20 questions with Maribeth Mills of Upping Stone Equine Massage & Bodywork

Upping Stone
Maribeth Mills working on improving lateral flexion.

Upping Stone Equine Massage & Bodywork is based in Roanoke, Virginia, and offers non-invasive equine sports massage and integrated bodywork modalities to enhance performance through improved range of motion, suppleness, self-carriage, and comfort.  Upping Stone’s owner, Maribeth Mills, is a certified equine massage therapist with advanced training in equine sports massage, Masterson Method Integrated Bodywork, and equine anatomy/biomechanics.  Reasonable rates with package deals for additional savings are available.  Check us out on the web at www.uppingstone.com or get in touch directly by calling (540) 314-7508 or emailing uppingstone@gmail.com.

Tell me about your business. What kind of services do you offer? Upping Stone offers full-body equine sports massage and integrated bodywork.  Equine sports massage is the application of direct pressure, friction, percussion, and compression strokes to the voluntary muscle system to loosen adhesion and restore healthy muscle extension.  Integrated bodywork, or more specifically Masterson Method, targets the three key junctions of the body (poll/atlas; c-7/t-1, and lumbar-sacral) through light touch and gentle movement in a relaxed state to release restrictive stress and tension deep within the body.

Determining which of these modalities is best for your horse is often decided during the initial consultation where I get to know you and your horse through a series of questions, soft tissue palpation, and an introduction to the massage process.  A maintenance plan is then developed based on your horse’s needs including areas of focus and frequency of appointments.

If your horse is competitive, I also offer pre- and post- event sessions.  These are especially beneficial if you plan on keeping your horse at the showgrounds for a couple of days.  These sessions are shorter in duration for a general loosening up.  This service is only provided to established clients as the release of tension may alter the horse’s range of motion and way of going. Although this is a good thing, both you and your horse will need time to adapt – the showgrounds are not the ideal place!

What makes your business different than others in the area? What’s your specialty? What do you take the most pride in? The ability to pull from a large ‘tool box’ of techniques is invaluable.  Being trained in both sports massage and Masterson Method allows me the flexibility to easily adapt to each horse’s needs.  All horses require something a little different – some love the rigors of sports massage while others respond better the lighter approach of Masterson Method.  The two modalities also complement each other well.  Both blur the lines of western (manual manipulation of soft tissue) and eastern (use of meridians and acupressure points to restore normal energy flow) massage techniques allowing the blending of the two for a customized maintenance plan.

What is the number one benefit of equine massage and bodywork? Performance.  Any number of issues can cause your horse to develop compensatory movement patterns resulting in tension and restriction in soft tissue.   When any part of the body does not function correctly, performance suffers.  Issues such as trouble picking up or maintaining a particular canter lead; sore or rigid back; heavy on the forehand; trouble bending laterally; head tossing; girthiness; poor coordination; bucking or rushing; toe dragging behind; and lack of forward impulsion have all been known to improve with massage and bodywork.

Is there a riding discipline that has more issues that need to be addressed through equine massage? No, the issues are just different.  Horses within the same discipline routinely exhibit similar tension patterns, all of which can benefit from regular massage and bodywork.

How often should a horse receive a massage/bodywork? That depends on the horse’s level of work.  My general rule of thumb for horses in a consistent training program is every 4 to 6 weeks for maintenance.  This can be increased to every 2 to 4 weeks for horses competing regularly.  Retired or pleasure horses can benefit from massage or bodywork every 6 to 8 weeks.  It’s also important to remember that massage is a process and a series of sessions at close intervals (minimum of 3 days apart) may be required to fully address a particular issue before starting a regular maintenance routine.

What is the one thing you would want a new client to know before an initial consultation? All horses respond differently to massage and bodywork.  It isn’t uncommon for horses to seem distracted or even agitated during their first session especially when trouble spots are addressed.  Some horses are very comfortable from the beginning showing visible signs of tension release.  These can include licking and chewing, yawning, rolling back the second eyelid, passing gas, shaking loose, wobbling behind or snapping a hind leg; and even a running nose and/or tear ducts.  Other horses, however, go to great lengths to hide signs of weakness that in the wild would get them picked off by a predator or kicked out of the herd as a weak link.  With these horses, you have to look for more subtle releases such as twitching, blinking, changes in breathing, fidgeting, grinding teeth, softening of the eye, or dropping their head.  If your horse is of the more stoic variety, don’t despair, the massage is still working!  And as they become more comfortable with the process and realize it makes them feel better, you’ll begin to see large responses.

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Maribeth Mills and her mare, Lass.

When did you get started in horses? What is your equine background? My parents knew they had a horse crazy kid on their hands early on and reluctantly signed me up for riding lessons at the age of 5 thanks to the encouragement of my aunt, the riding coach for William & Mary’s Equestrian Club at the time. In the years that followed, I took advantage of every opportunity to learn – from training and riding competitively in hunter/jumpers; to working as an exercise rider/driver for hunter/jumpers, foxhunters, and harness racers; and managing the daily operations of boarding/training stables.

After college, I started a career in urban planning and historic preservation and my barn time became relegated to searching for my horse in a dark field after work and on the weekends.  A few years ago, I decided to switch gears and get back to the barn full-time.  I began taking coursework in equine anatomy and biomechanics coupled with hands-on training in advanced massage and bodywork techniques.  I feel incredibly fortunate to have learned from some of the industry’s best including Mary Schreiber, a student of sports massage founder Jack Meagher and equine massage pioneer in her own right whose work has been featured in publications such as Practical Horseman and EQUUS, as well as Masterson Method Certified Practitioner Marie Riley of 16 Hands LLC Integrated Bodywork whose clients include FEI level competitors.

What is the best piece of horse advice you were ever given? I don’t know why this question makes me think of the USEF commercial that says, “Not everyone can win national titles.  Very few ever compete beyond the local or regional level.  And only the especially fortunate ever make it onto the world stage.  But no one who has ever sat in the saddle has lost.”  Cue the ugly cry.  It’s a reminder of why we all started riding in the first place.  Not to win or be the best, but to be our best and spend time with the animals we so dearly love.

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Maribeth Mills and Mary Schreiber

If you could try any riding discipline, what would it be? I’ve always wanted to learn how to play polo.

What would be your idea of a dream vacation? My best friend and I used to pour over the equestrian vacations listed in the back of my Practical Horseman magazine.  One that always caught my attention was a “Posse Week” at a dude ranch in New Mexico.   You and the other guests would be divided up into two teams, outlaws and lawmen, given a horse and supplies, and let loose on hundreds of square miles for a week in the ultimate game of cops and robbers.  How awesome is that!

Do you have a favorite horse movie or book? Professionally, I love the books and DVDs produced by Gillian Higgins, an equine and human sports remedial therapist based in the U.K.  She combines her knowledge of equine biomechanics and artistic ability to create three-dimensional anatomical art directly on the horse.  It is both beautiful and incredibly informative.

Personally, I wouldn’t know where to begin!  The Horse in the Gray Flannel Suit, National Velvet, The Man from Snowy River, Black Stallion, Black Beauty…and the list goes on!  My children are now at an age where I can start introducing them to the classics.  We’ve gone through all of the Billy and Blaze series by C.W. Anderson and are starting on Marguerite Henry’s novels. I love to see the joy in their faces as they discover the movies and literature that fueled my love of horses.

What is the best thing about working in the Roanoke area? I love Roanoke’s size.  Its large enough to have a good amount of diversity among riding disciplines and events but small enough that you feel like you’re a part of a tight-knit community.

If you could change one thing about the horse industry, what would it be? Starting horses too young.   So many chronic problems both physically and mentally can occur from asking too much of a young horse.

If you weren’t in the horse business, what would you be doing right now? Working to preserve historic buildings.  Aside from a horse, nothing gets me more excited than seeing a beautiful old building infused with new life.

What is your favorite local horse show or event? Why? House Mountain.  I have so many great memories as a kid (and an adult) of riding in these shows. I think this is their 28th year which is pretty incredible — a testament to their management and the positive learning environment they provide to riders and horses.

If you could ride any famous horse from history, who would you ride? King Charles, the horse who played ‘The Pie’ in the 1944 film National Velvet.  He sparked my love of chestnut Thoroughbreds and the belief that if you work hard enough big dreams can come true.  And he just looked like a lot of fun to ride!

What was your proudest horse-related moment? Watching my oldest child take his first riding lesson.  The pride and sense of accomplishment I saw on his face is something I will never forget…and I took a ton of photos to make sure I never do!

18. If you could spend the day with any horseman, living or dead, who would it be? Why? I would love to follow Jim Masterson, the creator of the Masterson Method, around for a day especially at an event such as the Winter Equestrian Festival where he works on upwards of 60 horses a week.  His ability to read what a horse’s body and mind needs is nothing short of amazing.  I’ve had countless hours of training in the Masterson Method but to watch him work on actual clients and see the immediate results in the show ring would be incredible

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Maribeth Mills and her first horse, Joey

Tell us about your first horse. Joey, a small American Paint horse that I full leased throughout high school.  We traveled all over the state competing in jumper shows with a good deal of success.  His only speed was fast and he lived to jump.  He had the biggest heart and the best personality too.  You could look in his eyes and see his intelligence.  We had to put a lock at the bottom of his dutch stall door because he would often let himself out when he thought no one was looking and try to get in the feed room.  He also let out the biggest whinny every time we passed through a toll booth on our way to shows – I’m pretty sure he was saying hi to the attendants.  When I left for college, he was leased out to another girl but was eventually sold and I lost track of him.  I think of him often and his picture is still lovingly displayed with the other animals who have my heart.

Why Upping Stone? An upping stone is a low platform that was set near the entrance to a building or along the street up until the early 1900s to facilitate mounting a horse –- basically the historic version of today’s mounting block. As a business name, it pays homage to my past career in historic preservation as well as symbolizing the preserving nature of equine massage and bodywork – just as today’s mounting block preserves the muscular and structural integrity of a horse’s back.

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