The Horse Whisperer


Molly Flora discovers the majesty of horses through equine massage therapy. 

By Lindsey Lowe

Photography by Chuck St. John

 

Molly Flora shushes Cody and kisses his ear gently. They must speak the same language, because Cody quiets his neighs to a ninny and nuzzles Flora. “Good boy,” she says, her hands moving quickly over his body, sliding over the muscles of his rump. “That’s a good boy.” Flora looks up, her eyes resting on the view that is just behind me: There’s a dog gazing out over a lake that is nestled in a field brimming with spring. She nods her head toward the lake. “I get to do what I love and look at that while I do it,” she says. “Who else gets to do that?”

A Washington native, Flora is one of just a dozen equine massage therapists in Alabama, and yes, when she tells people what she does, she sometimes receives a raised eyebrow. But Flora just smiles, for she feels she’s discovered a secret, one that allows her to commune with the horses. “Horses will often start nickering, talking to me,” Flora says. “I’ve had them hug me—they’ll wrap their heads around and squeeze me into their bodies. It’s obviously a sign of appreciation.” And that makes it the best job out there, says Flora, though she admits she never wanted a traditional career. She says that in her home state, there are more than 1,300 equine massage therapists, and she has always had interest in the science behind massage (she took massage courses for years just to feed her interest.)

Her path to equine massage therapy begins with a background that she says is more “exotic” than others in the industry—she didn’t grow up riding horses, as many did, but she has always adored animals. In college, she pursued wildlife management; after she graduated, she did an internship at a small zoo in Texas, which jumpstarted a 13-year career in zoo keeping. “That was it,” she says. “I loved the day-to-day care and husbandry of these animals. Being able to observe their natural behavior just lent itself to me wanting to be around them daily and understand why they do what they do.” During those years, Flora and her husband, Patrick, lived in places like Australia and Thailand, all the while caring for animals (Patrick was specifically sought after for elephant care.) They moved to Birmingham in 2010, when the Birmingham Zoo asked Patrick to come aboard as the elephant manager. Flora joined the staff there too, to head up the sea lion department.

And then, a couple of years ago, she experienced some burnout. She explains that when you’re taking care of animals, it’s hard to simply miss a day. Unlike other jobs that can be put on hold, somebody has to care for the animals regardless. Flora had a hard time handing that role over, even to the most capable people. “It was stress beyond belief,” she says. “I am very passionate about animal welfare, and I think I was burning myself out. I was worried so much about those animals all the time. Years of all of that added up, and I just started getting sick. So, it was time for a change.”

And so Flora decided to revisit that other passion: She enrolled in Birmingham School of Massage to become a certified massage therapist (an Alabama requirement to becoming a horse therapist). “It all fascinated me, particularly the science side of it,” she says. “What my touch does to someone else, scientifically.” And while this career change was just what she’d been looking for—she was thrilled to finally be able to practice massage—she still needed to satisfy her desire to be with animals, so her next step was becoming certified in equine massage at Oasis School of Animal Massage, located in Springville, Ala. Now, she splits her time between human massage as a therapist at Halcyon Days Salon and Spa and equine massage as the owner of Flora Equine Massage Therapy.

Flora also became certified in canine massage—she believes that almost any animal (and person) can benefit from massage—but she says the horses, with their strength and power, fulfill something in her. “I’m a large animal person, having worked with elephants and giraffes and zebras,” she says. “That’s probably my heart more than anything else—knowing how to be around them, knowing their behavior, knowing why they act the way they do.” She says that while she enjoys both sides of her massage work, the horses have a way of responding that transcends the obvious communicative barriers; it’s the wonder of that phenomenon that drives Flora’s work. She contrasts the way she goes about a human massage versus a horse one, noting that humans can simply tell her what’s wrong, but she has to be able to read the horse. And when does so correctly, and the horse visibly relaxes (there are several signs Flora looks for to let her know this has happened), she knows she’s making a difference. “It almost brings you to tears to see an animal like that respond,” she says. “It’s basically everything the horse is going to tell you, their behavior, their response to your touch. They start licking or chewing. They start yawning. Ninety-eight percent of the time, they just start to melt.”

But why massage horses? Flora points out that just like humans, horses have muscles that get worn down and tensed up, especially when they’re ridden and/or competing on a regular basis. “I have no doubt that riders do nothing but the best for their horses, but sometimes the saddle just doesn’t fit quite right, or [a rider] tends to lean more to right when they’re riding,” she explains. “That’s all on that animal’s back, and just like us, they’re compensating for that. They are athletes just as much as we are. But to feel the muscles shaking and rippling under your hand and to be able to straighten that out for them—it’s incredible.” Flora says that most of her patients receive regular massages (Cody gets one every week), and that her techniques change based on the demands of the activities or injuries a horse is dealing with.

Cody is a testament to the power of Flora’s hands: Even to the untrained eye, it is clear that her time with him leaves him looser and more relaxed. And during his favorite part—when Flora leads him in neck stretches using carrots as treats—I think he even tosses a smile her way. When his massage is finished, she leads him out to pasture and watches him sashay into the field, slowly at first, and then in a full trot. “Oh, he’s happy,” she says, her face beaming.

And because Cody is happy, Flora is, too. “My goal is to let them know, when I’m working with them, that they’re the most important thing in my life right that moment,” she says. We watch Cody frolic in the field, and by the power of something transcendental, it is clear he got the message.

2 Responses to “The Horse Whisperer”

  1. Wonderful gift of God to Molly Flora. A true animal caregiver was always needed.

  2. Linda Fisher says:

    The smile on her face says it all. To do what you love and help a animal feel good is a wondrous feeling of goodness. We share our world with people and animals they both touch our hearts in many ways. This was a very nice article to inform people what can be done for animals and people. Life stresses affect us, this wellness strategy is becoming very popular

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