Masterson Method and Dressage

What The Masterson Method Has Taught Me About Riding Dressage

Having raised a family and being on the backside of a corporate career, horses remain a lifelong passion. Over the years I have participated in about every equine sport and activity to at least some level of delight, where skill may have been absent. I found my way rather late in life to dressage… and I’m hooked.

They say it’s the journey that counts; good news for me since I have so very far to go! With the help of a giving but aged schoolmaster horse, I made my way through the USDF Bronze medal requirements, receiving it in 2007. Though excited about this achievement, I still felt I didn’t have a good grasp of what “good” was, so I went through the USDF L judge training program in 2009. Along the way, I have read avidly about dressage training, riding and equine biomechanics.

When encountering a training issue, I have developed the habit of asking myself four questions. First, am I asking the right question of my horse? Second, what might I be doing wrong in applying the aids? Third, does my horse understand the aids? And fourth, is it a fair question to ask of my horse? By the latter question I am addressing whether or not the horse can easily comply physically with the request, if he understands it and I am doing my job correctly in applying the aids. Since my horses have been basically fit and sound, I searched for several years for a way to best answer the last question, when I didn’t feel I needed the services of a veterinarian.

During a clinic at her barn, my trainer and Dressage USET member Jennifer Conour (of Jolietville, Indiana) introduced me to Jim Masterson who was preparing horses for an internationally known clinician. Jennifer wanted me to see what Jim was doing, because she felt my horses needed the benefit of his techniques. I talked briefly with Jim, got his introductory video, spent hours practicing on my horses, and decided I needed to know more.

After a year largely dedicated to going through the Masterson Method certification process, I became a certified practitioner in September 2011. With upwards of 500 hours invested in becoming certified, I am not only impressed with the effectiveness and durability of the method, but also by how the bodywork has caused me to think differently about my responsibility as a rider.

Jim’s method (see for more information) combines techniques from multiple modalities (including acupressure, osteopathic, massage and myofacial release). It uses the horse’s responses to targeted human touch to find and release accumulated stress in the connective tissues and muscles of the horse. Tension patterns in the muscle and connective tissue of the joints from pain or repetitive work can create restriction in joints and major junctions of the body. Accumulated stress can restrict movement and affect performance. The horse reaches a point where he can’t completely release this stress or tension on his own, even after the work, injury, or pain that caused the tension pattern is gone. The techniques are applied to key junctions of the body that most commonly affect equine performance: poll and neck; neck, shoulders and withers; and the sacroiliac and lumbar junction. As a practitioner, the release responses and the obvious relief to the horse bring me joy.

To be effective in releasing tension, the practitioner must use the correct level of touch at the right spot on the horse’s body with the right timing. As one practices the techniques while experimenting with the level of touch, time after time the horse teaches the all important lesson that less is more, meaning the lighter and the slower the better. How to use that touch is equally important, meaning how to respond in the face of resistance and discomfort in the horse. There is a knack that must be developed as to proactively giving or backing up a slight bit to promote relaxation through application of the technique.

As I have practiced these techniques and learned to read the very subtle responses of the horse, I have gained more than an awareness of the condition of a horse’s body that is meaningful to me as a horse owner and rider. The extensive study of the equine bone and muscle anatomy required for the Masterson Method certification fed my fascination with biomechanics and deepened my understanding of what a dressage movement really requires of the horse.

Horse as Mirror to the Rider

At some point along the path of learning the Masterson Method , the really big question hit me… if horses are so sensitive that they respond best to the very lightest of touches, what does it feel like to them to be ridden? I started experimenting with my own horses by assessing the condition of my horse’s body before and after riding. Did tension in the poll and neck increase or decrease? Is one side of the back more sensitive than the other? Is one shoulder tighter? Do these findings correlate with the issues encountered during the training session, the ability to bend and flex and the ability to travel straight? What might I have done during the riding session that may have caused body issues? Was I sitting straight or dropping a seat bone? Were my legs evenly and appropriately beneath me? Were the reins of even length (particularly difficult for me since my left arm is nearly two inches shorter than my right) and was the horse being ridden really straight from my core, or was I unbalanced? Did I sit upright, or lean forward, thus throwing my horse on her forehand? Were my hands steady, being able to hold and then release without pulling back?

I have always wanted to ride well. While previously the attraction was a bit abstract in that really good riders look good in the saddle, I now found a new and vital pressure to learn to control my rogue body parts and relax my tense joints and muscles… my horse really needs me to do this and the evidence is in her body. Her fit and healthy body was a mirror to my physical deficiencies.

Applying Learnings from the Masterson Method to Riding

Through my experience practicing the Masterson Method, I have begun experimenting with different levels of contact depending on the riding situation. I now have a much better feel for what my trainer means when she asks me to “hold… now soften” during a riding lesson.

In addition to lessons regarding contact, there are many basic principles of the Masterson Method that I feel have direct application to riding dressage. The second rung of the dressage training pyramid is relaxation and it is here that lessons from the practice of the Masterson Method can be most helpful.

  • Less is more; meaning the horse often blocks out nagging or overly ‘loud’ demands.
  • When you feel the horse is about to tense up, proactively give a little and then ask again.
  • If you push the horse, the horse pushes back. If you apply an aid too long, the horse is likely to brace against it. On/off pressure often works better.
  • Lateral movements relax the horse.
  • If you can release tension in one junction, it usually spreads relaxation beyond that area.
  • You can’t force a horse to relax.
  • If I am relaxed and confident when engaged with a horse, the horse relaxes. If I am tense, the horse tenses.

Thanks to the Masterson Method I have gained good ground on being able to answer my fourth essential question. With the help of my trainer and instructor, I’ll keep working on questions one, two and three.