Experimenting with the Masterson Method

A few weeks ago, one of the women I know through yoga class approached me about coming out to the barn. She lives nearby and has been out in the past with the gal who does reiki on the horses. She’d read about something called The Masterson Method and wanted to try it out. I told her I was more than happy to have her over- I’m always game for trying new things.

Before she came over, I read up on The Masterson Method, as I wasn’t familiar with it. The technique was developed by equine massage therapist Jim Masterson, who was the official massage therapist for the USET endurance teams from 2006 to 2014. The basic premise is that practitioners release tension in a horse’s body via an interactive process of touches and releases. Anyone can learn to do it through the books, DVDs, and YouTube videos available. You can also become a certified practitioner through what sounds like a fairly rigorous and lengthy process.

Masterson summarizes the method with “search, response, stay, release”. The key to achieving releases with this technique is being patient: you must apply pressure lightly and move slowly.

 

Masterson suggests beginning on the bladder meridian. It’s a major acupuncture meridian that runs down each side of the horse’s body about two inches parallel to the topline and down the side of the hind leg. It runs through three major junctions (poll, withers, lumbar), connects to other meridians, and is easy to reach. You start at the horse’s poll and slowly move your fingers down the horse’s neck along the meridian until the horse gives some indication of tension (“search”). The amount of pressure you should use varies from horse to horse, but it’s better to start very lightly. The horse can indicate tension in a variety of ways: blinking, fidgeting, nibbling (“response”). Once the horse has shown you where it’s carrying tension, you keep your fingers on the tense spot until the horse releases (“stay”). Horses will indicate release by licking and chewing, lowering the head, sighing (“release”).

Candy was our first guinea pig. She’s a pretty friendly horse, for all that she’s riddled with anxiety. The Masterson Method books and videos suggest having the horse loose in a stall while you work on it, but Candy seemed content to hang out in the shady part of the pasture with us. My friend began at Candy’s poll on the left side and as she worked her way down Candy’s neck, Candy started to fidget. She didn’t seem interested in leaving altogether, but she was clearly uncomfortable. My friend kept her fingers very gently on Candy’s neck until Candy lowered her head and licked and chewed. She kept going along the bladder meridian, pausing any time Candy seemed to respond. Candy gave several more releases. She seemed super into the technique; it was maybe the most relaxed I’d ever seen her.

When my friend switched to the other side of Candy’s body, Candy was way less relaxed. Her eyes lost the half-closed sleepy look and she fidgeted more often. She let out a big yawn after a couple of minutes, and then walked away. Candy wasn’t upset or distressed, but she had very clearly had all she could take.

The next time my friend came out, she wanted to work on Moe. Moe’s personality is much different from Candy’s. She is affable and pleasant without being pushy. He’s aggressively friendly- he loves people and is always, always glad to see me (or Johnny, or any other human being). I thought he would be totally into The Masterson Method, but he was definitely not! I brought him into the barn and held him in the aisle while my friend worked. He fidgeted constantly and seemed very uncomfortable. He gave the tiniest releases, but his attitude was definitely one of tolerance instead of enjoyment. His behavior is intriguing- he doesn’t seem like a tense mess, but is he stiffer or more nervous than he lets on?

My friend did a little work on Gina after we put Moe back in the pasture. Gina dropped into a zen-looking state almost immediately. Her eyes closed, her lower lip drooped, and her ears flopped. She relaxed completely. I was very surprised- Gina’s not as anxious as Candy, but she isn’t an easygoing horse. She didn’t appear to have much tension to let go, but it was clear she was enjoying the attention and technique.

I’m excited to practice The Masterson Method on my horses myself! It was really interesting to see how they responded, and it was helpful for me to watch someone work on them (even if that someone is inexperienced). If you’re interested in trying it, I recommend watching videos on the YouTube channel or reading articles on the website.

Have you ever tried this variety of equine massage? What about acupuncture or traditional equine massage?

Moe’s triumphant return to dressage

Since his EPM diagnosis and subsequent treatment last fall, Moe has been doing very little. He went cross country schooling in January, and I’ve sporadically pulled him out of the pasture to hack around on. His post-EPM prognosis was always good, but I thought that he might be ready to wind down from vigorous activity.

This is something like the third time I’ve attempted to retire him, and something like the third time I’ve been wrong.

Moe whinnied from the pasture and trotted up to the gate any time he saw me hitching up the horse trailer. He was always the first horse to greet me in the pasture. He’d hang his head over the gate and watch as I led Candy into the barn.  I brought him out to groom him and let him graze in the yard, but I didn’t ride. Moe got fat and shaggy as the winter wore on, and he looked fantastic when the last of his scraggly belly hairs shed out this spring.

As I became increasingly frustrated with Candy, I contemplated returning Moe to regular work. I rode him twice last week and decided at the last minute to enter him in one test at a schooling show. My primary concern was how Moe felt at a show after trailering, being stalled, and dealing with temperatures in the 90s.

Our ride time was 3 PM, but I hauled Moe and a friend’s horse down to the show around 11 AM. I stuck Moe in his stall; he spent most of the day sticking his head into the aisle to watch the activity in the barn and mug for treats. (He managed a piece of Laffy Taffy, a pizza crust, and several horse cookies.)

I spent most of my warm-up walking him around. The heat and his general lack of fitness made me nervous he’d be tired halfway through the test. I shouldn’t have worried- Moe was zipping right along once he got in the sandbox! Our canter lengthenings were more like semi-controlled bolts, and I thought he was going to jump out of the arena during the stretchy trot circle.

We earned a 62.5% on First Level Test 2, which was fine by me! Moe felt great during our ride. He was forward, eager, and felt sound and happy.

I’m planning to take him to a few more dressage shows this year. I’m not sure if a return to regular jumping is in our future, though. Moe has a small cloudy spot on his right eyeball from an infection that took a long time to heal. There’s no indication it’s affecting his vision much (if at all), but I don’t want him to misread a jump and get into trouble. He didn’t have any issues with the small jumps on the cross country course in January, so maybe we can poke around at beginner novice for fun this fall.

I know Moe won’t live forever, but I’m glad he’s healthy and hale at age 23. He seems to enjoy having a job,  and I’m happy to give him one as long as he wants!

Annual vet visit

The horses saw the vet on Tuesday for their annual exams, and it was a very exciting time.

Gina was scheduled for an ultrasound and Pneumabort vaccine. (She’ll receive her annual vaccinations next month, when she’s about 30 days away from foaling.) She was well-behaved, but her foal was hiding from the vet. We saw a glimpse of a leg slide by, but that was it. Gina’s vet advised everything looked good, and no one is anticipating any problems with either the birth or the foal. I can’t believe we’re only a couple of months away from a baby! I’m excited and very nervous all at the same time.

I spy a pregnant mare belly.

I’d noticed that Gina had a little bit of nasal drainage, so I asked the vet if she’d take a look. The vet suspected a bad tooth, which hadn’t occurred to me. Gina’s appetite has been good, and I hadn’t noticed her tilting her head, dropping food, or exhibiting any other behavior I usually associate with tooth pain. Lo and behold, one of the molars in Gina’s upper right jaw was damaged. The vet took some x-rays to see if the damaged tooth was infected, and if an infection had spread to nearby teeth. The damaged tooth was infected- most of its roots were gone and it needed to be extracted. The x-rays revealed that an adjacent tooth was fractured, but did not appear to be infected.

My vet had hoped that the infected tooth would be loose enough for her to yank out, but it was still pretty firmly in Gina’s mouth. Despite being heavily sedated, Gina wasn’t super jazzed about all the poking and prodding. My vet and I decided to give Gina a course of SMZs to combat the existing infection and try to prevent it from spreading, then plan to remove the bad tooth at the clinic after Gina foals. This way, if Gina won’t tolerate the procedure while standing, the vet will be able to safely lay her down on a table. (That’s kind of a worst-case scenario; the hope is that a heavily sedated Gina in stocks will allow the vet to remove the tooth.)

What is happening with this horse’s forelock?

Moe was up next, and was perfectly well behaved for his vaccinations. However, his left eye has been watery and sensitive for a couple of weeks, so I had the vet take a look. He had a similar problem with his right eye last year, which was treated with the twice-daily application of eye ointment for two weeks. The left eye is now on the ointment regime; Moe isn’t a fan. The vet isn’t sure what’s causing these corneal ulcers; her best guess is Moe’s immune system isn’t dealing with minor irritants like errant bits of hay or dust as well as it used to. The wind has been very strong for the last few weeks (between 15 and 30 miles per hour nearly every day), so it’s certainly possible that stuff is blowing into Moe’s eyes. He’s in a fly mask all the time for the foreseeable future, which he is thankfully very good about keeping on.

Napping ponies.

Candy was a champ for her vaccinations, and had no issues that needed to be addressed. I opted to take advantage of the vet clinic’s microchipping special and had her chipped. I don’t plan on showing her in USEF hunter, jumper, or equitation classes, but I figure that having a microchip won’t hurt. Candy was totally fine for the chip insertion. I think I cringed more at the sight of the enormous-looking needle than Candy did as it was poked into her neck!

Shiny Candy!

Everyone is feeling just fine after their vet visits; I’m glad they are, because I’m pretty sure this bill is going to be at least double what I’d budgeted for, haha!

Cross country schooling at Feather Creek Farm

Last Saturday, Moe and I went cross country schooling at Feather Creek Farm with a group from the barn. My original plan was to take Candy, work her unmounted on a longe line over small cross country obstacles, and do some mounted work if she seemed to be handling it okay. But after having so much fun riding Moe on Thursday, I decided to take him instead. Moe is extremely fat, very out of shape, and is getting ready to celebrate his 23rd birthday, but I figured it wouldn’t hurt him to jump a few small things.

“WHEE!”

Moe seemed surprised about being selected to get on Space Trailer, but he jumped right in and unloaded two hours later with a perky look on his face. After tacking up, we headed out to the cross country course with our five barnmates. Feather Creek hosts Oklahoma’s only recognized event; I’ve never attended, but I have been to a couple of schooling shows here. While my schooling show experiences haven’t been overwhelming positive, this cross country schooling day was great. The course was in good shape, the jumps were flagged, and the turf was mowed.

“WHEEE!”

I let Moe walk while everyone got warmed up. We did a little trotting and cantering, but I kept it brief because Moe felt like he’d sipped rocket fuel along with his senior feed! We spent most of the day walking from jump to jump and giving advice and pointers where appropriate. I jumped Moe over a few small fences- he zipped right over all of them without hesitation. We even demonstrated how to jump up and down banks and gave a brave kid and a super pony a lead off a Beginner Novice bank. (The kid told me, “It felt like jumping off a cliff!”)

“WHEEEEE!”

After schooling, we settled the horses in stalls and headed in to the Oklahoma Combined Training Association’s annual meeting. I was pleasantly surprised to win sixth place in the Senior Novice division, and my neighbor and her feisty pony won first place in the Senior Introductory division!

I was really happy with how good Moe felt. I’ve been concerned about his comfort level and his longevity as a working horse since his EPM diagnosis last fall. Maybe these concerns were unfounded; after all, the disease was caught very early, he completed 60 days of treatment, (30 days of a combination of decoquinate and levamisole and 30 days of ReBalance) and he’s never once been anything but cheerful. He’s been moving just fine on the flat post-treatment and hasn’t shown any signs of the disease returning. Part of me was always worried he was uncomfortable or unsound or unable to do anything but sit in the pasture. Pasture pet isn’t a life I think he would enjoy much- he’s very much a people horse, and he always seems excited to be petted and fussed over and taken for a ride.

Taking him out on cross country put many of my fears to rest. Moe feels like his normal, exuberant self. I feel confident that he and I can enjoy a show season doing First Level dressage and Beginner Novice or Novice level eventing. I know that one day, my sweet and excitable gelding will succumb to the reality of old age, but I’m happy that day seems to be far in the future.

Remembering to have fun

For the last few months, the only horse I’ve been riding is Candy. Work kept me busy in the fall, and I was focused on getting Candy ready for hunting. Gina and Moe were being ridden a couple of times a week by their lesson students, so I didn’t feel like I needed to add to their workload.  While riding Candy is exciting and satisfying in its own way, it’s not always that fun. Candy is still very green; she’s not a very confident horse, and she’s a slow learner. Spending a couple of hours trying to sit quietly while she jigs down a trail or attempting to persuade her that ground poles are not horse-eating monsters isn’t my favorite activity. Riding her is often as exasperating as it is enjoyable. That’s not to say she’s a bad horse or that I dislike riding her; on the contrary, I felt so much joy while galloping her out hunting and total satisfaction when she nailed canter to trot transitions in this month’s lesson. She’s just a horse who’s a lot of work, and sometimes that work is frustrating.

As I headed out to the barn yesterday, I realized that I was feeling like riding was something I had to go do. It felt like a chore. Go chase down Candy, see how anxious she’s feeling today, try to have a productive ride while she’s having a panic attack about all the jumps in the outdoor arena. I didn’t want to go ride. So, I decided to saddle up Moe instead of Candy. I haven’t ridden him since his EPM diagnosis, despite him finishing treatment and responding well to it. I’ve seen his lesson students ride him, and he’s looking just as good as ever. I was nervous about getting on him myself, though. I was nervous he would feel off, or different, or just…not like the horse I know and love so much. But I knew that even if Moe did feel unlike himself, it wouldn’t really matter that much. I would have a nice time tooling around on my favorite fat and fuzzy Thoroughbred.

It was super windy!

I shouldn’t have been worried about Moe. Sitting astride his short, narrow body was like settling into a favorite comfortable chair. He marched away from the mounting block feeling enthusiastic and energetic. I had a great ride on him. We didn’t do a lot- after all, he is fat and old and out of shape. We walked and trotted and cantered in a reasonable frame, practiced leg yields, and had an exciting time trotting over the wooden bridge that’s part of the working equitation course. (By “exciting”, I mean Moe trotted up to it, jumped on to the middle of it, and cantered off of it.) It felt really good to ride him- it was fun! And it’s always nice to be around a people-oriented horse, even if he’s constantly mugging for treats.

“more cookies plz”

It was good to remind myself that heading out to the barn shouldn’t feel like a chore. Sure, riding won’t be rainbows and sunshine every day- the struggle is part of the process. But horses ought to bring us happiness, too.