When animals are in pain or are stressed, their bodies respond in many ways like a human body does. The body tenses up, may ache and has a hard time to relax, said Katie Kowalzek, who works as an equine and canine massage therapist.
“Horses get knots like humans do,” she said.
The road to becoming a massage therapist for dogs and horses wasn’t always clear to Kowalzek. Studying agriculture at the North Dakota State University (NDSU), she liked it, but knew she wasn’t passionate enough about it to turn it into a career.
“I decided to research different occupations I could go into dealing with animals,” she said. “I grew up on a farm and always had a dog, cats and horses.”
Even though Kowalzek found a school for massage therapy, she still wanted to use some of her college credits to earn a degree. Since NDSU didn’t offer an equine science program, she transferred to Minnesota State Community College in Fergus Falls. Kowalzek graduated earlier this spring with a diploma in equine science and plan to finish her associate’s degree in equine science next year.
As part of her associate’s degree studies, Kowalzek completed a 200-hour internship with instructor Leda Mox at Armstrong Equine and Canine Massage Therapy in Becker.
“I ended up staying longer and worked for her for an extra three months,” she said. “I still go there once a week to give riding lessons to a young rider.”
There are many benefits for horses to get a massage. It can improve their blood circulation and improve their range of motion and flexibility.
When Kowalzek massages a horse, she usually has the owner hold him or her. It strengthens the bond between the horse and the owner as the horse understands the massage is a treatment the owner is giving the horse.
“They usually respond very well with it. You’ll see a lot when I massage the horse, they will nuzzle the owner,” she said.
Horses that get their very first massage often don’t know how to relax at first, especially horses that are high strung. Toward the end of the massage, they understand that they are supposed to relax.
“So when I come back the next time, they kind of know they are just supposed to stand there and relax, that they don’t have to perform,” she said.
Kowalzek said it’s very rewarding to see the horses she works with improve, especially horses that have been rescued from abusive homes.
“It teaches them to trust people again,” she said. “They learn that it’s a good touch and not something that will hurt.”
Kowalzek said it grieves her tremendously to see a horse react because of previous abuse.
“I’m determined to see them improve and to gain their trust,” she said. “I like working with rescue horses a lot.”
When it comes to treating dogs and horses, Kowalzek sometimes applies essential oils. Many of them can be very beneficial to the animal’s health, she said.
Wood oils, such as cedarwood, fir and cyprus are good for bones and joints, which can benefit animals with arthritis, as they support bone health.
Peppermint, wintergreen and black pepper oils can also help reduce pain and inflammation.
“So if they have sore muscles, that’s usually what I apply,” she said.
Kowalzek said that when she uses essential oils she usually applies a rain drop treatment — a sequence of an assortment of drops she applies along the animal’s spine in a specific order.
Once the sequence has been applied, she places a damp, warm towel on the animal’s back to help the oils soak in.
“It helps intensify the oils so it gets into their system faster,” she said.
Horses also receive the oils around their coronary bands, which is a connection between the hoof wall and the hairline.
Kowalzek said people sometimes think she can diagnose what’s wrong with their horse or perform lameness evaluations.
“Only a veterinarian can diagnose,” she said. “I can tell them where their animal is sore and what they can do to help to reduce the pain.”
Massage of a horse that has colic has also shown to be effective.
“Since colic is a stomach cramp, massage can help them relax and somewhat ease the pain. You alternate this with walking the horse,” she said. “I would still call the veterinarian though.”
Kowalzek travels throughout Minnesota to massage various breeds of dogs and horses.
Those interested in making an appointment or who want more information, may call (320) 630-9600.
Once an appointment has been made, Kowalzek asks to have the animal ready when she arrives and preferably groomed. She also asks that the owner be present.