Maddi Newburg's massage patient was having a relaxing morning. Newburg started at his head, pressing her fingers into his long, coarse hair, kneading downward into his shoulders. His big brown eyes began to droop when she got to his back, and he leaned into her as if to say he liked it.
The patient, Buck, is a 17-year-old Appaloosa that lives at Lakeview Stables in Pinellas Park. Newburg, 18, is a massage therapist for animals.
"Some people might consider this pampering," Newburg said. "Veterinary care does come first. But a horse's body mass is about 60 percent muscle, and their muscular system controls their movement, so it's important to keep everything running smoothly."
She opened Tranquil Touch Equine and Canine Massage Therapy this year. She caters to all animals but specializes in horses and dogs, the most common human companion animals. So far she has done 15 hourlong massage and stretching sessions for pets throughout Tampa Bay.
Though massaging for horses, or equissage, is more common in the horse-racing world, all animals could use a thorough rubdown. The benefits include improved circulation, faster healing of injuries, reduced inflammation in joints, and overall improvement of health.
"Professional athletes get massages all the time to help with their performance. It has the same benefits for animals," Newburg said. "Stretching their legs is the equivalent of human stretching before we work out. It gives them a wider range of motion and helps them stay flexible."
She can identify an injured or tense muscle by touch or by reading the animal's body language. A flinch might indicate a sore spot. Kicking or bucking could signal pain. Signs of enjoyment are relaxation and even falling asleep.
Pet owners unsure if their animal needs a professional massage should look for fatigue or stiffness. In horses, a lack of response to directions is the biggest indicator of muscle trauma.
A horse lover since she first went to riding camp at age 8, Newburg completed the veterinary science program at Tarpon Springs High School, where she earned a certificate in veterinary assistance.
Last summer she took a five-day course in animal massage in Virginia with Mary Schreiber, the pioneer of equissage. Newburg earned her certificate in equine and canine massage and opened her business.
She uses three main strokes in a full-body animal massage. The first, compression, requires static pressing with her knuckles and palms to open up muscles. Next is direct pressure, where she uses a zigzag motion or "cat claw" hand formation to press on the muscles. Cross fiber friction, or back and forth motion with the hands, removes any leftover tension.
With Buck she used her elbows for extra leverage, pressing them into his sides and rump where his muscles were tightest.
Karen Barr of Clearwater, Buck's 15-year-old owner, said her horse was noticeably more flexible and relaxed in the days after Newburg worked her magic.
"He's much more laid-back," Barr said Wednesday, two days after the massage. "It helped him calm down because he was tense before. I can sense it when I'm riding; he's responding to me a lot better and backing up better."
She plans to call Newburg next month to take care of Buck again.