Editor's note: This tour of small businesses across the country highlights the imagination, diversity, and resilience of American enterprise.
Mary Schreiber stands in a barn beside a high-strung ex-racehorse named Laura Jones, using an elbow to stroke her velvety brown slab of shoulder. "Palpate up light to that ligament and down light," says Schreiber, in the calming tones of a hypnotist. "Up moderate and down light. And then on the heavy when you feel tension--and you will--stop and treat with direct pressure."
The mare, restive when Schreiber started, begins to mellow. If a horse can look Zen, Laura Jones looks Zen.
Schreiber is the founder of Equissage, one of the country's oldest trainers in equine massage therapy. The laying of hands on horses, which dates back to ancient Rome and China, is meant to enhance muscle tone, reduce inflammation, release tension, stimulate circulation, and improve overall physical condition. After a session, the rubber feels almost as good as the rubbed, according to Schreiber. "Horses have such huge hearts and huge energy fields," she says. "When you are massaging a horse, you feel that personally."
Schreiber, several family members, and an associate instructor run Equissage from Schreiber's 20-acre farm in Round Hill, Virginia. The region is lush, hilly, wealthy--and very horsey. There are stables, breeding farms, and polo fields; fox hunts, steeplechases, and dressage shows. Olympic riders train in the area.
In 2016, roughly 300 students from six countries visited Equissage. They spent five days learning their way around the equine musculoskeletal system: strokes, pressure, sequence, and how not to get kicked. The cost is $1,295: a dog massage class is an additional $600. Private tutoring costs $3,000. For those who can't make the journey, a home-study program is available for $2,500.
Schreiber says 99 percent of her students go on to start their own small horse-massage businesses. Others work at stables or simply care for their own animals.
Samantha Stilley enrolled in May 2016 after deciding that the life of an office-bound veterinarian was not for her. Shortly after being certified, she started Animal Connection, offering equine and canine massage to clients in Virginia, West Virginia, and Maryland.
"It seems so much to learn in one week, but it's amazing how much it comes together each day," Stilley says. "By the time you're using real pressure, you see the horses react immediately. They start to yawn. Their eyes soften. I knew going in that it sounded great, but I didn't realize how much it would change my whole life plan."
The practice has had a healing effect on Schreiber as well, helping her persevere through trials that have included personal bankruptcy and the death of a son. "Giving relief to animals in pain," she says, "is a way to relieve our own pain."
Mistress of the barn
Growing up on Long Island, Schreiber had no experience with animals beyond wanting but not getting a pony. Having studied Spanish in college, she worked as a bilingual executive secretary until 1967, when she married Dee Schreiber, a Wall Street executive. Four children and a life of country clubs, Broadway shows, and the Junior League ensued.
The family had lived briefly in Pennsylvania, and in the mid-80s Schreiber decided she wanted to return. The couple bought a home in Bucks County, and bought a horse for their younger daughter, 8-year-old Selena, which they boarded at a nearby stable. After six months, the stable's owners announced plans to move to Texas. Schreiber never understood why they asked her to take over the business. But she agreed and enrolled in classes on equine science and stable management.
Many of the 17 lodgers at Brookside Horse Boarding were retired racehorses whose owners rarely visited. Schreiber considers herself intuitive: spending time around her charges she sensed sadness. "My heart just went out to them," says Schreiber. "They seemed to want me to know there was more that I should do." Schreiber prayed on it. The answer came to her: massage.
It was not an obvious answer. This was 1987: Equine massage was largely unknown in the United States. Schreiber certainly hadn't heard of it. With no obvious place to start, she signed up for a class in human massage, which was not helpful. But the instructor introduced Schreiber to Craig Denega, a massage therapist who had also recently become interested in horses. Denega suggested she attend a sports-massage class. There, Schreiber learned to vigorously apply strokes in the rhythm of a heartbeat.
Winners and losers
Schreiber and Denega began traveling to a Philadelphia racetrack on Tuesdays and Thursdays, giving hourlong massages for $50 a pop. Schreiber says animals they had massaged started finishing in the money. The therapy alleviated some of the wear and tear that is endemic among equine athletes.
Schreiber expanded her practice to show horses and began teaching a massage class at the school where she'd studied equine science. She was named official massage therapist for the Devon Horse Show and other prestigious competitions. She also treated dogs, starting with the German shepherd owned by her daughter's riding instructor.
All this time, Dee Schreiber had been commuting to his job in New York, returning on weekends. In 1989, his employer declared bankruptcy, throwing the family into a tailspin. They lost their home to foreclosure, shut down the stable, and moved to a cottage in North Carolina. The financial toll was so great that they brought with them canned goods donated by their church in Pennsylvania.
While in Pennsylvania, Schreiber had been driving to North Carolina every few weeks to teach classes at St. Andrews University. Living there, she continued to teach and also to massage horses: the family's sole support. Then one of her former clients, a horse owner in Pennsylvania, suggested she create a formal training program and offered to become her first student. Schreiber further refined strokes adapted from sports massage and wrote them down in a sequence, drawing inspiration from the hands-on, repetitive approach her father, a physical education instructor, once took to teach swimming.
In 1991, Schreiber returned to Pennsylvania to instruct the client and six or seven of the clients' friends. She ended up staying an extra two weeks to provide additional training. Realizing this was a bigger business, she incorporated Equissage in North Carolina to teach and offer certifications. "The lawyer said, 'You can't certify people,' Schreiber recalls. "I said, 'OK.' I walked out of his office. And I certified somebody the next week."
With Equissage making money, Dee Schreiber became its full-time administrator. The novelty of the work attracted coverage from Sports Illustrated, the broadcast networks, and numerous local radio stations and newspapers.
Schreiber continued her personal massage work, and those clients often let her bring students to their barns. She also taught using the horses at a therapeutic riding program serving people with special needs.
In 1993, Dee Schreiber's mother died and the family inherited enough money to buy the farm in Virginia. A year later, Schreiber's son Eric, a Marine, was killed during a training exercise. "I was teaching five students at the time, and I continued teaching," says Schreiber. "Then I continued teaching the next week. My love for the horses and responsibility to teach people kept me doing what I needed to do."
Intent on reaching more people, Schreiber in 1996 published The "How to" Manual of Sports Massage for the Equine Athlete, which remains in print. Dee Schreiber created the home-study program, for which the business produced DVDs and other instructional materials.
Over the years, Schreiber has tapered off the personal massage part of the business. Today, she teaches almost exclusively. Mostly she works out of her own barn, which houses nine animals, including several ex-racehorses and a Belgian draft horse. The business now attracts most new clients through social media, managed by Schreiber's 16-year-old granddaughter whose mother started the whole thing by asking her parents to buy her a horse.
"When people say, how did you come up with this, I don't know how to explain," says Schreiber. "It is deep inside me and has been there all along.
"When I was a kid, I wanted to be a missionary," says Schreiber. "This is my mission."