A day or so after
the U.S. Olympic equestrian team won gold medals in both the individual and
team three-day events at Montreal, a man named John Meagher (rhymes with bar)
visited the stall of Bally Cor, the big brown mare which Tad Coffin had ridden
to victory in the individual event. Meagher, a "sports masseur,"
doesn't mind taking some of the credit for Bally Cor's admirable
"Bally is my
big one," says Meagher, who started massaging horses in 1970. Until then
his clients were mostly human athletes, but, as he is fond of saying, "a
muscle is a muscle."
It was, in part,
geographical juxtaposition that led Meagher to offer his services to the
Olympic team. His home in Lynn, Mass. is a scant half hour from U.S. equestrian
team headquarters in Hamilton, near Boston.
There was more to
it, of course. There was the challenge. "These horses are the toughest
athletes in the world," Meagher marvels. "No kidding, the toughest, bar
The mounts in the
austere Massachusetts stable are what are known as "three-day" horses.
Unlike their counterparts in dressage and open jumping, they are tested for
three straight days in separate disciplines: dressage, endurance and stadium
jumping. This sport is known as three-phase, combined training or eventing.
Meagher has accompanied his equine charges to several events, for sports
massage is done before, not after, a performance. "It's like force-feeding
blood and oxygen into the tissue," Meagher explains. "People always
think in terms of 'jazzing up' the horse but that's not it at all. I just give
the animal a freer and easier motion. I don't want a horse prancing around; I
just want him to start loose and stay loose."
Meagher says that
sports massage, sometimes called deep massage, is an art, not a science.
"It's the study of anatomy in braille. You can't just walk up to a horse
and go slam-bang, because you'll get the opposite reaction from the one you
want. You have to know when to stop. You have to know how much force to use.
You have to know where the architectural stress points are. They're the places
where the traffic jams happen."
On the first day
of competition, Meagher gives Bally Cor what he terms a "light"
massage. The dressage phase tests the precision of a horse's gaits. The animal
is asked to perform a sequence of natural movements—the walk, the trot, the
canter and halt—under rigid scrutiny. Obviously, within the narrow confines of
the dressage arena, a horse's flaws are glaringly apparent.
On the morning of
the second day Meagher performs a deeper massage, applying more force. The
second day is the most taxing for the horse. It includes a steeplechase that is
run flat out, two long "roads and tracks" that must be trotted and a
cross-country course to be galloped.
way a muscle can be neutral," Meagher emphasizes. "It either works for
you or against you. Out on that cross-country, a horse that's been massaged
will conserve his energy. Massage won't increase endurance, understand. You
build endurance through training and conditioning, but that horse will use less
energy. If you push the horse, you'll find out he can do more."
The final day is
devoted to stadium jumping. This is done in a manicured ring over spiffy
painted fences, and tests the horse's ability to perform after the rigors of
cross-country. The stadium jumping is preceded by a veterinary check and, for
the U.S. horses, a massage.