play at Georgetown College, and it was there that her future took shape.
"Everyone thought I was going to be a vet, but I'm not one to sit in a classroom," she says. She'd always wanted to be a massage therapist, but when she connected with the college's Equine Scholars Program, everything clicked. "I'd always been drawn to horses."
The program helped her take her kinesiology major and use it within the equine industry; the connections and experience she gained "have been very important to my business," she says. She got certified in massage therapy through Equissage in Round Hill, Va., and officially launched her practice on Jan. 1, 2008.
An equine lube job: Oliver's clientele has nearly doubled since last year; she now has more than 40 horses she sees regularly. Just last week she added WEG participant and Argentine eventer Jose Ortelli's horse, JOS Aladar.
"The horse industry is all word-of-mouth," she says. "I could advertise for days, but it wouldn't work."
New customers call her because they've seen the difference her massages make on horses, she says, or heard her work praised by people like Koffler-Stanfield, who says that without Oliver, "Kasper would not be as happy, sound and elastic. She is an extremely talented massage therapist."
Massage, says Oliver, "improves the horse's appearance, flexibility and performance. It helps the muscles to get more nutrients. And some behavioral problems, like bucking, can turn out to be because they're sore. People tell me they can see a real difference. It's like changing the oil." And like a regular oil change, it's recommended to massage horses regularly to prevent problems, she says.
She makes Clint's day: Oliver massages all kinds of horses, from racehorses to hunt horses. Hot-blooded Thoroughbreds are younger and stronger, while Warmbloods like Kasper "have a quieter nature."
Then there are the "peppy" American Saddlebreds. One outstanding example is the tall, chestnut and handsome Singsation, aka Clint because of his resemblance to a certain movie star. Clint, the pride and joy of owners Darryl and Janeene Leifheit, is a former five-gaited champion who wanted a new challenge and is now a star in combined driving competitions.
Oliver regularly works on him and several of his stablemates at Gayla Driving Center on Cynthiana Road. "She helps him relax; it really helps relieve the tension," says Darryl Leifheit.
"Whereas the dressage horse is tenser in the hind end, the carriage-driving horse is generally more tense along the top line," says Oliver, digging into Clint's top line with her fingers. As she massages him, the big Saddlebred stretches his neck up high, and his lips quiver. It's impossible for anyone watching to resist putting words in the horse's mouth: "Oh yeah, right there, that's it. That's been sore since I turned at that hay bale a bit too fast ..."
"He would be happy to let me massage him all day long," Oliver says.