Painting by muscles: The art of massage

Story highlights

  • Equine massage therapists paint anatomy on horses as a teaching aid
  • Remarkable images include skeletal, digestive and reproductive systems
  • Vivid pictures help students memorize more than 700 muscles
  • Equine massage is growing in popularity, and gives horses "competitive edge"

With its cartoon-like skeleton and blood-red muscles on display, the horse parading around the race track has all the appearances of a very late Halloween prank.

Resembling an equine beast turned inside-out, the otherworldly creature daubed in brightly-colored paint completes a mini obstacle course, drawing excited murmurings from the gathered crowd.

It's not a ghoulish apparition, but a living piece of art, used to vividly show the inner workings of our four-legged friends.

Equine massage therapist Gillian Higgins spent two years painting all 11 anatomical systems on horses -- from the skeletal, to the digestive, muscular, respiratory and reproductive -- as part of an innovative teaching aid.

The animals, decorated in washable, hypoallergenic paint, are then displayed at races and equine training events across Britain.

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"Anatomy can be quite dry and difficult to remember," said Higgins, manager of equine educational organization Horses Inside Out, based in Nottingham, England.

"But if you see a horse moving and jumping around with a skeleton painted on the side, it really brings it to life.

"It's not just about knowing the names of the bones, it's about understanding exactly what they do."

Higgins first started painting horses six years ago, to help equine massage students memorize the animal's 700 muscles.

Today, her carefully decorated horses appear at veterinary classes, industry lectures and racing competitions.

"It's an interesting and easy to understand way of learning the horse's anatomy," Higgins said. "A lot of people have told me it's like putting the pieces of a puzzle together."

It takes around four hours to paint a horse, and Higgins usually uses 15-year-old thoroughbred Freddie Fox. With his gray coloring and placid temperament, Freddie is an ideal model.

"My horses have been painted hundreds of times and they've never reacted. In fact, they quite like the attention," Higgins said.

"They can mooch around in the stable doing whatever they'd normally do while I paint them. They find the brush strokes calming."

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Once seen as a superfluous luxury, equine massage is now standard treatment for many professional thoroughbreds, with a growing number of private owners also treating their beloved horses to a rub down.

And with racing spelling big business in the UK -- superstar colt Frankel won almost £3 million ($4 million) in prize money before retiring this year -- owners will be hoping it also gives them that competitive edge.

"If you'd spoken about equine massage 20 years ago, many people would have said 'What's the point of that?' " therapist Nicole Rossa told CNN. "But it's become very popular, particularly in the last 10 years."

Sessions usually run from 30 minutes to one hour, costing around £25-£40 ($40-$64), according to Britain's Equine Massage Association.

"Regular massage helps pick up problems early. For example, a sore back may be treated by changing how the jockey is riding in the saddle," Rossa added.

"Massage may also help to calm them down -- some horses get anxious before a competition or tense after a long journey."

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There are now just over 80 equine masseurs registered in Britain, with therapists required to first complete a massage course for humans before treating horses.

Once in the profession it's no easy ride, as each therapist requires permission from a vet before starting work.

As an equine masseur, it's essential to know the inner workings of an animal unable to vocalize what it is feeling -- making the anatomy paintings an important point of reference.

But the fine art of painting horses isn't all science based -- Rossa also decorates thoroughbreds purely for aesthetic value.

Earlier this month she painted a racehorse from neck to hoof in an intricate Christmas jumper, as part of The Jockey Club's online advent calendar.

For the photoshoot, 17-time champion jockey, Tony ''AP" McCoy donned a matching festive jumper as the pair leaped over a golden hedge laden with presents.

It wasn't the first time Rossa had used a horse as canvas, also painting a thoroughbred in the Union Jack as part of a special shoot for July's Barbury International Horse Trials in Britain.

Eventing competitor Laura Collett was pictured riding the remarkable painted horse jumping over a mini Stonehenge obstacle course.

It took Rossa more than five hours to paint the gray horse, using brown sticky tape to create the straight lines of the flag. "The horses seemed to quite enjoy it -- some just love the attention and being paraded around," she said.

With their insides vividly on display, these thoroughbreds are no oil paintings. But their eye-catching outfits may have proven picture perfect for training therapists the fine art of massage.

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