If you want the best therapeutic results for your horse by working with him gently and reading his or her responses, this is the technique for you. It was developed in the USA by renowned natural horseman, Jim Masterson who describes his gentle method for us here.

‘The Masterson Method – Integrated Equine Performance Bodywork – is a unique interactive method of equine bodywork in which you learn to recognise and use the responses of the horse to your touch to find and release accumulated tension in key junctions of the body that most affect performance’

The horse ‘actively’ participates in the bodywork and it is this participation that makes the method both fascinating, rewarding and performance enhancing.

Horses have many ‘natural instincts’ and as 1) a prey animal and 2) a herd animal, two of those instincts for survival are fight or flight.  By accessing these instincts that are wired into the Sympathetic Nervous System (fight and flight) and the ‘soothing’ relaxation of the Parasympathetic Nervous System (relaxation, eating, mutual grooming), Masterson Method cuts under emotional and physical brace or fight responses such as:

  • Rearing
  • Pulling back
  • Pushing into the handler
  • Bucking
  • Bolting
  • Simply the horse working in a tension-based outline or not breathing correctly

The effects of the brace or fight response

Often when this occurs, the internal organs are also affected e.g. the digestive system for one.  The horse either pushes into pressure or pulls away from it.

When prey animals feel discomfort/pain, some block it out. A lame prey animal is vulnerable, so they may try to block out the discomfort by creating compensatory patterns of movement, which results in attitude or performance being slightly ‘off’.  These compensations are often difficult to diagnose and may originally have been soft tissue driven, but eventually joints may be involved, and the ensuing lameness can become a bit of a mystery!  The nervous system has blocked it out.  It has become a new normal.

Staying under the brace response and how the horse responds

With the Masterson Method, practitioners are trained to remain under the horses bracing response. This enables the horse to access the parasympathetic nervous system.  The horse can relax, release tension and not guard against it.  By reading the subtle (and sometimes not so subtle) changes and responses in body language, the practitioner can adjust touch, pressure, movement and importantly ‘time’ to suit the individual body. That is where the communication comes in; the correlation between what the horse is doing and what we are doing with our hands.

Jim Masterson works with a dapple grey horse using the gentle equine bodywork therapy known as the Masterson Method.

Licking, chewing, yawning (especially multiple yawns), sighing, fidgeting, stretching are all signs that the horse is releasing tension.  Some show a lot, some show very little.

Dapple grey horse yawns as he receives Masterson Method treatment from Jim Masterson. This is a sign of the horse releasing tension.

This explains how it works and explains one more response that often comes up in the horse during the process of releasing – fidgeting. When the horse feels its body starting to release tension, he will often fidget. This could be subtle such as cautiously looking around, to walking, pawing, or even pinning the ears. As a survival herd animal, it is uncomfortable for some to show any sign of releasing pain or discomfort. It is a natural threat to his survival so he begins to fidget. This is a good sign as it means things are moving inside. When this happens, we stay with it.

Often even the most sceptical and nervous animal will relax as they realise that we are ‘listening’.

Bodies, both human and equine, can experience trauma from events such as falls, RSI (repetitive strain injury), being cast or transportation accidents. Often traumas have been forgotten or are unknown to the current owner.  Patterns of restriction or compensation build up around not only the site of an original injury, but in other soft tissue that may affect performance, and performance can be that of the ‘happy’ hacker right through every equestrian discipline to the racehorse.

By encouraging the body to relax and reading the responses, the practitioner creates an environment conducive to creating movement in the body and/or limb in a relaxed state. The more the body can relax, the more the tissue can lengthen, the greater the range of motion.

Take Whisper, the show jumper, as an example

Sometimes the results are surprising and dramatic, as in the case of Whisper, an intelligent and willing show jumper, who was brought to a clinic by her owner Addy.

Whisper had the usual tightness in areas that you would expect in an equine athlete, but there was an additional longer-term concern with her behaviour as she was becoming increasingly jumpy and nervous.  Addy thought that there might be a physical issue.

During the bodywork she let her guard down more and more, deeper more embedded layers of tension started letting go, especially in the areas of her withers and sternum.  It reminded me of horses I’d worked on that had had a specific incident or accident in the past.  However, at the time Addy could remember nothing serious.

She allowed us to video Whisper as she started to let this tension go.  These are the times that we’re happy the horse has a stay apparatus that allows it to keep the legs from buckling! It was clear that something deep had let go in Whisper.

Whisper struggles to stay on her feet as she relaxes into her Masterson treatment

A few days later after I’d returned home the following message was passed on to me from Addy:

Hi Jim,

Tonight, when we came home and I was marvelling how good she looked after four hours in warm Friday afternoon traffic, and as she quietly went to graze, I flashed on this potentially disastrous day in March of 2016.

She “cast” herself against the fence while rolling because the grass hid a 2 to 3-foot-wide depression and she slid into it.  She laid very still until a neighbour came with his Jeep and we pulled her out using cotton rope around her shoulders at the wither, over her blanket so the rope burns were minimal.  TJ was expecting her to get up and do aerials, but she sensibly got up, shook and walked away…

Funny how I block this stuff out, but her body told the story…  Adelheid”

Jim says

This demonstrates how powerful the survival instinct is in horses to block out pain, tension and just keep on doing their job. It also demonstrates how you can access that part of the nervous system that releases that tension, if you stay under the horse’s bracing response, and follow what the horse’s body language is telling you during the process.”

The Masterson Method is an Integrated Equine Performance Bodywork.  A ‘stand-alone’ in its own right, it can also integrate well with other modalities if required.

Originally developed by Jim Masterson as an Equine Performance Bodywork method, his insight into reading the horse’s responses and understanding the importance of three key junctions in the equine body:

  • Poll-Atlas junction
  • Neck-Shoulder-Wither i.e. Cervical-Thoracic C7-T1 junction
  • Sacroilliac Junction

revolutionised his work, and it keeps improving.

The Masterson Method has been used on thousands of equine competitors, including those competing in FEI-level dressage, show jumping and eventing as well as the USEF (United States Equestrian Federation) Singles Driving Team.

In the UK veterinary permission must be obtained prior to performing any equine bodywork.

Jim Masterson

Jim has been the equine bodywork therapist for the USEF Endurance Team 2006, 2008, 2010, 2012 and 2014. He has worked on thousands of performance horses including competitors in FEI World Cup, Nations Cup, Pan-American Cup and the World Equestrian Games.

Now an Internationally recognised Equine Performance Bodywork, this unique style of bodywork can be, and is applied to all equines irrespective of size, age or discipline. Practitioners undergo a rigorous training programme with the support of Jim Masterson and a team of Masterson Instructors, Mentors and Coaches. Course dates and venues are available from the website.

The Masterson Method website has a list of qualified practitioners in the UK and beyond. Find UK practitioners here

Learn how to train in the Masterson Method here

See the Masterson Method in action via their YouTube channel here

Jim Masterson works with a bay horse using his own Masterson Method of equine therapy