Hearing-impaired man communicates with horses through massage

Joseph Lockwood dragged his thumb and forefinger in the shape of a U across the back of his patient, trying to find tension spots on the 16-year-old rambunctious horse named Champ.

He moved from the back to the spasming shoulder muscles, where he jammed his elbow and drove his fists in counter-clockwise rotations before heading down the thick legs.

After finishing the front legs, he turned his attention to the back of Champ, who seemed at ease as Lockwood worked every major muscle group and pressure point, trying to find his painful tension spots.

Passing cars and big rigs on U.S. 190, as well as the sounds from Champ’s stable mate Magic, a 21-year-old brown horse with a blonde mane, caught Champ’s attention, but the sounds never bothered the 20-year-old massage therapist because he couldn’t hear them. Lockwood has been deaf since he was 2 years old.

“I just think that because he doesn’t have all the distractions that he’s able to focus,” Lockwood’s mother and interpreter Carol Montgomery said.

Working with horses like Champ is something Lockwood has wanted to do since he was a child, his mother said.

As a 2-year-old living in Hungary, Lockwood had meningitis, the disease that took his hearing. Several months later, Montgomery, who owned a rehab center for hearing-impaired and visually impaired people, adopted Lockwood

His love of horses was evident early, and when the toy horses she bought failed to appease him, she enrolled him in riding lessons.

Three months after beginning the lessons, Lockwood, 12 years old at the time, captured a state title in a competition in Folsom, and his love of horses strengthened.

He researched on the Internet ways he could work with horses and landed on equine therapy for special needs children, Montgomery said. As enjoyable as that was, Lockwood wanted a more interactive, faster-paced occupation with horses and stumbled upon a website for an equine massage class in Virginia run by equine massage pioneer Mary Schreiber.

Lockwood studied the anatomy of horses for weeks before flying out to Virginia in March for the intensive weeklong course that culminated in a comprehensive, eight-hour, hands-on final.

“I really wanted a profession working with horses,” Lockwood said through his mother, who interpreted for him. “It doesn’t matter than I’m deaf. I don’t care that I’m deaf.”

Now he is a certified equine sports massage therapist and has a growing business, Hands for Horses, that features more than 20 clients and so much work that he hasn’t had time to work with his horse, Breeze, who also is deaf.

Montgomery said every client has been amazed with the work Lockwood has done with the horses, so much so that all of his business so far has been by word of mouth.

That is how he ended up in Erwinville on Monday working with Champ.

Champ’s owner, Denise White, said a friend, Rusta Sexton, of Ethel, called Lockwood to see if he could heal the balky shoulder of her former barrel racing horse, Freckles, who had been having trouble moving. When Lockwood was done, Freckles ran around and wanted to play.

When White heard of the work Lockwood did on Freckles’ shoulder, she thought he might be able to work his magic on Champ.

White wants to ride Champ, but he’s never cooperated since she bought him six years ago, often bucking and standing almost straight up with her on his back when she has tried.

“I think he knew he could intimidate me,” White said.

Champ was skittish at first, not cooperating with Lockwood, but he eventually calmed down and began licking Lockwood’s hand and playfully nibbling on his blue scrubs.

“It’s like the animals sense that he has this ability to heal or connect,” Montgomery remarked.

Lockwood kept his focus on his patient and, besides the occasional peeks over at his mother to see if White had any questions about the therapy, he worked diligently for about 45 minutes, massaging each major muscle group while White looked on.

As the session wound down, Lockwood focused on the spasms in Champ’s neck and told White that the left side of Champ’s neck is sore and causing him some discomfort. Lockwood said he would like to return in about four weeks to do another session.

As soon as Champ was released, he bent all four legs and slowly lowered himself to the ground, rolled over on his back and started rolling around in the dirt.

From the wild horse before the session, Champ visibly became calmer.

“Massage work is a challenge, but I love challenges,” Lockwood said.