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Suzy Zeigler's clientele these days are a whole different breed than her early days as a massage therapist. In fact, they are a different species.

Decades ago, Zeigler began working as a massage therapist, but in the past few months the DeWitt, Iowa, woman has shifted those skills to massage therapy for horses, or equine therapy. 

"I think of horses as athletes and they need their care, too," she said, adding "I don't work on humans anymore."

Ziegler launched her business, Grand Prix Equine Massage Therapy, last spring after earning a Equine Massage Certification in May from Therasage, an equine massage school in Janesville, Wisconsin. For now its a part-time venture for Ziegler, whose day job is in food and beverage for Isle of Capri, Bettendorf. 

On a recent day, Zeigler put her skills to work on Zoom, a thoroughbred gelding owned by Lou Ann Wulf, who operates her Wulf Run Farm stable in northwest Davenport with her husband, Ron Fuglsang.

"These horses get better care than me," Wulf said of the horses she stables for herself and other owners.

Sliding her hands over Zoom's back, Zeigler was leasing a thoroughbred herself back when she discovered the benefits of equine massage therapy. A farm girl at heart, she said massage helps a horse that has inflammation problems as well as helps with joint mobility, muscle pain and performance.

"I look for stiffness, soreness and weak muscles," she said as she ran her hands across Zoom's broad back.

After a massage, "this horse can run a little faster, jump a little higher," she said. "Working with a horse makes it feel better, even though he can't tell me. It's therapeutic for the horse."

Demonstrating her technique, Zeigler said horses "pretty much are all muscle." As she rolls her fists into Zoom's back, she said it helps to break up the muscle tissue. "Sometimes I feel knots. Horse have knots too."

She said her personal strength and athleticism — having played rugby for 20 years — are advantages to performing massage. "It's a good fit for me," said Ziegler, whose 15-year-old daughter Olivia has caught the horse-riding bug.

Zeigler, who grew up in Lowden, Iowa, before attending high school in DeWitt, got a love for horses after spending time with her veterinarian uncle on his farm in Florida.

Still a growing industry, Ziegler said part of her task is to raise awareness of the benefits in the Midwest and with individual horse owners. She already is busy visiting individual farms, setting up at horse shows as well as working at the Iowa Equestrian Center at Kirkwood Community College, Cedar Rapids. "Some people have no idea it existed," she said.

Wulf, who considers her 14 horses her prize possessions, is a regular horse show competitor. She said after one of her horses is massaged by Ziegler, she can tell the difference and that "really good ride" is worth it. "It's a good feeling when they are comfortable and can do their job," she said. "I jump (horses) and massage makes them more comfortable."

According to Ziegler, the therapy can be used on all types of horses and be helpful to a variety of symptoms, including arthritis. As she is massaging, she said "I can hit a hot spot. He (Zoom) tells me 'I like that' or 'I don't like that' by hitting his leg on the ground or flinching."

Stable owner Fuglsang said his wife knows how her horses feel from the quality of a ride. "Lou Ann can tell right away. If they are sore or hurting, they let you know pretty fast."

Wulf said she also can see a softness in the horses' eyes after a massage. "They enjoy it, just like you do."

For now, Ziegler's "office" is her Chevy Equinox, which she travels the Midwest in to meet with horse owners. She'd like to travel the horse circuit, including places like Kentucky, Florida and California. "That's how you build up clientele," she said.

An equine massage, which can last on average an hour and 15 or 20 minutes, costs $60 plus mileage, she said. "I've traveled 40 to 50 miles to a barn."

Someday she hopes her equine therapy can evolve into a financially viable career. "But you have to travel to do it," said Ziegler, whose clients now are across the Quad-City region as well as around Iowa City and Cedar Rapids. "I do 'barn calls.'"