Effective Bodywork for Horses

The Well Horse is so excited to share about effective bodywork for horses as the practice has been so influential to the health and wellness in our barn! With expertise from Masterson Method bodyworker, Katie Riley, we can dive into the ins and outs of Masterson Method and its practical applications in a horse’s management program.

What is Masterson Method

The Masterson Method is equine bodywork that restores range of movement by finding and releasing accumulated discomfort and restriction. This bodywork supports the health of the horse, and it enhances the horse’s training and performance.

How Masterson Method is Unique

Other modalities such as massage and osteopathy were developed to support human wellness and have been adopted for equine use. The key difference between the Masterson Method and other practices is that Masterson Method incorporates the horse’s survival instincts and body language.

When a horse feels in danger, intrusion, or pain, he innately has three responses. 1) Flee. We are quite acquainted with this one, as it is often expressed as a spook. 2) If a threat is not intense enough, the horse has been desensitized, or he has no option to flee, he will then brace. The horse may brace against pressure when he is pushed to the side, or in regard to massage, he will harden an area that is tender. 3) Fight. When a threat or discomfort supersedes the horse’s ability to flee or brace, he becomes aggressive. This is often expressed with irritation as we brush a sore area, tighten a girth, or press on a sore muscle.

By readying the horse’s body language during a session and staying under the horse’s instinct to brace, a Masterson Method practitioner can utilize the horse’s body language. We use the instinct to determine where the reactivity (soreness) and restriction (loss of natural range of movement) is. This determines the level of pressure right for the horse, how much time to spend in the area in order to release it, and whether or not the issue has been released.

~ Katie Riley

Katie’s Experience


If you are looking for an equine bodyworker in KY, you are in luck! Katie Riley is currently an advanced fieldwork student and will soon become the only Masterson Method certified practitioner in KY. She is based out of Lexington, KY.

Why Masterson Method

During a period of time when my horse was getting some R&R, a friend gave me a copy of Jim Masterson’s “Beyond Horse Massage”. The book explains basic concepts and techniques in Masterson Method. Not long after, Masterson offered a workshop in my area, and I went.

After the workshop, I did a full session on my horse and was delighted by how much I could help him. My horse had always dragged and worn down his back toes. He’s not a fancy mover by any means but always had a lot of heart. I assumed (after working with the vet and farrier), that his poor movement was permanent, and he would always drag his toes. However, after one bodywork session, he was stepping cleanly and stopped wearing off the toe.

After I saw how I could help my horse with these basic techniques, I decided to try an advanced course to see what else I could learn. After I finished the advanced course, pursuing the Masterson Method field study and certification seemed like the natural step for me.

Katie’s Most Dramatic Before/After— Get Rid of the Hunter’s Bump

One of the most surprising cases I’ve run into was an 18 year old school master. During evaluation for the first session, the horse expressed a significant roach back and hunter’s bump.  When I went back to do a second session two weeks later, the roach back and hunter’s bump were gone.

The abnormalities were a result of tight and restricted muscles. Once the muscular restrictions were released, the horse was able to move with its natural range of motion instead of compensatingHind leg releases, stifle releases, and myofacial releases were some of the techniques that helped this horse. At the end of the day, the school master regained range of movement in her poll, neck, back, and hind-end (particularly her stifles).

Signs That a Horse Needs Bodywork

Horse’s Attitude Changes

The first thing to watch is the horse’s attitude. All horses have their unique personalities, but an acute change in attitude about their job and being handled is an indicator.

For example, a horse who becomes reactive (sore) in his poll will start to raise his head out of reach, becoming bridle shy because his instinct is to protect that area. Another example is when a level headed horse becomes spooky— Internal tension will surface as external tension.

Horse’s Behavior Changes

The next indicator is when a horse’s behavior changes. This is often recognized as the “horse behaving badly“, and it typically impacts day to day riding and training. Work that was once easy for the horse becomes difficult. The horse is uncooperative, and the horse becomes difficult to handle. Horses who bolt, rear, and buck are extreme examples. More common behavior changes to watch out for include a horse resisting bend, a horse who is difficult to rate, and a horse turning lazy and dull.

Horse’s Performance Drops

By the time a horse’s performance deteriorates, we often recognize that he may have a physical problem. Where the horse was doing well at a particular class or level, but now struggles to perform well, we need to address this in terms of physical limitation. Moreover, when a safe horse becomes unsafe to ride and handle, we must address this clinically. Bodywork allows us to break down the symptoms to diagnose or treat an underlying issue.

How Often Does a Horse Need Bodywork

Horse is Unsound

If the horse is currently unsound and being treated by a veterinarian, we would want to have the veterinarian give the ‘all clear’ prior to performing any bodywork.

The Masterson Method goal, if not to resolve an unsoundness or limited movement, is to help pinpoint the “primary cause” for unsoundness so the issue can be addressed with the vet, dentist, saddle fitter, farrier, etc. Bodywork is an effective diagnostic tool because as we peel away at superficial discomforts and limitations caused by guarding and inflammation from primary unsoundness. When bodywork helps to clear the ‘distractions’ we more clearly see what is causing the unsoundness.

How often a horse needs bodywork depends on the acute situation. Often, I find that acute unsoundness warrants one-two sessions per week for several weeks.

Bodywork to Maintain a Sound Horse

A general rule of thumb for maintaining a sound performance horse is once a month to every six weeks. This amount of time works to influence comfort and quality performance and also works as a ‘checkup’ to ensure that a horse is remaining comfortable in his training.

However, need for bodywork will depend on the frequency and level of work. A horse who actively trains and competes or is recovering from unsoundness will have a more urgent need for bodywork than a more idle horse. Moreover, a horse under increasing demand, such as moving up a level in competition, may need more bodywork to support his transition.

Masterson Method in KY


Katie Riley: Advanced Fieldwork Student


The Well Horse program has had wonderful experiences with Katie and highly recommends her for equine bodywork. She has helped pinpoint unsoundness and improved performance for several of our program horses. She is educated and astute in conglomerating structural components and way of going to help a horse to his best. Thank you Katie for supporting forever well horses!

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