Article and Photos by Jennifer Zehnder
The key to improving your horse’s “game” is quite literally at your fingertips. Follow along as longtime equine bodywork therapist Masterson shares the basics of finding and releasing tension in select equine muscle junctions.
The Daily Grind
A horse’s risk of injury increases when his muscles become excessively sore and tight. Accumulated stress restricts movement and causes muscle and structural imbalance in horses. Compromised muscles also provide less shock absorption to the feet and legs, which can cause a snowball affect of injuries.
The extreme physical nature of barrel racing puts its equine athletes at a higher risk for muscle-related soundness and performance issues. As Masterson explains, the repetitive effects of conditioning and training for the sport, as well as the strain of the race itself, can cause soreness and tightness in the horse’s muscles.
“To me, barrel racing is kind of like combining a quarter-mile race with cutting,” he says. “There’s the sprint, the stop, and the turn—and the turn isn’t even a simple stop-and-turn.
It’s either a stopping turn or an accelerating turn.
“Factor in seat and leg aids, add potential TMJ from steering, and you get a pretty all-around sport as far as the demands on the horse’s body—especially to compete well.”
Tension Hot Spots
Anatomically speaking, the equine body can be divided into three important junctions: the poll, the shoulder/withers junction (where the forelegs join the body), and the sacroiliac junction (where the hind legs join the body). Tension accumulation in these key performance-related areas can manifest itself in numerous ways, including head shyness, sensitivity to touch in the poll area, flexion stiffness, bending issues, one-sidedness (pulling or fading to one side), uneven gait, lameness and even behavioral problems.
Keeping the junctions of your horse’s body free and loose is essential. A simple hands-on way to do this is through bodywork. By repeatedly blinking, yawning, licking, chewing, snorting, sneezing and “shaking it loose,” a horse can actually show his handler where his tension is stored and how much of that tension is being released.
Using the Masterson Method steps of search (palpate for areas of tension); response (watch for subtle signs, such as blinking, lips twitching, licking, and chewing to know you’re in correct location); stay (remain once you’ve located the area); and release (remove pressure/energy from the area after the horse shows bigger signs of release), you can teach your horse to release the tension himself.
Poll Release and Lateral Bending Exercise
Release tension in the poll, improve bending; good for head-shy horses
If your horse shows more resistance bending to one side, start from the opposite side.
a. When starting on the left side of the horse, place your left hand gently on the nose or noseband.
b. Place your right hand or fingertips about four inches below and behind the ear.
c. Gently flex the nose toward you with your left hand, and apply very gentle pressure toward the opposite ear with your right hand. Note: Ask, don’t force, your horse to relax the poll. Watch for the eye to soften; wait to feel a release in the poll. If he resists, soften your hands and release the pressure.
d. Soften both hands slightly. Move your right hand two or three inches down the vertebrae of the neck, keeping your left hand on the nose.
e. Gently flex his head toward you again with the left hand, pushing gently with the right hand. Bring the nose a little farther back toward the shoulder, stepping back as you go.
f. Soften both hands again, and move the right hand further down the vertebrae of the neck.
Note: Bring the horse’s nose farther back toward the shoulder each time, until you have brought the head all the way back to the shoulder and your hand all the way down to the lower vertebrae of the neck. Gently rock the head and neck with both hands as you go.
g. Step back and allow the horse to release. Repeat this exercise on the opposite side.
Note: If the horse fidgets or fusses at any time during the process do not remove your hands; soften them and release pressure, then immediately ask again. Fidgeting is often a sign that the horse is about to release. When you soften, it gives the horse a chance to release.
Releasing Shoulder Down and Back Exercise
Improve forward and lateral mobility in the front end
With this exercise, you are helping the horse release tension. This is not a muscle stretch—do not pull on the leg. The horse should relax the leg that is in your hands until he sets it down and back.
a. Position yourself at the horse’s left shoulder, facing forward.
b. Lift the foot and place your right hand on the inside of the fetlock, and your left hand under the horse’s knee. Make sure your right hand is on or above the fetlock, not on the horse’s hoof.
c. Hold the leg in this position, allowing the muscles of the shoulder to relax. When you feel the leg and shoulder relax or drop slightly, move on to the next step. Note: If there is a lot of tension in the shoulder the horse might have trouble relaxing in this position. If so, move on to the next step right away.
d. When he is relaxed, lower his foot with your right hand and straighten his leg with your left hand. Ask him to put his foot down and back until it is flat on the ground. Feel for his shoulder to drop slightly as he does this. Don’t ask him to step back too far.
e. Step back and allow the horse to release. The horse might stay in this position as long as he wants, or he might go back to a normal stance. Note: Usually the horse will relax the leg down to a certain point, and then pull up again. Do not pull on his leg at this point, but hold it up until he relaxes again, then ask him to set it down. We want him to relax through this point of restriction. Caution: Be sure to straighten his leg and allow him to put his foot down. If you hold his foot up and he can’t put it down, he’ll pull back up, or fall down on his knee. This is why your right hand has to be above the pastern, and you must straighten his leg before you ask him to step back. Duplicate this exercise on the opposite side.
Releasing Shoulder Down and Forward Exercise
Improve forward and lateral mobility in the front end
With this exercise you are helping the horse release tension. Again, this is not a muscle stretch—do not pull on the leg. The horse should relax the leg that is in your hands until he sets it down and forward.
a. Position yourself at the horse’s left shoulder, facing toward the hind end.
b. Lift the foot with your hand under the fetlock, as if you’re going to clean the hoof.
c. Step backwards, bringing the foot with you, with one hand under the fetlock and the other under the bulb of the heel, so that the horse’s leg is extending slightly forward.
d. Support the leg with the leg slightly forward, either with the fingers of both hands under the toe, or under the bulbs of the heel. Caution: If the horse falls forward into your hand, set the foot down. Do not keep pulling forward or the horse will hyper-extend.
e. When he’s relaxed, slide your right hand under the bulb of the horse’s heel, put your left hand on his shoulder, and lower his foot to the ground. Feel for his shoulder to drop slightly as he does this. Do not pull his leg out too far. Caution: As he releases his leg down and forward, pick a spot on the ground close to the horse for him to put his foot down. Do not continue to hold the foot out as he could fall forward, or hyper-extend the leg.
f. Step back and allow the horse to release. The horse might stay in this position as long as he wants, or he may go back to a normal stance. Note: Usually the horse will relax the leg down to a certain point, and then pull up again. Don’t pull on his leg at this point, but hold it up until he relaxes again, then ask him to set it down. We want him to relax through this point of restriction. Duplicate this exercise on the opposite side.
For more information on the Masterson Method, available DVDs, or to sign up for bodywork courses, log on to mastersonmethod.com. Jennifer Zehnder is a freelance writer from Oklahoma. E-mail comments on this article to [email protected].