If you were asked to list some equine athletes, the list would probably include names such as Denman, Sea the Stars, Je t'Aime Flamenco and Castleforbes Libertina -- equine athletes at the top of their game in racing and showjumping.
However, as equine massage therapist Eilish Fennelly points out, our mistake is to assume that only those horses at the peak levels of fitness, ability and performance are the equine equivalents to the human Olympic athletes.
The reality is that every horse is an athlete, whether it's a beloved 12.2hh child's pony, a weight-carrying hunter or an honest cob.
"A horse's body is comprised of 60pc muscle and it is that muscle upon which we depend continuously for everything from a gentle hack and pony club event to the more rigorous hunting and cross-country runs," says Eilish.
"When we ask our horses to perform, we are asking them to use their muscles as athletes, whether in or out of the show arena."
When owners make the mental switch from thinking about the horse as "the horse out the back" to the "athlete", the idea of using treatments such as sports massage therapy makes total sense.
"A muscle comprises of a band of fibres that contract and stretch. Whenever a muscle is worked it can become 'knotted up', which directly affects muscle movement," says Eilish.
"Because muscle tightening produces a resistance in mobility, the athlete works against the resistance and the resistance against the athlete. This causes discomfort and performance is affected."
Equine sports massage therapy was developed with the equine athlete specifically in mind and considers anything less than maximum efficiency to be both a trouble in itself and also a pre-cursor to more serious health and behavioural problems.
Eilish believes that a session of sports massage has benefits such as increased circulation and flexibility, improvement in muscle tone and range of motion, relaxation of muscle spasms, relief of muscle tension and stress, and can also help prevent injury and disease.
"The result is a more balanced athlete with 20pc more performance efficiency," she adds.
Eilish's interest in massage therapy stems from a love of horses that began as a child growing up in Vermont, USA.
"We had rescue horses and also did a lot of showing and competition," she recalls. "As an adult, I have always been interested in rehabilitation and communication with horses that would bring them out of their shells.
"After we brought a badly abused horse up to championship level, I was always particularly interested in non-invasive therapies for behavioural issues. But I was keen to find more scientific therapies, nothing too airy- fairy.
"Sports massage therapy is already widely accepted for human athletes and the principles transfer very well to equine athletes."
Eilish quickly enrolled on a year-long course with equine sports massage guru Mary Schreiber in the United States and is currently studying the McTimoney-Corley method of spinal manipulations at the Oxford College of Equine Physical Therapy.
Today, her typical clients for sports massage therapy range from hunters to eventers and showjumping horses.
A typical assessment of any horse begins with observing the horse at walk and trot, before starting at the poll and working her way through the horse's body to the dock, assessing the muscles by palpating the major muscles and assessing the range of movement.
"I look at the range of motion of each limb, flex the knees, the carpals and look at the pelvis," says Eilish.
"I look at the dock to see stiffness or if the horse is being held funny.
"Horses are very honest about telling you where they need work, often more honest than humans are," she laughs. "They will tell you in whatever way they can."
The initial assessment always involves a full body check, even if the owner maintains that the horse only requires treatment in a certain area.
"I treat the whole horse because the symptoms you see could be a secondary lameness or compensatory issue caused by a problem elsewhere."
Common injuries with hunting horses tend to be shoulder lameness, hind limb/hamstring problems and huge problems with the longissimus dorsi -- the long back muscles on which the rider sits.
"I've noticed that hirelings can have problems with the poll and neck or splenius muscles, which is often caused by hard hands on the part of the rider," adds Eilish.
"Ditch jumping can also cause pulled muscles in the pectoral or girth area.
"The horse is extending so much with his front end that he injures himself.
"But hunters are sort of an anomaly because they use all of their bodies for different jumps during the day. They can have issues all over."
Although the long duration of a day's hunting is a factor in hunter injuries, the massage therapist maintains that the lack of warm-ups and cool-downs is a bigger issue.
"Hunters are going, going, going and then standing around for ages before going again," she says. "Imagine if you were out in running shorts and T-shirt, then standing around getting cold before being asked to run again."
In showjumping, muscle problems tend to be found in the hamstring, back and shoulder areas due to the effort of jumping uprights.
"Each horse is an individual and it can depend on how the animal is trained, what its conformation is like and how it adapts to jumping," she says.
Over-developed muscle under the neck (sternocephalic) is a feature of some showjumping ponies, observes Eilish.
"This can develop as a result of hard hands in the rider, putting far too much pressure on the mouth and causing the pony to compensate by lifting its head," she says.
"Those ponies have lots of poll problems and this can lead to spinal problems as the atlas and axis [first two vertebrae of the neck] come under pressure."
Sports massage can also be used to treat behavioural problems, which can often be traced back to physical pain somewhere in the body.
"When we ask our horses to perform and are met with resistance, such as a buck, rear or simply opposition, often the problem stems not from stubbornness and bad behaviour, but from soreness and muscular pain," claims Eilish.
"Take the case of a lovely riding club horse that did a bit of hunting and never put a foot out of place, but suddenly began to rear when being mounted," says the therapist.
"The owner knew this was completely out of character and we traced the problem to a serious spasm in the longissimus dorsi muscle in his back."
Performance and behavioural issues that can be helped by massage include head tossing, resisting neck motion to one side, always striking off on the wrong canter lead, bending problems, the horse being short on extensions or simply being 'off' for no apparent reason. Other issues include horses that switch leads, have a so-called 'cold back', shoeing problems, recurrent colic and tying up.
Most Irish horse owners have moved on from the days when all bad behaviour was met with punishment, believes Eilish.
"It's nice to see owners and riders empathising with their horses instead of treating them as machines."
A typical equine sports massage session lasts for 1.5 hours for an initial assessment and one hour for subsequent treatments. After the initial assessment, the horse owner is given a written report of the findings, follow up advice and recommendations.
"Sessions cost €60 and the number of sessions is wholly dependant on the horse and his reaction to the treatment," says Eilish. "Sometimes one session is enough and sometimes follow up sessions are required.
"Often massage therapy works best as a preventative treatment to prevent the problem arising.
"It's also a useful tool prior to a competition to get the muscles working anaerobically, relaxed and less prone to injury."
For more information on equine sports massage therapy, go to www.stablehands.eu or call Eilish on 086 121 4573.