Jim Masterson is creator of the Masterson Method, an innovative form of bodywork that relaxes the horse and relieves his body of deep stress and pain through the gentle and light manipulation of targeted Release Points; the movement of joints or junctions through a range of motion in a relaxed state; and studied observation of the horse’s responses.
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In his bestselling book BEYOND HORSE MASSAGE, Jim tells us how his Method can serve to improve health and performance, while enhancing communication, with horses in a number of popular riding and competitive disciplines.
“Different equine sports and activities, in combination with different breed characteristics, result in a range of different considerations when doing this work,” explains Jim.
Below are some general guidelines: what to look for overall and which areas tend to accumulate tension, as well as issues particular to specific breeds due to factors such as conformation and disposition, and to different disciplines due to the nature of the sport. Of course, these observations are just rules of thumb. The range of issues can apply to any horse in any sport. For complete instructions on how to apply the Masterson Method yourself, check out BEYOND HORSE MASSAGE the BOOK and DVD, available from the TSB online bookstore, where shipping in the US is FREE.
HUNTERS AND JUMPERS
Nowadays most horses in this discipline are the larger Warmbloods. They carry most of their weight on the front end. They land on the front end, so feet and legs are constant issues. Consequently, they accumulate a lot of tension in the poll and atlas, and in the lower neck and shoulder. In addition, most hunter-jumpers spend a lot of time in the stall—part of the job, but not necessarily the healthiest thing for the feet or for the horse’s blood circulation. Weight has a big effect on the feet and due to the nature of this sport, hunters carry even more weight on the forehand. Sore feet equate with a sore neck and poll.
In the hind end, hocks and stifles are regular issues in hunter-jumpers. Generally, I find the tension in the hind end easier to release than in other sports such as dressage, but you will come across plenty of horses with hind-end issues. It’s important to keep the lumbar area loose.
You will need to keep the mid-back loose, although you may not find as many back problems as you would think compared to some of the other riding disciplines. This may be because the rider spends a lot of time out of the seat, and the horse can carry himself in a more natural frame.
Endurance horses spend a lot of time in training so work pretty hard. Arabians (popular in this sport) can also be very alert and “mental” (in a good sense), so can hold a lot of tension in the poll and atlas. Their lighter weight makes it easier on the feet and legs, but they use them a lot so they can be sore just about everywhere.
Hamstrings putting tension on the sacrum is pretty common, and the muscles of the back and lumbar area work hard and steadily.
Fortunately, in general, Arabian horses are easy to work on because of their size. You just have to have a little patience with their responses as they can be a little guarded by nature. (This is just a generalization. I know a lot of Arabian owners consider the breed “cuddly,” but the “one-owner horse” can have a different view of a stranger like me coming into his stall the first time it happens.)
Endurance is one sport where being available to keep the horse loose at the holds during the event is helpful. I find it a good idea to leave the neck alone, but gentle Front and Hind Leg Releases are helpful, not only to keep the horse limber, but to feel when an area might be tensing up. Allowing the horse to rest for a minute in the Farrier Position alone can relieve a lot of tension in the sacrum, lumbar area and deeper muscles in the groin and psoas muscles.
Another thing that helps to keep tension from building in the back and hind end during the ride is to do the Bladder Meridian—using air-gap and egg-yolk pressures—especially on the back and lumbar area. Use the Under-the-Tail Points to release tension on the sacrum.
Anywhere the horse gives you a “blink” when working on the hind end is worth spending time on. Watch his eyes.
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Dressage is very athletic and even the most well-balanced dressage horse can benefit from regular bodywork as he conditions for higher levels and new areas begin to “show up” as needing special attention. Bodywork is important if you want to keep the horse balanced, soft and moving forward.
Poll and atlas: Particular attention should be paid to maintaining looseness and flexibility between the occiput and atlas in the poll. If work isn’t balanced, excessive tension can build there, affecting movement in the rest of the body.
Shoulders and withers: As the neck, shoulders, and withers begin to strengthen, Scapula and C7-T1 Releases are important for progress to be made in this area.
Hind end: When the horse begins to get stronger in his hind end, movement in the pelvis and lumbar region needs to be maintained, and as the loin strengthens, lateral movement, too. Lateral Rocking, which progresses all the way from the pelvis up through the ribs into the back of the withers is particularly helpful with this, as is the Dorsal Arch. Loosening the sacrum using Under-the-Tail and other Release Points helps the horse release the increased tension from the developing gluteals and hamstrings. It’s important to keep the pelvic structure and all its connections loose to help the horse “come through” from behind.
Training and conditioning: Often training is pushed ahead at a faster pace than the level of conditioning can handle. When this happens, excessive tension develops in the hamstrings, sacrum, and eventually the muscles of the lumbar region. The dressage horse can become extremely tight in the poll, throatlatch and neck if the horse is over-ridden in front, leaving the hind end to fend for itself. When balanced self-carriage isn’t allowed to develop naturally and evenly through the body, the front and hind ends have to work independently of each other, and the back ceases being a part of the show. Focusing on the three key junctions—Poll-Atlas Junction, Neck-Shoulder-Withers Junction, and the Sacroiliac Junction—will help keep the horse balanced. The Head Up Technique can be especially effective in the front end, and Release Point and Hind Leg Release Techniques that release tension on the sacroiliac are good behind.
By definition the goal of eventing is to develop a well-rounded equine athlete. Overall, the eventers I’ve worked on seem all too often to share the same issues as those described in hunter-jumpers. I have also found that as they move up through higher levels of training they will develop similar issues in the hind end as dressage horses.
“Reining horses need to have their lumbar, SI, and pelvis and hip joints kept flexible as they build strength in the hindquarters for the sliding stops,” says Tamara Yates, a Masterson Method Certified Practitioner and Instructor who shows reining, cutting, and reined cow horses. “The Hind Leg Releases are vital, in particular, the position of the leg to the back resting on the toe and asking the horse to sink into the hip, thereby releasing the psoas. Regular releases of the entire hind end are invaluable for maintaining soundness.
“More important, and perhaps less obvious, is the need to keep a reining horse’s shoulders and withers loose. Reiners often travel with their head and neck low, but their shoulders must be ‘up’ in order to perform the maneuvers required of them. Loose shoulders are a major part of a well executed sliding stop as well as a fluid and fast turnaround. Releasing tension in the scapulae and C7-T1 is exceptionally helpful for increasing performance.”
CUTTING HORSES AND REINED COW HORSES
“Cutting horses’ and reined cow horses’ stifles and hocks are used more than in any other discipline,” says Tamara. “The torque experienced on hocks is significant and the lateral movement of the stifle is almost constant in the cutting pen. Between events, getting these horses loose throughout the pelvis, in particular the sacrum and the hip joint (along with the gluteals) is a priority.
“Emphasizing the hip drop with the Hind Leg Release Down and Back, wiggling the hock and stifle back and forth with the toe resting on the ground helps to maintain hock and stifle soundness. Maintaining lateral flexibility in the lumbar vertebrae also relieves stress on the stifles and hocks. These horses also need loose shoulders and C7-T1 freedom to make the sweeping moves necessary to hold a cow. Keeping fluidity in the neck with Lateral Cervical Flexion moves earns points for cutting horses for ‘eye appeal.’ Like reiners, however, you need to be careful how close to an actual event a full-body workout is performed. Recognize that some tension is needed in the hind end to hold the ground while working the cattle.”
Barrel horses sprint, stop, and turn in seemingly the same movement. The Neck-Shoulder-Withers Junction can be a consistent issue, along with ribs and back, especially just behind the withers. Tension or spasms in the T18-L1 Junction are common, possibly due to the “twisting” motion between hind and front ends required for the turns, and the power generated by the hind end that has to pass through this point. Transition points in the spinal column are common stress areas.
It’s good to keep the poll and atlas loose, as they are so connected to flexibility in the rest of the body. Equally important with the barrel horse is the TMJ: When you find tension in the poll, it is likely you will find soreness in the TMJ and/or soreness in the feet.
And be sure to watch for these sure signs of “release” in your horse after applying the Masterson Method: