This equine massage therapist might not seem like the conventional dressage aficionado, but he’s found his place helping horses achieve their best.
Peek over a stall door at a big East Coast dressage show, and there’s a pretty good chance you’ll see a muscled, tattooed, mustached man in there working his magic. He’ll be stretching a leg, manipulating a muscle, or quietly soothing the horse with a look of complete contentment on his face.
Robert “Sal” Salvetti’s background as a city kid certainly didn’t prepare him for a life with horses. But Salvetti, 45, has truly found his niche in quiet moments with top equine athletes.
He’s at his best running his hands over horses with a skilled touch, asking them wordlessly where they hurt and kneading his hands into their muscles to relieve tension and stiffness.
“When I have my hands on a horse, I feel like a duck in water. In dressage, the goal is to have the distinction between the horse and rider blur and to create a new single entity. That can happen for me when I’m working with the horses, when the distinction blurs, and there’s so much focus we have on one another. There’s a real connection with the horse, and it moves me,” Salvetti said.
Grand Prix rider Arlene “Tuny” Page has witnessed Salvetti’s unique bond with a horse. “He goes in the stall, and time becomes somehow a little bit suspended. Sal never looks at his watch,” she said. “He never ties a horse up, and he focuses on the horse completely. He allows the horse to give him feedback. I love that Sal’s always watching to see what gets a reaction from the horse versus just pushing on a muscle until it lets go.
“I have one horse who is difficult for vets, chiropractors, farriers or massage therapists to work on. This mare loves Sal. She sees him coming, and she’d open the stall door for him and say ‘Come on in!’ if she could,” Page continued.
Just A Good Guy
It’s not just the horses that welcome Salvetti’s presence. His quick wit and pragmatic outlook on life make him easy company. “We love to brag on the Red Sox or moan about the Patriots,” said Page.
“He’s got a great sense of humor. We’re all so consumed by the little dressage and horse show world we live in, and he’s just a normal, good guy. It’s nice, because we’re so often surrounded by people who are wired for sound, and it can get a bit tense. Sal is very serious about what he does, but he’s also free with a kind word and a joke. He’ll say, ‘Come on, sit down and have a beer. It’ll all be fine.’ He has a great outlook on life,” she added.
Salvetti’s client list reads like a who’s who of the East Coast dressage world, and he follows the horses up and down Interstate 95. One of the most eligible bachelors on the horse show circuit, Salvetti spends the summers based out of his Harvard, Mass., home and the winters in Wellington, Fla. In Florida this year, he worked on five to nine horses a day for 118 consecutive days.
“He’s very dedicated to his job and works harder than any massage therapist I’ve ever seen,” said Grand Prix rider Jane Hannigan.
It’s About The Process
Salvetti’s a fan of fast things. He likes to drive his Miata convertible at speeds that make his eyes tear up. He loves the exhilaration of hearing the crack of the bat drive a baseball to the outer reaches of Boston’s Fenway Park, and he cheered as loudly as anyone when the Boston Bruins slashed across the ice to take the Stanley Cup this spring.
But it’s the controlled grace and elegant, methodical process of dressage that wins his heart professionally. While he works on many show jumpers and hunters, the bulk of his practice is the dressage horse.
“Of all the disciplines, dressage is where you have the most maximum effort combined with repetition. Maximum effort combined with repetition is what’s hardest for an animal, human or horse,” he said. “The demands to perform and be dexterous are high. The dressage horse has to be able to do everything to the left and right.
“I’m probably more of a fan of dressage because of the physical development that needs to occur with the horse over a number of years,” he added. “Along with that, typically, there are a number of years when a relationship between a horse and rider develops. I really like watching and being involved in that whole process.”
One of the first horses Salvetti worked on as he started his practice 10 years ago was Hannigan’s Maksymilian, who competed at the 2008 FEI World Cup Finals in s’Hertogenbosch, the Netherlands. “There would be a huge difference when Sal worked on him. My scores would be a 64 without Sal or a 68 with Sal,” Hannigan said.
“The Grand Prix test is so exhausting and lengthy,” she continued. “Especially with a Grand Prix horse, you need to minimize your warm-up time. Sal’s not just a massage therapist. He does a lot of stretching of them, and it’s amazing how supple and relaxed he can get a horse. Sal came to the World Cup with Mak and me, and I literally warmed the horse up for 15 minutes before the Grand Prix after Sal had worked on him. If I didn’t have Sal, I would’ve had to have spent 45 minutes warming up, and then I wouldn’t have enough horse in the test.”
There Was This Girl…
Salvetti’s whole-hearted empathy for the horse belies the fact that horses weren’t part of his life until he was 29. After growing up in Medford, Mass., and graduating from high school, he hit the road and found his way across the country. By age 20, he was a licensed broker working in financial services in Southern California. But he quickly became disillusioned with that career and returned to the Boston area.
He started working on an undergraduate degree and bartending. He was aiming for law school. “I figured I may as well go be a lawyer, because what else do you do when you don’t know what you’re going to do with your life? You go to law school, right?” he said.
So how did Salvetti find horses? “It’s always about a girl, right?” he joked.
In this case, it was a waitress at one of the restaurants where he tended bar. Paige Finnegan was a dressage rider whose day job was managing a small private barn. “She came into the bar every Monday telling stories about a horse show,” said Salvetti. “She convinced me to come out to the barn and have a look. I did, and it was obvious to me that that hole in my life that I’d always been looking to fill was filled when I walked into the barn.”
Salvetti jumped head first into the horse world.
“Paige put me through a private, intensive Pony Club. She taught me all the basics—how to lead a horse, pick a foot, fill a water bucket, muck a stall and stack hay. She gave me longe-line lessons and took me on hacks. How lucky can you get?” he said.
Salvetti’s decision to abandon his law school plans and find a career in the horse world ended the romantic relationship with Finnegan—“If you’re a girl who starts dating a guy who does that, it’s going to scare the heck out of you, isn’t it?” Salvetti said with a laugh—but it opened up a whole new path for him. “Once I decided that’s what I was going to do, I just did it. That’s how I tend to be,” he said.
He found a job working for Jane Karol of Bear Spot Farm in Concord, Mass. “She saw what I was trying to accomplish, and she was willing to indulge me,” said Salvetti. “It wasn’t unusual for me to get two lessons a day from her.”
From there, he found his way to Hannigan’s farm in Littleton, Mass. While there, he struck up a friendship with massage therapist Mike Scott, and his path became clear. After graduating from a diploma program in human massage, Salvetti worked and learned under Scott for six months.
Salvetti started his own equine massage practice in June of 2001. Because he was well known in the local dressage community, he had a head start on a client list. “There were people who knew me because I’d taken care of their horses for years. They already trusted me. That was the first step,” he said.
Word spread of Salvetti’s ability to bring out the best physical performance in a horse. Combined with his charismatic personality and enthusiasm, it helped him quickly build a clientele of top professional riders.
“Some of the people I spoke to, their response was, ‘I’m not interested,’ or, ‘I tried massage therapy, and it doesn’t work.’ My pitch was that I’d tell them to pick a horse for me to work on. I’d say, ‘I won’t charge you, but I’ll work on it, and then you get on and ride it afterward. Tell me what you feel.’ That’s how it grew,” said Salvetti.
In a neat twist of fate, Finnegan is now also one of Salvetti’s clients.
Experimentation has always been a key component of Salvetti’s massage practice.
“What I do now is very different from what I did 10 years ago,” he said. “Earlier in my practice, I’d be at home with a trainer, and they’d be telling me about a specific problem they were having with bend or with their changes or whatever it might be. I’d work on that specific muscle or muscle group, there in the ring, with the rider on the horse. I’d try something and then say, ‘OK, ride off.’ They’d ride for a bit, and if there was no effect, I’d try something else. If there was improvement, I knew I was on the right track. There was a lot of trial and error.”
Salvetti also experimented on his own, looking for better ways to help horses’ whole bodies. “I don’t just release tight muscles; I challenge a horse’s range of motion. I believe it’s about more than just making a tight muscle more supple. I think we need to move the entire structure of the horse, and I’ll challenge range of motion with stretching,” he said. “I’ll extend their shoulders and lift their bodies.”
He developed a move he’s never seen anyone else do, and he believes it’s responsible for much of the response he’s gotten from the horses. “I’ll get the horses to move their ribcages to the side, bend through the ribcage and lift through the back, and I do that with my body,” he said. “I’ll work my lower back into their sternum and lift.
“A lot of people will go into the sternum with their fingertips and dig into the midline to get the thoracic back to lift, and that always bugged me,” he added. “I’d always felt like there was a better way. Over a period of time, I experimented with it, trying to get my shoulder in there and trying different things. Finally, I worked my lower back up into the sternum and used my legs to lift. And it gets great results.”
Two years after Salvetti started his practice, he earned a ticket to travel to the 2003 Pan American Games in the Dominican Republic. One horse that he worked on regularly competed there on the U.S. dressage team, and one traveled as the team reserve. There, he also had the opportunity to work with U.S. Equestrian Federation team veterinarians Dr. Rick Mitchell and Dr. Tim Ober.
“At a competition with the riders, the horses and the vets is where you learn amazing things,” Salvetti said. “That’s where you can test things and get some real black and white answers. Sometimes I’ll be at a horse show and work with a vet. The vet will palpate and examine the horse and evaluate them, and then I’ll work on the horse. Then, the vet will examine the horse again. We discuss what did and didn’t work and what it tells us about the horse.”
Salvetti’s clients have taken him all over the United States, and he’s traveled to the Aachen CHIO (Germany), the FEI World Cup Finals and the 2010 Alltech FEI World Equestrian Games (Ky.) as part of the horse care team. And even though he’s at the top of his game, he’s never stopped learning.
Salvetti really listens to what the rider, groom, farrier and veterinarian all say about the horse, and he shares information he learns about the horses while massaging them.
“Sal’s a real team player. He has no interest in being somewhere just for a paycheck. He wants to be part of the team of the rider and the vet and the farrier. He’ll say, ‘This corner of the horse is always sore. What’s going on? Is there a reason?’ ” Page said. “And he’s also happy to brag. He’ll come in the barn and say, ‘We had such a great weekend!’ and the ‘we’ is his horses and riders. He’s proud, and he should be.”