Skip to main content
Part of complete coverage on

Painting by muscles: The art of massage

By Sheena McKenzie, CNN
updated 10:34 AM EST, Fri December 7, 2012
Equine massage therapist Gillian Higgins paints horses' anatomies on their coats, as part of an innovative teaching aid for students. Equine massage therapist Gillian Higgins paints horses' anatomies on their coats, as part of an innovative teaching aid for students.
Anatomy art
Hurdling horses
Skilled skeletons
Massage master class
Nervous nelly
Colorful colt
Vibrant model
Inside out
Happy horse
Festive filly
Jumping jack
A fine art
  • 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"

(CNN) -- 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.

World's only three-story stables
Singapore attracts top horse trainers

Read: Roll over Freud: Rise of animal therapy

"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.

What do winners eat for lunch?
Frankel ends career in dramatic style

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

Read: Whykickamoocow -- The secret of silly horse names

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."

Read: Style bible's most controversial model?

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.

If you see a horse moving and jumping around with a skeleton painted on the side, it really brings it to life
Gillian Higgins, equine massage therapist

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.

Part of complete coverage on
updated 5:41 AM EST, Fri December 12, 2014
Sculptures in driftwood
You may have heard of Glorious Goodwood, but what about glorious driftwood? Meet the artist turning beach detritus into stunning sculptures.
updated 8:37 AM EDT, Thu October 30, 2014
He's won six Olympic medals on two legs, but Bode Miller's future will ride on four -- can he replicate his skiing success in the "Sport of Kings"?
updated 8:47 AM EDT, Thu October 23, 2014
As a jockey, Philip Blacker lived for the thrills and spills of horse racing. As a sculptor, his work captures the horror of World War I.
updated 11:12 AM EDT, Tue October 14, 2014
Ever thought zebras couldn't be tamed? Think again. Gary Witheford has a remarkable way with wild animals -- which he proved after a pub boast.
updated 10:35 AM EDT, Thu October 9, 2014
The internet went wild for so-called "horse yoga" -- but there was something deeper going on that reconnects humans with the animal world.
updated 9:23 AM EDT, Mon September 1, 2014
The going is always soft and the only permanent building is a toilet block. It's the antithesis to the pomp of Royal Ascot ... welcome to Irish beach racing.
updated 7:07 AM EDT, Wed August 13, 2014
Each August, over a thousand tents and hundreds of horses converge on Little Big Horn River in Montana for the Crow Fair and Rodeo.
updated 5:57 AM EDT, Fri August 1, 2014
Show me the money! Hollywood star Tom Cruise was a big hit when he visited the Glorious Goodwood festival.
updated 8:41 AM EDT, Mon July 21, 2014
Little-known outside the tribes of the Rocky Mountains in the American northwest, Indian Relay is a "magical" horse-racing relay.
updated 9:25 AM EDT, Tue July 8, 2014
Now in his 50s, one of the world's most successful jockeys explains why he gave up acting to return to the sport that nearly crippled him.
Winning Post's Francesca Cumani is impressed by the all-round multitasking skills of Ireland's champion trainer Aidan O'Brien.
updated 4:53 AM EDT, Sat June 7, 2014
 An infrared camera was used to create this image.) A horse and exercise rider head to the main track for morning training at Belmont Park on June 4, 2014 in Elmont, New York.
More people have walked on the moon than have won the fabled Triple Crown of U.S. horse racing. California Chrome is seeking to square that score.
updated 7:37 AM EDT, Thu June 5, 2014
A long history of controversy made him the "enfant terrible" of horse racing, but veteran jockey Kieren Fallon is looking for redemption.