At the bucolic Hossmoor stables in Martinez, Rebecca Thomas is as much a part of the barnyard landscape as the tattooed farrier who is clanging away across the stall. But Thomas' art is far less traditional than fitting horseshoes: Her technique is part massage, part acupressure.
Today her client is Rocco, a sugary-white gelding with alert brown eyes and ears that swivel around to listen to Thomas as she gently works her way down from his shoulder to the coronet band above his hoof, being sure to massage several acupressure points along the way. Rocco is trained in dressage, an Olympic sport in which horses perform intricate choreography at the direction of a rider. But when Thomas first met Rocco, he wasn't feeling so sporty. "I used to hardly touch him and he'd go 'Ah!' He was in so much pain," she recalls. His problem -- a sore back -- was eventually traced to a poorly fitting saddle. Now, Thomas says, rubbing a small line of circles down his spine, "I can put real pressure on his back and he just enjoys it."
Rocco droops his head and makes a noise that sounds like "Pbbbbbbttt."
Thomas isn't a vet, and explains that she isn't qualified to offer medical diagnoses or treat specific maladies. "I'm purely giving the horse a sense of relaxation," she says.
Rocco's saddle problems led to a nonmedical solution, but Thomas believes her expert touch has helped his owner figure out where the horse was in pain and has made the animal feel a whole lot better. These days, equine body workers like her are doing a thriving business in the East Bay, where pet owners are increasingly turning to holistic treatments for their furry friends, especially expensive work or performance animals such as horses trained for dressage, jumping, rodeo sports, racing, and endurance riding. It's not just massage -- the alternative practitioners have adapted everything from acupuncture to reiki energy work to aromatherapy for horses.
Demand is so high that veterinarian Jenny Taylor, founder of Oakland's Creature Comfort, the East Bay's only holistic pet hospital, has never placed an ad, but maintains a two-week waiting list for appointments, and her clinic is desperately seeking a fifth vet to add to its roster. Taylor works with horses as well as with small animals like cats and dogs. "I think a lot of it started with racehorses and show horses and that sort of thing -- the athletes -- but word spread really, really quickly," she says. "People love their horses and will do anything to make them feel better."
If that horse is a champion, all the more reason to try anything. Thomas and Taylor say that some of their clients show up after traditional medicine fails, or when the animal is in chronic pain and the owner prefers a noninvasive treatment. Others come because the owners have had their own positive experiences with holistic therapy. "What I hear all the time is, 'This is how I treat my kids and myself -- why wouldn't I do it for my pets?'" Taylor says.
Two of the most popular alternative animal therapies, acupressure and acupuncture, are based on the idea that the body's energy, or chi, flows along meridians beneath the skin much like a subway system, but that energy can get blocked at points along the way. "It's like E=MC-squared; all matter is energy," Taylor explains. "When you are ill and have a problem with your body, it has to do with the obstruction of chi in your body."
To find obstructions, the holistic healers feel the patient's skin, looking for differences in temperature or tone. "If there's too much energy, a blockage will usually feel like a knotted area in the places where you feel tension, the way a muscle spasm feels, hard and tight," says Sylvia Nachlinger, who teaches a course in animal acupressure at Berkeley's Acupressure Institute. "A deficient area might feel soft and smushy like a water balloon, or it might cave in a little bit." The goal of both therapies is to restore balance and stimulate the body's natural impulse to heal itself, either by pressing on or inserting a needle at the trouble point. Equine bodyworkers generally agree their techniques should complement Western medicine, and recommend that a vet approve the treatment first. Such practices, however, are becoming more mainstream, particularly in progressive communities. Taylor has been called in to work for big establishments such as the Oakland Zoo, where she treats the giraffes, whose horselike anatomies -- heavy bodies atop spindly legs -- give them similar aches and pains.
Yet the holistic veterinary market is still new and unregulated enough to make for widespread confusion over the legalities, and for the field to be crowded with players boasting wildly different levels of expertise. They run from licensed vets to holistic therapists licensed to work only on humans to amateurs who've taken a few weeks' worth of classes. And although a handful of equine bodywork schools in California offer certificate programs after anywhere from two hundred to eighteen hundred hours of coursework and outside internships, the state doesn't recognize these certificates. The California Veterinary Board insists that state law is very clear: Those who practice alternative therapies on horses without a vet's license or without being under a vet's direct supervision are practicing illegally. "Direct supervision" means the vet must examine the animal first, approve the therapy, and remain on the premises while it is performed. Animal massage is trickier: It's okay for relaxation, but it's not okay to advertise it for the relief of specific medical symptoms.
Gary Hill, who investigates complaints of unlicensed activity for the state Medical Veterinary Association, says he thinks most lay practitioners mean well and that their work may benefit animals, but he notes that letting unlicensed people work on expensive and complex animals such as horses carries risks. Even a two-hundred-hour certificate is nothing compared to the six years vets spend in school, he points out -- not to mention that vets have malpractice insurance. If an unhappy client should complain to the veterinary board about an injury, unlicensed practitioners can be fined $500 to $5,000 per animal. "We're saying it's all right to provide these services, but let's do it under the supervision of a vet; let them take the liability risk," Hill says. "It sounds romantic for them to want to help and assist, but I think sometimes they don't understand what the law is about."
Indeed, it's clear that a few of the equine bodyworkers interviewed either don't know the rules or are deliberately ducking them. Some insisted on anonymity, and some were under the erroneous impression that nonvets can do holistic work without on-site supervision as long as they don't diagnose specific maladies, prescribe drugs, or give injections (which rules out acupuncture and aquapuncture, the injection of liquids into the acupressure points). To avoid trouble with the state's veterinary board, others have taken a different tack -- they claim they don't treat the animals per se, but simply teach horse owners how to do it.
Nancy, an East Bay practitioner who gave only her first name, is licensed to work on people, but she also works with horses. In the past, she worked with a vet on racehorses at Albany's Golden Gate Fields, but says the owners' focus on boosting performance and winning races left a bad taste in her mouth. "It wasn't what was best for the horses; it was what was best for their pocketbooks," she says. Now Nancy and a small group of colleagues work without a vet -- although they advise clients to see one first. She says their sessions focus on showing owners how to use acupressure, craniosacral work, and T Touch, which is designed to help animals overcome anxieties and bad behaviors by lightly pressing one's hands against their skin in different patterns. "We teach owners how to put your hands on a horse and help it self-correct," Nancy says. "We might show the owner, these are the adrenal glands, or here are the kidneys, because these are the places where if the horse has been frightened you can put your hand and help them calm down."
What does state law make of such hands-on teaching sessions -- much less something like T Touch? It's hard to say. The statutory language bans anyone but vets and licensed chiropractors directly supervised by vets from performing "musculoskeletal manipulation," but forbidden holistic therapies are not listed by name. Would acupressure fit in this category? Aromatherapy? "It's not really locked down -- it's kind of a gray area," says Paul Hougard, vice president of the Equinology bodywork school in Gualala, California. He says that the law's ambiguity -- plus the fact that the state doesn't license alternative veterinary practitioners -- works against bodywork schools that want to hold their students to rigorous standards. Five years ago, bodywork pros supported a state bill that would have set up rules for people who practice on horses, and would have made it legal for a person to provide sports massage for horses after 250 hours of training. The bill was dropped; if anyone were to take up the cause again, the state would have to develop a new licensing category, monitor the bodywork schools, and create standardized tests for their graduates analogous to the licensing exams doctors and vets must pass before practicing in California.
In the meantime, equine practitioners such as Rebecca Thomas hope their burgeoning industry is on its way to shedding its fairy-dust-sprinkled image. "I'm not a horse whisperer; I don't have ESP," she says drily as she pats down Rocco. "I am just trying to make the horse feel the best they possibly can." As alternative therapies become less alternative, she expects more people -- not just the owners of competition animals -- will try them for their pets.
In some cases, the pets may even come first. "I had a [human] client the other day whose back was hurting her, and I told her to go see an acupuncturist or a chiropractor," Taylor muses. "She said, 'I can't afford it because Fifi is coming to you.'"
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