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Photo courtesy Erica Curless Photo courtesy Erica Curless

Erica Curless has a hand for horses. A Q&A with an equine masseuse

We’d never had a house-sitter before. We had hired people to care for our animals and to stop by to check on things, but never had we asked someone to actually stay in our home while we were gone.

So, it was a huge step to ask my longtime friend, Erica Curless, to do just that while we visited Chicago last month.  She seemed perfect. I’ve known her all her life. I taught her at Sandpoint High School. We’ve both worked as journalists and, most recently, collaborated on a writing seminar. Besides, this Dover native knows Border Collies and horses.

Like everything else she has achieved in life, Erica did a wonderful job at the Lovestead, allowing us to enjoy our trip and to come home to happy pets, a spotless house, thriving plants and a freshly mowed lawn.

My confidence in Erica stems from seeing her in a variety of situations, always observing the same consistent traits: common sense, genuine warmth, sensitivity toward others, an enthusiastic focus toward perfection, raw talent and a sense of responsibility. I’ve seen this in her as a student, colleague and, most recently as our first-ever housesitter.

Recently, Erica moved on in her life to a new career. For years, she has served as an outstanding reporter for the Spokesman-Review. Like so many in the economically ravaged newspaper business, she took a proactive approach toward her future and returned to school to pursue a new vocation. She’s now a certified equine massage therapist who also works with dogs.

With that in mind, I’ve decided to turn the tables and ask Erica the questions. She definitely has fascinating information to share about this aspect of therapy.

• • •

Explain what an equine/canine massage therapist does. Why are these services helpful to clients? Most human professional athletes, whether they are football players, golfers, dancers or cyclists, use massage as a critical part of their training regimen. Animal athletes are no different. A body is a body. The idea is to get ultimate and correct movement so the horse or dog can do its job and have a long, successful career without breaking down or getting injured. A massage therapist works with the soft tissues to get the muscles working together properly. Massage helps horses and dogs engage their hindquarters (where the motor is located), lift their ribcage and free their shoulders for uninhibited power and free, long strides. As with humans, massage also helps with rehabilitation from injuries and surgeries.

How long has this method of therapy existed? People have been massaging horses since ancient times. The Greeks massaged their horses as did the Arabs and the (east) Indians. Ancient Greek geographer Strabo wrote that Indian and Arab horses have much finer coats than their English counterparts due mainly to their being rubbed by hand. But it wasn’t about grooming. The texts say it was about helping the health of the animal. It’s nothing new. It’s just newer to the general animal public as alternative therapies gain acceptance and popularity. A lot of the horses and dogs that I work on also get acupuncture and chiropractic work. All those modalities complement massage. People really seem to understand when I relate it to human athletes.

Why did you choose this profession? To me there’s nothing more magnificent than a fast horse with flawless motion. It’s breathtaking. I grew up on the back of a horse. I got interested in equine massage when I was looking for a new career because the newspaper industry was tanking. At the time I was running marathons (not very fast or with good motion!) so I needed a lot of massage work to keep me going. I think it just clicked one day that horses and dogs would benefit from the same therapy. So I started researching it on the Internet. The more I learned, the more I knew this was a perfect fit for me and a way that I could use my horse background and my writing skills.

Explain your formal training and disciplines covered in the program. In October I earned certification from Prairie Winds Equine Massage Therapy College in Wellington, Colo., which is in the Fort Collins area. The school isn’t associated with Colorado State, but because of the university there is a wealth of knowledge and skill in that region. I picked Prairie Winds because it was the only school I could find that offered a two-month intensive course. All the others were only a week or two or mostly Internet based. I wanted a real education with hands-on experience and classes taught by people not only knowledgeable about massage but also horses and how they move and think. You need a well-rounded education so you can perform massage treatments but also help people understand how their horses’ muscles work and different ways they can ride or do ground exercises to help get those muscles to change and have lasting, observable effects. Prairie Winds also offers courses in business management and movement along with sessions with farriers, veterinarians and horse trainers. It really was a complete package. I graduated with honors after completing the 360-hour program.

How have you honed your skills and enhanced your knowledge since leaving Prairie Winds? I’ve learned it’s a lifelong study. Every horse and dog is different. I’ve been reading a lot about how muscles work and the physiological process—how massage actually impacts the body. A massage therapist doesn’t “fix” anything. We help the body (soft tissues) and the mind work together to heal. Massage therapists are really just facilitators that help the animal bring self-awareness to their bodies so they can adjust themselves and achieve correct movement and balance. I plan to take a craniosacral course this summer, which is more advanced study in how to release restrictions in the body’s craniosacral system (brain and spinal cord) to improve the functioning of the central nervous system. That’s fascinating work and really will help me understand how the muscles work with the spinal cord, brain and entire nervous system. I’m working with my dad who trains Border Collies to herd livestock. He’s helping me learn more about how dogs move and the demands of their bodies when they are gathering sheep and cows. We are also trying to develop some exercises to help individual dogs build strength and get more balance in their muscles. Dogs are new to me. I didn’t grow up with working dogs. And it’s difficult because I can’t ride them and actually feel their strides and movement. It’s also more difficult to suggest exercises because I haven’t worked dogs. I’m very fortunate to have the expertise of my dad, Randy Curless, who has such a diverse understanding of dogs and how they think, move and work. He gives lessons every week at his ranch in Dover, so it’s like having a working lab. It’s really fun to collaborate with him and get a little more insight to his passion.

Summarize what you’ve done so far. Describe visible signs of improvement resulting from your therapy. The goal is to get observable results that the owner can see and in the case of horses, feel when they ride. The animals are so responsive. You can see them processing the treatment. They often stretch, yawn and poop, which are signs of relaxing. But the true difference is in how they move and how they feel. The strides are longer, their backs more rounded and their muscles feel relaxed and less braced. One of my highlights has been helping my mom’s Border Collie recover from hip surgery last fall. Massage really helped her start using that leg and building up strength. Now she travels like nothing happened and she is strong and fluid. I also enjoy working on therapeutic riding horses that are part of the Free Rein Program in Spokane for people with disabilities. Those horses work really hard and having riders who often are unbalanced really takes a toll on their back muscles. Massage helps them stay strong and balanced so they can do their jobs—empowering people with disabilities. I’m honored to work with those horses.

How does canine therapy differ from equine therapy? The body of a horse and a dog are actually very similar. So the therapy is similar. The biggest difference is with their minds. Dogs think and respond differently than horses. So I have to figure out how to connect with them.

What range of responses have you experienced from people since you decided to go into this profession? Everyone at the newspaper thought I was crazy. There were lots of massage jokes and jabs about “How do you get a horse on a massage table?” I think Matt, my husband, had his doubts too. It was such a radical change and a total leap of faith. But now I think people are impressed that it really is a viable business and that there’s a market for this work. There’s a lot of excitement in the region that there is now a massage therapist available with such solid training and an extensive background with horses. People have told me they’ve never seen me happier. I think that’s true. Going to work in a barn with horses and dogs is the best.

What happens when you make a visit? Dog and Pony Show is mobile, so I come to you. With horses, I keep them haltered and hold the lead so I have their complete attention. With dogs, I get on the floor or the ground with them. It’s important not to have them tied up so they can move around and adjust themselves.

Each session lasts about an hour.

What are your fees? Equine massage sessions are $65 and usually last about an hour. Canine massage sessions are $50 and last about 45 minutes to an hour. I’m giving demonstrations at the Horsin’ Around Horse and Mule Expo at the Bonner County Fairgrounds in Sandpoint June 20-21. I also will do on-site massage for both horses and dogs with reduced prices, giving people a chance to see how I work and how their animal responds. It’s a great introductory opportunity. The Expo is packed full of activities for the entire family. It’s great because anyone can bring a horse and participate in the clinics and workshops. It’s a great showcase of local talent and equine businesses.

Describe the support you’ve received from traditional veterinarians. It’s been very positive. A lot of veterinarians have embraced alternative modalities such as massage, acupuncture and chiro. There are a few veterinarians that I really respect and want to collaborate with. It’s all about helping horses and dogs become the best athletes possible without injuring themselves.

What are your overall goals with this new vocation? Will you continue to use your writing/reporting skills in the future? I always will be a journalist even if not in a traditional sense. Animal massage opens a new chapter for me. My goal is to write about horse and dog massage and help educate people about the benefits. I also would like to help my dad write a book about training Border Collies. There are so many possibilities. It’s really exciting.

Describe crazy things have happened to you since you started working with massage therapy. About two weeks before I graduated from massage school, the Spokesman laid me off. So it was great to have a backup plan. The next day, a horse at a dude ranch spooked at a hose and stomped my foot, breaking it and my big toe. So I spent the last weeks of class hobbling around in a walking cast. I also missed my first wedding anniversary that week. It was a lot of big changes all at once. The other adventure involved massaging a chicken. A friend in Westmond had a hen which acted like she had a stroke. I worked on the hen—even though I know nothing about birds other than how they look in the meat aisle. She was living in a claw-foot bathtub and had mites because she was too weak to dust herself. In the end, the chicken had a virus contracted from wild turkeys. “Speedo” is no longer with us.

Can you work on other animals besides horses and dogs? I suppose I could work on other animals if I did a little studying on their muscles. I’ve worked on a few cats and attempted to work on the neck of a llama. I’ve heard there’s a lady in Spokane who has zebras. I think that would be interesting. Maybe elephants.

What animals do you own? Do they get massages? If so, how do they like them? My poor animals are neglected in the area of massage. And they let me know it all the time when I come home covered in another horse or dog’s hair. I get the pitiful looks.

I have a Quarter Horse mare. She’s the daughter of my old barrel horse and a true love of my life. Then there is LeRoy, the mini-mule who keeps Tad, the mare, company. My husband and I also have two dogs and an old cat.

Explain the services you offer to potential clients. Contact information/hours availability/etc. Potential clients will get individualized treatments and hands-on therapy for their horses and dogs. Massage is a great way to boost your investment in an animal because it helps horses or dogs do their jobs to the best of their ability and prevent injury so they have long, successful careers. My massage training is based on Shiatsu. It’s very quiet, subtle, gentle work. No poking, prodding, pulling, elbowing or jerking. That’s partly why animals are so responsive. The light touch therapy allows animals to be aware of their muscles so they can adjust themselves. The therapist must be quiet and gentle to get that work done. Besides, nobody likes to get poked and jerked. Horses and dogs are the same, except they are even more sensitive than we humans. Think about how they can use their skin muscles, which we don’t have, to protect themselves from flies. I work whenever I’m needed, so I’m pretty flexible with evenings and weekends.

Anything you care to add? Come and visit me at the Horsin’ Around Horse and Mule Expo. I will give equine massage demonstrations at 12:30 pm Saturday, June 20 and Sunday, June 21 in the swine barn. Sunday I plan to use a mule for the demonstration. Participants can bring their horses or dogs to the Expo and get a special discount: half-hour horse massages for $25 and dog massages for $15. Pre-registration to guarantee a spot is available online at horsinaroundexpo.com. Also listed is a full schedule of events and more information on clinics and activities. The Expo includes something for everyone: riding clinics, a trainers’ challenge, mounted shooting demonstrations and an extreme trail race. For telephone information, call 208-290-2701.

For more information about Erica’s services, contact her at Dog and Pony Show, Massage for Performance Horses and Dogs, Cell: 509/ 991-7314, email:ecurless(at)hotmail.com 707 S. Idaho Road, Liberty Lake, WA 99019.

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Author info

Marianne Love Marianne Love is a freelance writer and former English teacher who enjoys telling the stories of her community. She has authored several books, the latest of which is "Lessons With Love."

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