Masterson Method integrated equine bodywork – How to make horses yawn by barely touching them!

Lindy Wales

Masterson Method is billed as a breakthrough in the world of equine therapy – often when I walk onto a new yard, one or two of the horses will start yawning – they don’t know me and it’s not that I am boring (I think!) but they seem to sense that I can help them – their para-sympathetic nervous system has kicked in and they show a relaxed demeanour – less ‘flight or fight’, more Zen!  I often stand next to a horse at the stable door and gently place my finger pads up under the mane, about an inch or so off the topline of the neck, barely brushing the hairs of the coat; I’ll stand there for a moment and, if the horse blinks, I will stay a little longer or move along the neck a little until I see a blink.  Shortly after they will lick and chew or yawn, snort, or show a little head shake.  I get this reaction with dogs too!  So, what is going on here?

The Masterson Method TM is an Integrated Equine Performance Body Work – developed in the USA by Jim Masterson, utilised on the USET Endurance Teams and now taught around the world.  Some of the techniques look like the sort of thing a chiropractic would use, or a Bowen therapist, or a Cranial Sacral therapist.  In short it combines the very best of a range of modalities which allow the horse to release strain, tension and soreness in its joints and soft tissues enabling them to perform better for longer.  The work is done WITH the horse, rather than TO the horse.  The practitioner is trained to watch for subtle body language changes in the horse – the blink of an eye, the quiver of lip, or deeper breathing.  As the practitioner works they relate the position of their hands on the horse’s body to these signs – the horse is revealing where it is hiding tension or discomfort through the connection of the hand to the nervous system. As a prey species, horses evolved to look fit and healthy – fooling predators to look elsewhere for a meal.  Horses are a willing partner in equine sports and here again work hard to keep their aches and pains to themselves; often the rider is not aware of an issue until it is quite well established.  For example, a horse which is not using its gluteal muscles properly and is loading the forehand will likely overuse its hamstrings to compensate as the rider asks the horse to perform. If this is not addressed in the early stages, a new pattern of movement is created and the strain will likely lead to performance and lameness issues down the line.

Every time I work with a horse I am blown away at the effectiveness of the Masterson Method.  Each horse is an individual – from the stoic but worried RSPCA pony to the sensitive thoroughbred. I have worked with riding school horses who cope with a myriad of differing rider capabilities; 10 day-old foals – yes they show tension too and need to lie down and sleep even after a tiny, 5 minute session!  Also hacks, companions, ex Show Champions, ex Racehorses, Hunters, RDA stalwarts, Polo Ponies and Eventers.  It is interesting to note the eventers I work with often show remarkable resilience when properly trained by knowledgeable riders!  Often the issues can be more around their mental approach or, of course, if they had sustained an injury.  I have two clients with very creative rearrangements of their pelvis!

I work at the pace of the horse, waiting for a release – a lick and chew or a yawn, a big cat-like stretch or a whole-body shake – like a wet dog!  I cannot and do not rush them – and sometimes say to owners ‘this is like watching paint dry!’ but it’s worth the wait.  By gently placing the leg in a certain position and asking the horse to stay softly with that, the muscles relax and this allows fascia (the cobweb-like structure surrounding all tissue) to soften.  It is often the relaxing of the fascia, which has been held in tension around a strained muscle, that helps increase the horse’s range of movement in that leg.  I ask for a small movement in the bones of the neck or the hock for example, not flexion of the muscles as such, and this helps bring more synovial fluid to joints creating better lubrication thus relieving stiffness.  A session typically lasts an hour and a half to 2 hours; often horses look quite ‘trance-like’ as endorphins

 ‘The Philanderer’, winner of the HOYS Riding Horse Championship and Supreme Horse in 2009, now in retirement.  Photo Credit: Sara Egan.

flood the body so I always recommend a day off the next day as their body tissues process a new way of being.  As all structures are related in the body of the horse, e.g. tongue and hyoid apparatus to hind legs; sacrum to poll, I can improve the wellbeing of the whole horse wherever I work.  It really is like magic!  So, if you would like to see your horses yawn when a Masterson Method TM Certified Practitioner walks onto your yard, or more seriously, improve their comfort and range of movement, do ask one of us to call!

For details of Masterson Method Certified Practitioners in your area, UK or Worldwide, see

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