Hard Spun's final preparations for the Kentucky Derby Presented by Yum! Brands (gr. I) have included a sizzling five-furlong work and the usual early morning gallops. You've probably read about all those moves online and in the newspapers. But there's one step in the process you might not know about. Thursday, the colt got a massage at Barn 41 following morning training hours at Churchill Downs.
Cindy McVey, an equine sports massage therapist from Pennsylvania, made a special trip to Kentucky to help get Hard Spun ready for his run for the roses. following victories this year in the Lane's End (gr. II) and LeComte (gr. III) Stakes.
"A small percentage of horses, two or three percent, will get stiff the day after a massage, so it's best to massage a horse 48 hours before a race," said McVey of the timing of Hard Spun's treatment. "If any stiffness does manifest itself, he'll have a chance to work it out tomorrow,"
McVey, who calls her business "Happy Mare Equine Sports Massage Therapy," started giving Hard Spun massages late last year at the request of his owner, Rick Porter of Fox Hill Farms, and she's been a regular on the colt's team every since.
"So far, with this horse, we’ve basically had no issues, just little bitty muscle aches and pains, which are kind of common," said Hard Spun's trainer, Larry Jones. "But if we can keep those little aches and pains worked out, then they don't grow into big problems. When you get on the level Hard Spun is on now, having to put out so hard every time he races, you need to take every precaution that you can, It's also good to have another set of hands and eyes on him. She (McVey) makes notes, and she can remember what he was like before his other races. If she finds something different from what he normally has, we can pay attention to it and see if things are changing."
McVey arrived at Churchill Thursday morning around 10 and got started after Hard Spun finished his morning meal and settled down. She started on the colt's left side at the neck and worked her way down his body to his hind left hind leg before moving to his right side.
At times, Hard Spun became restless, tossing his head and raising one of his hind feet to kick.
"Easy, boy, easy; no, no, no," said nightwatchman Jeff Poindexter, who was holding Hard Spun's shank and soothing the colt while McVey worked. Groom Corey York took over from Poindexter after he finished taking care of another horse.
The massage lasted more than an hour.
"It's not a loosey-goosey, feel-good Swedish massage," McVey said. "It's grueling; it's hard work; and it's tough. I'm pushing very, very hard, and a tremendous amount of toxins will be excreted through his skin."
McVey, who uses only her hands, starts with a series of "opening" strokes to warm up a horse's muscles and prepare them for treatment. Next she performs a series of "locating" strokes to find places where the horse is sore.
"You may call it poking and prodding; I call it palpating," McVey said. "I'm looking for muscle spasms and places where the horse is reactive. The horse will tell me when I hit a sore spot. His ears go back. He'll turn around, and I'll get a glare. Sometimes a leg comes up to kick, and he'll try to get away from me. The sore spot feels like a knot under my fingers, like I'm going over a speed bump or wire,"
McVey treats each sore spot with direct pressure.
"I use light pressure for 10 seconds, moderate pressure for 15 seconds, and very heavy pressure for 20 seconds," she said, "The last treatment stroke I use is called cross fiber friction, which is what it sounds like. It's a very small, tiny stroke back and forth, back and forth over the muscle."
According to McVey, equine sports massage therapy has numerous benefits.
"It stimulates circulation, and it increases the production of synovial fluid, a natural lubricant, in the joints," McVey said. "Massage also increases the range of motion, and it reduces inflammation and swelling in the joints. It relieves tension and eases muscle spasms."
McVey, who has been an equine sports massage therapist for three years, has approximately 100 equine clients, and they are involved in variety of sports in addition to racing. They include hunter-jumpers, barrel racers, and Western Pleasure horses.
"This is a second career," said McVey, who completed an equine sports massage therapy certification program at Equissage in Round Hill, Va. "For 20 years or so, I was a professional violinist, so this is a quite a change of pace. But I love being so close to horses; I love the exercise and being outdoors; and I love the people that I meet."
But her clients don't always enjoy what McVey does to them even though they benefit from her work. Hard Spun, according to Jones, would not choose to have a massage if he had a say in the matter.
"Prevention in this game is very important, and this is something that is good for him," Jones said. "But you don’t always like what’s good for you, and for him, this is like taking a medicine like castor oil.