I am often struck by the similarities between what it takes to ride well and what it takes to be a good practitioner of the Masterson Method. At a recent dressage training clinic I attended, the internationally famous trainer kept repeating “every horse is a song”, with the admonition that the rider and trainer must find the tempo and rhythm that fits each horse’s song. I found this to be a beautiful way to think about the importance of finding the right tempo at walk, trot and canter where the horse can best use his body and develop a quality cadence.
A good eye, experience and a little experimentation help us to identify the right tempo at which the horse can best express his song in performance. As riders, we must soften the seat to feel the horse’s back and follow the horse’s rhythm. It is incumbent upon the rider to get in sync with the horse, not the other way around.
Without negative tension in our body, we must learn to wait for the horse to sing his song and join him. We have to relax our way there, not force the horse to us.
Sound familiar? How many times have we heard Jim say “When in doubt go lighter, go slower.”
In the Masterson Method, we seek to work with the horse, not do things TO him. We ask him to release the tension in his body; we don’t demand it. We have to wait on the horse as he finds his way to release. The horse gets to decide the level of pressure or none at all (air gap), the timing of release and how he shows his releases. From a bodywork perspective, this is his uniqueness, this is his song.
I find that horses that are older, have had many owners or have been used as school horses can be especially “slow” to gain confidence in releasing in public. It doesn’t matter…. I have to have the time to give. It’s my job to have the time for what the horse needs. When I have a long list of horses to get “done” in a day, it is tempting to start rolling through the techniques, and no doubt the horses would still benefit. But there is so much more to give to the horse… and to receive back from the horse, by taking my time.
I personally always begin a bodywork session (after the initial evaluation process) with the bladder meridian work. We are fortunate to have so many tools in our Masterson Method toolbox and it is tempting to dive right in to “fix” things. But only the horse can do the “fixing”! The Masterson Method techniques enable the horse to do for himself what only he can really do (release tension in his body). At the same time, without our help he isn’t able to do it (or he wouldn’t need bodywork). The bladder meridian exercise sets the tone for the whole bodywork session. It is an opportunity to introduce myself to the horse, learn how he wants to be engaged with, “prime” the releasing pump and essentially ask permission to work with him to relieve tension. The bladder meridian also reveals a treasure trove of information about how and where a horse is carrying tension. This information can be very helpful to have as I reflect on how to proceed with a given horse.
My personal high water mark for time spent over one release point is 45 minutes. I had worked many times on a Fourth Level dressage horse which had a history of a longing accident affecting the right hind leg with subsequent stem cell treatment for a tear in the stifle region. The horse hadn’t rested the right hind leg for over 5 years and only the farrier could pick it up, and then with great difficulty and risk. It was starting to look like the horse couldn’t handle the burden of fourth level work because the two hind legs weren’t carrying weight equally. In a last ditch effort to help this horse, I gathered a lot of information about the longing accident and decided to focus on the top of the hip, in the area of the SI point. After 45 minutes of sustained air gap over the area, the horse started to move the hip up and down in a way reminiscent of a squeaky hinge, and finally dropped it into a full and normal rest position, with a loud groan and sigh. This horse can still rest the right hind leg as easily as the left hind leg and he has worked beautifully ever since. I share this “Masterson Miracle” not because such experiences are unique to me, because you have all had your own amazing experiences. I share this story because the method really works and because it was a huge lesson for me as to how deep restriction can be and how difficult it can be for the horse to release it. It taught me a lot about the gift of time to the horse.
As with you, the bodywork experience I have with every horse is unique. Each has his own song in bodywork just as in performance. Where he is carrying tension, how complex a problem might be and how many angles I have to approach it from, the range of motion that can be reestablished and the ability to bend that can be restored. The crescendo, however, is always the deep look of gratitude in the horse’s eyes.