When a person is achy and sore, he or she might try getting a good massage to feel better. And when doctors need help rehabbing a patient from an injury, they may send their patient to a physiotherapist. While these things are more commonplace with people, the use of a physiotherapist for horses has been gaining traction in the equine industry over the past 20 years. A good physiotherapist can get great results. One of the top equine therapists out there is Tom Meyers of TSM Equine Therapies in Rough and Ready, CA.
Meyers has been working with horses for the past 24 years and with high-level international dressage competitors, such as Steffen Peters, Debbie McDonald, and Guenter Seidel for the past 20 years. He has been the official team therapist at international events such as the recent Alltech FEI World Equestrian Games (WEG) in Normandy, France, as well as the 2006 and 2010 World Equestrian Games and the 1996, 2008, and 2012 Olympic Games. Meyers has also worked at venues such as Aachen, Germany. In addition, he has worked with members of the Mexican and Canadian equestrian teams. "I am honored to have some of the most talented horses and riders as my clients," he said.
In his practice, Meyers uses a combination of massage, acupressure, and cold laser and pulsed magnetic field (PMF) blanket therapies from Respond Systems. "I have designed treatments that induce the horse to release its own endorphins—a natural painkiller from the brain that relax the horse during the course of my treatments," Meyers explained. "My treatments also aid the nervous horse in relaxing before competition."
"I’ve had riders say that the horse went immediately out of the stall and into the crossties, and they got on and went on riding and he’s been totally more relaxed than he’s been for the last month or year," described Meyers. However, sometimes the strongest effect will be two or three days later due to the treatments cleansing the muscles of lactic acid. The effects of his treatments can last up to a week or so.
While Meyers's treatments aren't super expensive, he said that not everyone will have an equine physiotherapist in their budget. "But then again, I've worked on a lot of horses for free, just because I knew the horse needed it, and I knew the person probably couldn't afford it," he said. "My heart goes out to that person wanting to help the horse and the horse really needed help. Money was never why I got into this."
Meyers started his career in equine physiotherapy in 1990, but he didn't start working with dressage horses until five years later. He started working with Steffen and Udon in 1995. Steffen Peters remembers the day he met Meyers. "Almost 20 years ago he had a little booth set up at the Del Mar Fairgrounds at the Del Mar International Horse Show," described Peters. "And Tom and I started to talk a little bit, and I figured out right away what a down to earth guy he is. He didn't really promise anything. He didn't advertise his product. He said, ‘Look, just give me a chance. Let me work on your horses a little bit, and if you like it, let's go from there.’ And that's when everything started."
Meyers started working with Peter’s potential Olympic horse, Udon, and he went with them to the USET National Dressage Grand Prix Championships at Gladstone, NJ, where Udon won. Then injury hit Udon, and Udon's team of caregivers rallied around him to get him healthy so he could qualify for the Olympics. Meyers described the injury, "Suspensory injuries in his hind legs. First was the left, and then months later the right one went. And he was 18 years old."
"And that was a rehab that I worked on with the groom, with Steffen, myself, and my wife. And there were quite a few veterinarians involved," he explained. "That horse kind of brought us all together. And not only did the horse go to Gladstone in 1996 and compete the full two weeks of trials, he then went to Atlanta and they not only got a Team Bronze, it was one of Udon’s best rides ever. He actually retired sound at 18, and that was putting together all of my greatest moments in life," Meyers added proudly.
Peters said that without Tom, he and Udon would not have made it to the 1996 Olympic Games in Atlanta, and there was a surprising moment for Peters after the Olympic Games were over. "Thanks to Tom, we actually went to the Olympic Games and helped the U.S. Team win a Bronze medal there," described Peters. "And this was with the caution of veterinarians telling us there was a very, very slim chance that Udon would hold up. Afterward when we came back from the Games, we did another scan of this particular area, and we couldn't even tell there was an injury. So at that time I was completely convinced of Tom's skills, and it's been just a wonderful business relationship with him, and even more important, a wonderful friendship."
In the Beginning
But Meyers’s business didn’t always involve international competitions and high-level grand prix clients and horses. Meyers had to work his way up, learning as much as he could along the way and work on a lot of horses with a variety of issues. And when he wasn't traveling, he would still help backyard horses and local horses and ponies used for Pony Club and 4H clubs. "In my experience, any horse can benefit from therapy," he said.
While Meyers has always been an animal lover, he didn’t think of working with them until tragedy struck him in 1990. He had been a wild land fire fighter for over 20 years. While fighting fires in Alaska, he fractured his neck at C6 and ruptured a disk at L5-S1. "I was in a lot of pain, and conventional human therapies were only marginally helpful. Because of my passion for horses in particular, I knew some vets were using laser therapy on them with great results. So even though it was not yet approved for use with humans, I tried it. A co-worker’s sister used a Respond Systems’ laser on my neck and back. The response was so good that I got a laser and treated myself while going through physical therapy for the injury."
However before he worked on horses, he worked for Respond Systems as a sales representative, and he worked with a small animal veterinarian, Dr. Mark May. Meyers started his work on the dogs known as mushers that were used in the Iditarod. He and Dr. May also performed trials on dogs and cats that were not healing well after surgery. After receiving treatments with the cold lasers, all of the animals were healed within six months.
"Little by little I started to make a living off of it," Meyers said of his career as a sales representative of the Respond Systems' equipment. "I was pretty poor and broke for a long time. I lived off of some investments when I left Alaska. Fortunately I was able to hang in there, because it was almost two years before I had my first sale."
After the success with small animals, Meyers was even more convinced of the usefulness of laser therapy. He moved back to his home state of California and worked at various racetracks, such as Golden Gate Fields and Bay Meadows Racetrack. He attended clinics to learn everything he could about equine athletes and the treatment of soft tissue injuries. Part of what he learned at a clinic by Robert Alman, the Jack Meagher system of stress point therapy, Meyers still uses today on his clients. It was while working at the racetracks that he also met his wife.
"From racetracks and racehorses, I switched to the hunter/jumper world, where I was fortunate to work with some great vets and therapists," said Meyers. "One vet to whom I credit a lot of my success is Dr. Mary Brennan. Dr. Brennan is also an equine chiropractor, and she taught me about holistic medicine and traditional Chinese medicine."
Next, Meyers started working with Quarter Horse show horses, and then, since he was living in the Phoenix area, he began working with Arabians, especially since the Scottsdale Arabian Horse Show allowed him to meet new clients. And then his career began in dressage, and 20 years later, he has stuck with that discipline.
"My business started out super slow, but I always knew that the lasers worked and helped the horses with soft tissue problems and pain and soreness, so I stayed with it and learned all I could from self-studying and reading and working with the veterinarians," he said. "I took courses on massage for horses and combined the laser and massage into a treatment for suppleness and freedom of movement. It really does help supple up a tight horse or a sore horse. It makes a big difference."
"Though the proof is in the pudding," he says, often. "It was like a breakthrough moment for me when horse after horse after horse had consistently gotten the same results." Meyers could tell he was helping his clients' horses, and he could see the relaxation and pain relief they were experiencing.
Peters described the relaxation effects he has seen with his horses, especially Floriano and Legolas, and lately with his new promising dressage mount, Rosamunde, who is known by everyone as Rosie. Rosie is a 2007 16.3-hand bay Rhinelander mare that owner Akiko Yamazaki imported from Germany for Peters to ride. Peters described Rosie’s positive response to Meyers’ therapies. "Actually three times now, she has laid down when Tom works on her," he said. "It is very simple. The proof is in the pudding. And there are so many therapies out there. I always believe in true results, and Tom has been delivering those for the past 20 years."
Meyers has found the work to be similar between the various breeds and disciplines. "There might be some different tweaks here and there with the discipline, but I’m always working on suppleness and relaxation," he said. "That seems to work in all the disciplines. A relaxed and supple horse is a happy horse and less apt to blow up, wash out, or misbehave, and generally will like to do his or her work."
Each of Meyers’ sessions takes one to two hours, and he tries not to work on more than six in a day. "It takes a lot of energy in each session, and I do not want to shortcut the horse," he said. "At a show, I work on suppling the horse and after competing help the horse to cool down, and I use the modalities to help muscles recover quicker for the next ride."
Peters added that the horses feel better and are happier after their sessions with Meyers. "The neat thing is that it hasn't just worked for us," said Peters, who offers high praise for Meyers, the results, and his work ethic. "When Tom is at the show, Tom never says no, and that's why he's out there from 5 in the morning until 8 o'clock at night," Peters continued. "There have been so many times we have invited Tom for dinner, but many nights before major competitions where he simply likes to be in a very quiet environment with the horses, and that means late at night. And Tom truly appreciates the time with the horses.
"It's not just a business for him. It's quite obvious that he enjoys it just as much, and that's why he is just one of those really incredible horsemen."