[dropcap]M[/dropcap]ost horse owners are aware that horses develop aches and pains over time, particularly if they lead active competitive careers. Fortunately, we live in an age where an increasing number of specialists offer their expertise to assist in resolving these issues. We’re now able to choose from an array of approaches, from chiropractic and physiotherapy, to acupuncture and magnetic therapy. HQ spoke to equestrian and Masterson practitioner, Rene Brinkman, about the Masterson Method of unlocking tension and relieving stress in horses.

How it works

Rene and Jim
Rene Brinkman and Jim Masterson

The Masterson Method was devised by Jim Masterson, equine massage therapist for the 2006, 2008, 2010, 2012 and 2014 USET endurance teams, and for equine clientele competing in the FEI World Cup, Pan-American Games and World Games.

When Jim first became interested in equine massage in 1997, he recognised that horses exhibit certain neurological responses to touch when tension is released. Using those responses to guide his work, he developed a system in which the horse participates in the process by showing the practitioner where tension has accumulated, precisely how much pressure is needed to release it, and when it has been released. It is an interactive method of equine massage and bodywork that allows the practitioner to recognise and utilise the response of the horse to guide him.

Massage pressures

The method employs varying levels of pressure, depending on what is needed at the time, as follows:

  • Air gap – barely touching the surface, as if brushing the hairs on your arm
  • Egg yolk – the amount of pressure it would take to dent a raw egg yolk
  • Grape – the amount of pressure it would take to dent a grape
  • Hard lime – the amount of pressure it would take to squeeze an unripe lime

When learning the technique, most students are advised to practise on other people, or on eggs.


Rene explains that certain areas of the horse’s body accumulate stress and tension that affect mobility, comfort, attitude and performance. This can come from any number of sources, including his feet, the saddle, his teeth, conformation or lameness. It could also simply be work-related. Most of us are aware of this, but we don’t always see the connections; for instance, pain in the front feet or forelegs can radiate up to affect the poll, resulting in neck tension. In fact, a lot of our horses’ tension will transfer to the poll on some level. When the tension is released, you see immediate improvement in mobility, comfort, attitude and performance.

Working together

In a demonstration by Rene, we observed how she worked with the horse in order to get him to essentially do the releasing himself, rather than her manipulating muscles or limbs.

Throughout the treatment, the horse remains relaxed and co-operative, which is essential for achieving results. Since most horses will push back against pressure, the Masterson therapist will avoid pushing against muscles, rather using a slow, light touch to work along key areas. According to Masterson, this avoids triggering the horse’s natural survival response to guard, push against or brace, particularly when pain is involved. It allows the practitioner to prompt a release of deep, accumulated tension, rather than increasing it.

Focus is on stress points in the connective tissue of joints at key junctions deep in the body that are affected by work, such as the neck-shoulder-withers junction and sacro-lumbar junction. The success of the technique relies on the masseur’s ability to read the subtle signals that the horse will provide during the process.


Subtle responses:

  • Blinking
  • Twitching or quivering the lips
  • Change in breathing
  • Sighing
  • Dropping the head
  • Softening of facial expression

Overt responses:

  • Licking and chewing
  • Repeated snorting, sneezing or grunting
  • Repeated yawning
  • Rolling back the second eyelid
  • Stretching or flexing
  • Fidgeting

More benefits

Another fortunate by-product of the technique is the relationship you will develop. By learning to read and follow your horse’s responses to your touch, equine massage and bodywork become a fulfilling interactive process. You are able to create a trusting bond and win his co-operation. While many of the techniques are best applied by a trained practitioner, there are several that you, as a rider, can try yourself, as a way to improve your relationship with your horse. At the end of the day, that’s what it’s all about.

Jim performing a lateral flexion
Jim performing a lateral flexion

A simple release

One of the first techniques used by Masterson practitioners is the bladder meridian technique. The bladder meridian is one of 12 acupuncture meridians used in Chinese medicine. It runs on each side of the body from just behind the eye, over the poll, down the neck, past the wither and alongside the topline to the croup, before going over the rump to the ‘poverty groove’, then down the hind leg, over the hock, down the cannon bone, and over the fetlock to the coronary band. Using an air-gap pressure, the therapist will slowly run his fingers from the start of the meridian to the end – each response from the horse will give an indication of how fast to move, and of spots on the way that need attention. This exercise can also be used by owners as part of their regular bonding time – some consider it to be an almost meditative activity that can calm a horse.

Looking for a therapist?

Rene is available for consultations in the Gauteng area, and charges R350 per session. She is happy to help source practitioners in other provinces. Contact her at holeshotstud@gmail.com.