Kari Monroe grew up near Harrison surrounded by horses. Her father rode and trained thoroughbreds and she and her brothers were actively involved at an early age.
“We grew up training horses and I’ve always felt that is my love right there — horses,” she said.
Knowing that she wanted to continue her involvement with horses, Monroe graduated high school and enrolled in a massage course that offered both human and equine certification. At the time, Monroe completed the week long class, the concept of using massage therapy to treat horses was relatively new to western Nebraska. Similar to people, equine massage can relieve sore or tight muscles and help the healing process after an injury.
Life circumstances happened and Monroe realized a break from pursuing equine massage would be the best option for her.
Within the past third years, Monroe has begun the process of reestablishing herself as an equine massage therapist in the Panhandle area. Though she had always practiced the techniques she learned on her own horses, Monroe sought the advice of the replacement instructor for the course she had previously completed.
“I went and did a demonstration for her so she could see what I did and didn’t remember. We just touched on a few basics that were added after I had taken the class and that was it. I started doing it and realized it is way more accepted now,” Monroe said.
Monroe was able to realize that 25 years had changed many common equine practices. She has since been able to discover a niche in the rodeo community near her home in Harrison that welcomes therapeutic message.
“These rodeo horses are sore and tight,” Monroe said.
Monroe’s massage process begins by approaching the horse from the front, she will wait or rub around their nose, a calming sensor for horses, until the horse slightly leans toward her. This is Monroe’s sign that the horse is OK with her entering into it’s personal space or "bubble." Once she is in the bubble, Monroe doesn’t leave the space, going under the horse’s neck to pass from one side to the other. Passing under the neck is not typically a safe practice when handling a horse.
Monroe prefers the horse owner is holding the horse’s lead rope instead of having the animal tied during the massage. This allows the horse to move and shift it’s body throughout the process and also for her safety while she is working. Some sore horses may act out their pain by kicking or even biting.
Many horse owners will try massage therapy before considering a visit to the veterinarian. If Monroe feels uncomfortable treating an injured horse, she will recommend it is checked by a veterinarian before she continues.
In addition to working at local rodeos, Monroe has a few regular clients but usually horses are brought to her when the need arises.
At this point, if Monroe is unsure where the horse is sore, she will run a test by applying light pressure on pressure points over the body while observing the horse closely for signs of discomfort, usually a flickering of the skin.
“Their muscles tell the story about what is wrong with them, how much pain they’re in,” Monroe said.
Monroe begins her massage on the horse’s left side by pulling the ear at a natural angle until the horse begins to relax. To accomplish the correct angle she will use the horse’s halter to shift it’s head. This relieves any tension in the temporomandibular joint (TMJ). Monroe performs it twice on the left ear before moving to the horse’s right side.
After working with the ears, Monroe moves on to massage the neck beginning at the top and working down following the path of the muscles toward the shoulder.
“I’ll just work the entire horse feeling the muscles relax. When I find a knot, I’ll stay on it watching their eyes until I see a sign of release before I move on,” Monroe said.
Signs of release can be obvious or very subtle changes in the horse’s expression or body language. A few examples of signs Monroe watches for are drooping eyelids, slack lips, drool, lowering it’s head or yawning. Watching the signs of release from the horse also gives Monroe feedback on the amount of pressure she is applying. Massage involves between 25 to 50 pounds of applied pressure, typically using less on sore areas.
Monroe applies the cross fiber technique, defined as an accurately delivered penetrating pressure applied through fingertips.
“Cross fiber is when I focus on a muscle and work tiny circles until the horse relaxes into it and then move on to applying more pressure,” Monroe explained.
Monroe continues this process working the horse’s chest, shoulder and girth. Before moving on to the back, she will stretch both front legs by gently pulling the leg into a forward stretch then a backward stretch. The stretch is held until the horse relaxes into it, Monroe then releases the leg downward. Each stretch is done at the horse’s comfort level, some may not have the same range of motion as others. Horses are typically able to stretch further if the stretching exercise is done routinely.
Monroe will continue to work her way along the horse’s back, down the rib area if necessary, moving to the inside back leg, the hip area and finishing by stretching the back leg in the same manner as the front.
The massage process can be very long and taxing for Monroe. After a rodeo that she worked on six horses before it was too dark to watch their faces and body language, her hands, arms and shoulders were sore and stiff the following morning. It was then she realized if she was going to continue at this pace, she would need to get stronger. She now lifts weights to keep her body fit.
For Monroe, watching the horse’s expression when she is able to get them relief and seeing a change in their demeanor is very rewarding. She is also rewarded by client feedback, reports on the horse’s improved comfort or performance.
“The satisfaction of seeing the horse feel better and the customer noticing the difference is an all around experience I can’t even explain. I’ve always wanted to give back to the horse something for working so hard and feeling that knot disintegrating, seeing their reaction, that is it for me,” Monroe said.