In her inaugural column about life in the English countryside, Helena Douglas rides a horse in need of a massage ...


In the workaday language of the Firecracker, my diminutive horse-owning friend, “the Big Lad doesn’t feel quite right.” Translated, this means that her black 16.3hh Irish sports horse isn’t moving with quite as much ease as usual. Would I ride him out and see what I think?
After half an hour in the hills I agree that the Big Lad does not feel quite right. In trot he is unbalanced and in canter he bends to the left. But he isn’t lame and is in good spirits so we meander on gently though the chestnut saplings, past the woodsmen’s rusty tractors, down to the big duck pond, brown and slick from the recent rain, to drop in on Paul, the local gamekeeper.
After a natter over the yipping and yelping of his pack of mixed dogs, some small, some large, all filthy, I swap a crumpled fiver for two brace of pheasant “in the feather”. We then get on our way, the Big Lad stepping cautiously past the keening sapphire peacocks on the barn roof, the pheasants, tied by their necks with bale twine, slung in pairs across his withers.
Fretful about feathers tickling his shoulders, the Big Lad flicks his ears and tries a few dance moves. A pat on the neck stills him as a BMW approaches. Passing slowly, its driver gazes wide-eyed at my lolling avian cargo, the males’ plumage with its bursts of iridescent green, purple, pink and red contrasting with the drab brown uniforms of the females.
I phone the Firecracker from the saddle to confirm my findings. Has he twinged a muscle while cavorting in the field with his buddy, the Grey? Or was last week’s show-jumping to blame? The Firecracker says she will call Cathy, the horse masseuse, to come and have a feel.
Twenty minutes later I ride back into the yard  and see Cathy’s dark green Subaru 4x4 parked in the barn. Dressed in an aqua boiler suit, with a badge proclaiming her a member of the Equine Sports Massage Association, Cathy is a pretty 50-something whose slight appearance belies her strength.
Massage is increasingly being used by private riders, schools and racing yards to enhance muscle tone, relax spasms and increase the range of a horse’s movement, she explains. So Cathy is busy. She is also tired; working outside takes its toll and equine massage is physically demanding. Her arms, she says wryly, are like those of a body builder.
As her fingers move over him, the Big Lad stretches his neck downward and chunters to himself in pleasure. Cathy diagnoses a knot in the gluteal muscle to the left of his spine. The muscle has contracted, causing his back to curve. The solution is a 45-minute work over of the area, massaging the knot and stretching his hind legs to and fro. The Big Lad complies; he is good-tempered—an important attribute in an animal that weighs nearly a ton.
We are sheltered from the chilly fingers of the north wind and warmed by hot tea, drunk from stained, ageing mugs with faded pictures of prancing horses. As Cathy works she tells me about life surrounded by horses in Wales, the decades looking after the farm, the children, the endless muddy ponies.
To become a horse masseuse, applicants need a diploma in human anatomy and massage before they can study for the equine qualification. They must also have at least four years of working with horses, preferably in a professional yard, and experience of six equine disciplines, such as eventing and point-to-pointing. Then they must write a thesis, pass a three-hour exam and undergo a viva voce with a vet.
As we drink our rapidly cooling tea and snack on brownies—the Firecracker has squeezed in a baking session in between working, washing, shopping and mucking about—the yard falls silent. I perch on the mounting block made of two sections of oak and enjoy the calm.
The Grey, his face stained yellow with the clay of his field, surveys the scene over his stable door, waiting for his evening feed. Sitting in a bit of sun, the quivering yard dogs are alert for dropped crumbs. Perched on the fence, watching them watching us, is Pidge, a lost racing pigeon who ruffles his grey feathers as he waits for his daily treat of a sprinkle of grain.
Then Cathy stretches her back, the Big Lad shakes himself from his reverie, and the yard returns to life. “Walking out for two days, then back to normal,” she says briskly, scribbling notes on a pad supplied by Panacur, a horse wormer. With a pat of the Big Lad she pockets her payment and is off—to feed her own horses and cook dinner for seven.
The Firecracker and I do the evening chores: pick out hooves, hang hay nets, fill water buckets, feed. To the soothing sound of teeth grinding beet, carrots, nuts and chaff we sweep the yard and lug the tack into the house. (A spate of burglaries has made it too risky to keep the saddles and bridles in the tack room.)
Before turning out the yard lights I check on the Big Lad, who is rhythmically munching his hay, his warm breath clouding in the cold air, his brown gaze deep and knowing. I then head for home, regretfully turning down a sherry with the Firecracker. I have pheasants to pluck after all, and a casserole to make for supper.

Helena Douglas is a writer based in the depths of West Sussex. The pictures here are hers.