Primary Issues Part One

All of what we work on in the horse’s body is caused by something. It is secondary to, or created by some other, primary issue. We can clear tension in the horse’s body until the cows come home (which is always good), but if we can determine what’s causing the tension and remedy it, then ideally the tension will likely not return. We can help the horse even more.

Here are some examples of primary issues that create tension in the body:

Sore feet/lower legs

Poor saddle or tack fit

Improper use of tack

Dental issues

Metabolic issues


Repetitive movement, over-exertion or imbalanced muscle conditioning

Improper riding

For the next few Educational Fridays we’ll list some performance or behavior issues and possible primary issues that might be behind them. We’ll also talk about Masterson Method® techniques that may help with the (secondary) tension caused by them. But unless the primary cause is or has been dealt with, the tension will likely return. This list is by no means covers everything, but it may get you thinking about what’s behind the “why” when your horse is telling you something may be bothering him.


Resisting the Bit – Possible Primary Issues

Often the horse resists the bit to avoid pain or discomfort in the upper neck, atlas, poll or TMJ.  For example, the horse will pull against the bit to avoid pain in the poll and upper neck when asked to flex. I discussed earlier how a front limb issue may cause pain in the poll. A primary issue in the front  limb may not be bad enough to cause the horse to be lame, but compensating for discomfort here will over time create tension in the poll, under neck, and possible the TMJ. This can cause the horse to resist the bit.

The horse will also resist the bit if the TMJ itself becomes sore due to dental issues.

When the horse resists the bit as he is asked to get “under himself,” it’s possible there is an issue behind and the horse is avoiding using his hind end. He wants to stay on the forehand so leans on the bit. This is discussed further under “Heavy on the Forehand.”


Heavy on the Forehand – Possible Primary Issues

The horse will often load the forehand when there is pain or discomfort somewhere in the hind limbs or muscles of the hind end, as he tries to keep the weight off there. When he resists the bit while being asked to collect and use the hind end, this may be the case. Releasing tension in the hind end allows it to work more efficiently and often relieves the horse’s need to load the front end. If there is a serious primary or veterinary issue in the hind end, the horse may continue to load the front end. If this performance issue persists, it may be wise to have a veterinarian look at the horse.


Holds Head flat or “corkscrews” when asked to bend

Also: Resists the bit to one side; bends neck better in one direction than the other. – Possible Primary Issues

Excessive unilateral tension in muscles and ligaments in the poll and neck can lead to bending and unilateral resistance issues. A muscle that is constantly contracted (e.g. brachiocephalic) on one side can cause crookedness in the neck.

As explained earlier, this contraction can come from front foot or leg pain or discomfort, usually on the same side in which the horse will not bend, or the side he resists the bit.

In addition, horses are like humans in that they usually have a stronger and more predominant side. Thus, they can develop unilateral tension patterns over time that will manifest as performance issues such as this. Regular releasing of these tension patterns will help keep the horse even. During the Lateral Cervical Flexion Technique, look for certain places where there is restriction of movement or less flexibility, especially the different from one side to the other. This is where you want to ask the horse to release tension. Remember to start releasing tension on the easier (opposite) side first and to work on both sides of the neck.


How to Address – Techniques to use:

  • Poll and Atlas Releases
  • Lateral Flexion
  • Scapula Releases
  • C7-T1 Release

By focusing on the poll and atlas, and the scapula at the C7-T1 Junction, you are working on the attachments on both ends of two major muscles (brachiocephalic and omotransverse) involved. This makes it easier and more effective when you get to the area of restricted movement – the upper neck. Here you will focus on releasing tension with a very light touch. Lateral movement in the relaxed Head Up position will also help with this problem.

Note: Remember that any time you are having trouble working on an area, or the horse is uncomfortable where you are working, go to the opposite side and release the tension there first, the horse will have released much of the tension on the difficult side. Don’t attack the problem area. Go where it is easier first.

Tension in the poll and atlas is related to most performance issues. Releasing tension here makes the release of tension in other areas of the body easier, and last longer.