Even though the Black Hills Stock Show & Rodeo embodies the rugged ranching lifestyle, a softer and gentler side of the event will be on display as well.
It is called equine therapy and, according to its practitioners, it will go a long ways toward making horses happier, healthier and more robust.
“It lengthens their stride. They can run farther and faster,” said Rhonda Evans, the owner of Black Hills School of Animal Massage in Piedmont.
Evans, who is taking her hands-on approach to horse health to this year's stock show, said massage therapy can remedy many ills for a cowboy's best friend — relief from muscle aches, soreness and tension headaches as well as speeding up the healing process.
And while there may be doubters, Kim Kizzier, who owns Applied Integrative Therapy in Gillette, Wyo., said she can spot a horse that needs a massage in a heartbeat.
“I see it time and time again,” she said. “I can walk up and see right away that the saddle is not fitting properly. The horse is probably thinking, ‘Don’t you know why I’m so grumpy?’”
A change in mood or behavior is one way a horse might communicate that something is out of sync, either from ill-fitting equipment, an injury or just from being worked too hard, Kizzier said.
“Really good horsemanship is part of it,” she said. “Everything ties in together.”
Kizzier said she uses a number of different approaches when she works on a horse, including bodywork, acupressure and Reiki, which is the hands-on transfer of energy through the palms.
“With a horse or a person, if there’s an injury or overuse, the body will lay down almost scar tissue or connective tissue, which begins to glue the muscles together — sometimes even to the bone,” she said. “So once that happens, then over time, the rest of the body, it all starts to get stuck.”
Acupressure is done through "acupoints," said Kizzier, explaining these are “the same points and place on a body where energetic pathways can be accessed through the skin. It can be used both as an assessment tool and to affect parts of the body, deeper.”
It also can be a bit painful for the horse, Kizzer said.
“It can be uncomfortable at first, and a horse isn’t going to put up with that anyway,” she said. “It takes me a while with a horse, sometimes. I do it in layers and I make it as comfortable as they can handle.”
Evans said she can tell when a horse is enjoying a massage.
“They respond really well,” she said, adding that they often shake their heads and lick their lips as signs of approval.
Horses also respond well to an ear massage, Evans said.
“A horse has 250 acupressure points in each ear," she said. "They get tension headaches and when you get that tension out, they’ll start yawning.”
And while horses do seem to enjoy the extra attention a massage can bring to the stable, it can be dangerous for the masseuse.
“I’ve been kicked four times,” Evans said. “You need to know how to work around them. They’re a 1,200-pound animal and you have to be careful where you stand. If you hit a spot that’s sore, they might try to bite you.”
Kizzier said that while she will set up a booth at events such as the Black Hills Stock Show & Rodeo, she prefers to work with the animals before they go to an event.
Evans works with rodeo horses, oftentimes during the spring and summer, and with race horses during the winter. She said she charges $125 for a treatment, which lasts between an hour and 90 minutes.
Kizzier, who charges $90 for a treatment, said there’s no easy way to determine how often a horse needs a massage.
“I trust peoples’ intuition on their horses. If there’s any change in a horse’s attitude or in the way it’s moving or performing, you should have it evaluated," Kizzier said.
Both therapists said they feel fortunate to have the chance to work on horses for a living.
“It’s my passion and it’s getting more and more popular,” Kizzer said.
“It doesn’t even feel like I’m working,” Evans said. “It’s so rewarding to help horses that are hurting, give them relief.”