Having translated his newest book Balancing Act from the German to English, I felt I understood Gerd Heuschmann’s equestrian philosophy pretty well. Attending a recent riding clinic of his and listening as he taught dressage riders of all levels to Grand Prix was still an extraordinary experience for me, both from the perspective of being a dressage rider myself and being a Masterson Method practitioner.

Sidebar: If you haven’t yet encountered Dr. Heuschmann of Germany, he is an accomplished dressage rider and trainer, a veterinarian and the individual who led the international charge against Rollkurl (a flawed training practice used in all disciplines, English and Western, that brings the horse’s nose to the chest in the mistaken notion that the poll and the back will release, while actually accomplishing the opposite). Dr. Heuschmann is also a fan of the Masterson Method and loves to watch the horse’s release as Jim works.

To Dr. Heuschmann, what he does in his clinics is balance horses. He teaches the riders to ride with the sensitivity of seat and hand that allows the horse to free his back and poll. If the horse is ridden at the tempo and rhythm that is most comfortable for that horse (“Every horse is a song and we must find the melody”) and the back is free, full utilization of the hind end in his work is possible. If hand, seat or leg transmits negative tension to the horse, then tension develops in the poll and transfers to the back and to the hind-quarters.

During the clinic, Dr. Heuschmann identified common riding errors, especially in the use of the hands, that cause increased poll tension, inhibit the movement of the corresponding hind leg and negatively impact the back. Such a horse is imbalanced in his movement and the dressage goals of impulsion, straightness and throughness are impossible to achieve. There is a kink or block in the energy transfer through the body of the horse.

But even the best ridden horse is going to develop negative tension in his body as a result of his efforts to please his rider and just simply as a result of repetitive motion. Over time, the muscles lose the ability to fully contract and fully relax and the muscle chains of the body become unbalanced. As a Masterson Method practitioner, it is commonplace to feel the tight and locked poll, the stiff back, and the shoulders and haunches that have only limited range of motion.   It is also commonplace to be able to restore range of motion and release restriction in the body of the horse through Masterson Method bodywork.

With the Masterson Method, we have recently taken it a huge step further. With the painted horse project that yielded the Dressage Movements Revealed DVD and upcoming book, we studied the biomechanics of the dressage horse so that dressage riders, and we Masterson Method practitioners would be better able to understand how the horse uses his body in his work. The better we understand how the horse must use his body to perform movements of upper level dressage, the better a rider understands how to be in sync with the horse and not against his motion, and the better a Masterson Method practitioner understands why certain muscle groups are involved when a dressage trainer is having given training issues. Bodywork can often feel like a “hide and go seek” effort. Through the learnings of the Dressage Movements Revealed work, we gain an understanding that removes a lot of the mystery when horses can’t perform as well as they used to, barring a frank veterinary cause.

Since completing the Dressage Movements Revealed research and work, I find in my Masterson Method practice that I better understand horses of all equestrian disciplines. The reiner that is having trouble in a spin reminds me of the front end of the dressage horse’s half pass. The jumper that can’t use his back or flex his sacro lumbar joint or use his gluteals in a good push off, is a dressage horse that is too locked up to collect properly or has lost his extended trot.

The musculo-skeletal system of the horse allows for a limited set of movements of the body parts of the horse. Because the dressage horse is asked to perform the greatest range of different movements, understanding how the dressage horse uses his body can be a springboard for understanding any equestrian discipline as a bodyworker.

Most equestrians are trying their best to be good riders. But as one of the old dressage masters said “A lifetime isn’t long enough to learn to ride a horse”. With the Masterson Method we can help the aspiring rider travel the long, often frustrating but also joyous journey of learning to ride by rebalancing the musculo-skeletal system of the horse through regular bodywork. In essence, we are giving the rider a new “blank slate” for their continued efforts to learn to ride this most noble of creatures.

Its all about balance… from Dr. Heuschmann’s ground breaking work about how to ride a horse in balance, to the Masterson Method’s rebalancing of muscle systems through release of tension. For every horse of any discipline, it is a question of balance in how the horse is using his body, or the lack thereof.

Side bar:   Learn more about the Dressage Movements Revealed painted horse project by viewing the two DVD set, reading the upcoming book and attending a Dressage Movements Revealed course. In the course you will learn about the biomechanics of dressage, learn new bodywork techniques and help paint the skeleton and muscles on a horse and watch him move close-up!