For almost three decades, Jo-Ann Wilson has dedicated herself to improving the performance of America’s top eventing horses through sports massage.
In a sport like equestrian, an athlete’s progress can be slow. It can require years of arduous training and dedication to achieve the flawless execution needed to be a champion.
That’s one reason Jo-Ann Wilson’s role in the sport is truly unique: She can make a difference in seconds.
For 29 years, Jo-Ann has devoted her days to improving the performance of America’s top eventing horses through a unique sports massage therapy method that creates profound muscular change in her patients, allowing them to compete at the highest level.
“The results I can get are immediate,” says Wilson, U.S. Eventing Team Physio. “They’re not two days later. The rider gets on and they ride the horse and there’s the correction. … I’m still astounded by it. I love my job and the results are just amazing. And the riders will say it. ‘My god,’ one rider said to me, ‘you make my job so much easier.’”
Manipulating Muscles and Mechanics
As Jo-Ann explains, a tight muscle creates resistance to motion. And for a horse to perform well in all three disciplines — dressage, cross-country and show jumping — their muscles must be loose, fluid and synchronized throughout the body. The slightest bit of tightness creates resistance which can cause a horse to compromise balance or hit a rail — disastrous when a fraction of an inch can mean the difference between first place and runner-up.
“We want the best score we can get,” Jo-Ann says. “So, I evaluate muscle function. It’s my job to make sure that the horses are muscularly and mechanically efficient. The ultimate goal is that the horse is totally synchronized from back to front … so that every muscle is firing and releasing in perfect timing like the pistons in an engine. The easier they can move, the better they can perform.”
Jo-Ann also has a human massage therapy practice, and she says the principles are much the same for people as they are for horses.
“If you bring it back to yourself, it’s the same for the horse,” she says. “It’s the freedom of motion that gives you a good performance. If you’ve got a stiff neck and you’re dancing or something, you may not be as free or fluid. You can do it — you can dance — but you can’t do it that well.”
Discovering Her Passion
Jo-Ann’s introduction to the world of equine massage therapy came in the mid-1970s, when her own horse was struggling to perform well.
“I had a jumper that kept knocking rails,” Jo-Ann recalls. “So, I called this man named Jack Meagher,” who was formerly the U.S. Eventing Team’s sports therapist. “Jack came while I was working and left a note that said: ‘Back was sore; that’s why he was knocking the rail. Don’t use this pad anymore.’”
Though she was initially skeptical of the diagnosis, Jo-Ann rode her horse without the pad, and all of their jumps were clean.
“It was fascinating to me,” she says. “After that, I’d leave work early to meet up with Jack when he worked on my horse.”
The more she learned, the more Jo-Ann became interested in transitioning her own career path out of healthcare administration and into the equine industry. She went to massage school and began to develop a partnership with Jack, studying with him for 15 years.
Together they founded Wilson Meagher Sports Therapy, a successful practice dedicated to sports massage therapy for equine athletes.
Supporting Your Team’s Success
Since Jack’s death in 2005, Jo-Ann has continued to share Jack’s healing philosophy through training programs and educational outreach seminars in addition to her work with the U.S. Team, which requires her to travel extensively to major competitions and support the health of the equine athletes.
The physical demands of eventing are extremely rigorous. “There’s very little recovery time between the three disciplines,” Jo-Ann explains. “So, it’s my job to make sure that the horse is accurate, flexible and responsive to the rider’s requests. We want them to be able to feel balanced and coordinated, have their reflexes, be safe and have stamina and endurance.”
Most recently, Jo-Ann accompanied the Eventing Team to Lima, Peru, for the Pan American Games. There, Jo-Ann would work on horses twice a day, often watching them walk and consulting with their riders.
“The Pan Ams were great,” she says. And that’s no exaggeration—Your Team came away with a plethora of medals. Long-time eventing legend Boyd Martin rode Tsetserleg to win an individual gold medal, followed by teammate Lynn Symansky on RF Cool Play for the silver. In the team eventing competition, Team USA took home the gold, led by Boyd, Lynn, Doug Payne on Starr Witness and Tamie Smith on Mai Baum.
“I was aiming for the gold medal,” Jo-Ann says with a laugh. “That was my intention, and that’s what we did!”