won't turn a weak horse into a winner. "The best will remain the best,"
says U.S. Olympic Coach Jack Le Goff. Competition, however, "is so tight
and so tough we don't neglect any possible improvement in our horses."
could take a horse running dead last and increase him a few strides," says
Meagher, "but so what? You want to work on the horse that is running neck
and neck with some other horse. Then it makes a difference." Therefore
Meagher has, of late, confined his talents to the equine elite.
Almost all horse
trainers use some type of massage, however crude. Often it takes the form of
grooming—the circular motion of the currycomb, the short, quick strokes of the
body brush or perhaps a rubdown after the horse is exercised. Le Goff recalls
doing "a sort of massage" on three-day horses before Meagher came on
the scene. "We would take a cloth, folded up like this"—he makes a
wad—"and pound on the horse. We would just pound him all over."
Meagher's way, Le Goff confesses, "is more sophisticated. He knows the
structure. He goes right to the point. It is a refinement, and all of the
refinements—in nutrition, in training, in physical care—are welcome because
they improve performance."
Le Goff says,
"I spend a lot of time just looking at the horses. I watch them move and if
I see anything wrong, I tell John Meagher and he fixes it." Similarly,
Meagher asks the riders to report to him any suspicious movement, any stiffness
or resistance. It has made the riders more acutely aware of massage and its
to the source of the problem," says Meagher. "It doesn't just treat the
symptoms." Finding the source isn't easy and, in fact, would be impossible
for a novice. "It's all touch," says Meagher, who has extensive formal
knowledge of anatomy and kinesiology. "I know I'm on the right spot because
I can feel it. If you can't find the spot, you can't do the job, because the
tissues even an inch away are perfectly normal."
In a stall with
Bally Cor, Meagher demonstrates, standing ankle-deep in straw. He lines the big
mare up parallel to the wall and begins a slow rat-a-tat with his hands. "I
use the wall as my table." he says. The mare seems to know this and leans
into the wooden stall partition. Meagher begins slowly, his open hands flapping
gently at the horse's sides, then increases the pressure until he is using the
base of his fists. Bally Cor relaxes under his touch. Occasionally, she nuzzles
him as he works.
Then Meagher hits
a "knot," as it is called, a tiny lump in the shoulder. "This could
make her hindquarters go stiff," he says. "Everything, you see, is
interconnected. A little knot up here can throw a horse out way back here. It's
like Dizzy Dean throwing his arm out by playing with a broken toe." The
mare doesn't like this part of the treatment. She indicates her displeasure by
lifting a foot and slamming it heavily against the side of the stall.
budge. Instead, he whispers a little chant, "Hail Mary, full of grace; hope
she keeps her feet in place." He's never been kicked, he says. "In the
beginning, though, the owners would laugh at me. The horse would twitch at a
fly, and I'd jump four feet away. A lot of horses get touchy when you're
breaking up one of these spots, but then they'll just throw their tail and
shift their weight. If you get a horse that doesn't like to be groomed—a horse
that's a little ticklish—then he probably won't like being massaged. But,
pretty much, they do like it."
By the end of the
treatment Meagher, a big man, is breathing hard. "I go over every inch. I
never do the neck first because most horses are a little nervous about the
neck. I apply, oh, moderate pressure before I look for my deeper spots. What
I'm doing is forcing the fibers apart—I call it fiber spreading—so that the
muscles don't tighten up as fast." This increases the amount of effort a
horse can expend. "If you ask me," Meagher continues, "massage is
just common sense. Think of the things athletes do to decrease resistance—like
swimmers, for instance, who shave their heads. Well, massage decreases internal
Meagher is used
to skepticism. It is usually overcome. "We always have new kids coming up
here." he says, referring to the riders who turn up at team headquarters
for training sessions. "They usually see me working on a horse and they
think it's pretty far out. It doesn't take them long to come around, because
they can see the results right away."