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Equine tension


Tension, Restriction and Release

February 17, 2016

Tension, Restriction and Release: 

Three terms I picked up from Jim Masterson during my Masterson Method Practitioner training. Three terms that mean a whole lot to me and that I use on a daily basis in the context of the work I do. However I believe there may be times when these terms don’t always convey as much clarity to the owner, also known as, the one who pays the bills. So I decided to take some time out to try and build more transparency around these terms and what they mean during a bodywork session.

So what do we mean when we use these three words separately and together and after that what do they actually mean for your horse! Why should you as an owner care about Tension, Restriction and Release as it relates to your horse?

Let’s start by breaking these words down to their primary meaning while firstly excluding the equine element.

Tension – “the state of being stretched tight”

Restriction – “a limiting condition or state”

Releasing – “allow (something) to move, act, or flow freely”


1) So firstly lets take a look at “Tension in the body.

When I use this word in reference to the horse I am treating, I refer to “Tension within the muscles and soft tissues around the joints.

Human Knee Joint






The soft tissues I refer to are the tendons and ligaments, the muscles and the fascia. Most of you are probably fully aware but for those who are not, fascia is a connective web of tissue and fluid that surrounds and interconnects all organs, muscles, bones, nerves and blood vessels.

(I’ve inserted a really cool and visual clip on fascia and its behaviour in the body but more on that in a for another day)


Ligaments; fibrous bands of tough connective tissue that are tasked with attaching bone to bone and are the core binding material which connect bones at their joints, AND, of course the Tendons who have the role of attaching muscles to the very bone they are charged with moving.

The structural muscles are those which allow the body to create movement and motion. Gillian Higgins estimates the horse has over 700 structural muscles in their body. Each muscle has two tendons attaching to another bone, or in many cases fascia. The tendon at the point of origin is the anchoring point and is closest to the trunk. The origin is therefore attached to the bone that doesn’t do the moving bit! The insertion point is the connection to the bone that does do the moving once the muscle is activated.

When the middle part of the muscle, called the belly, contracts, it brings the origin and the insertion tendons closer together therefore creating movement. The belly of the muscle is comprised of hundreds of tiny muscle cells or myofibrils, each of which has its own blood (oxygen) and energy supply called adenosine triphosphate (ATP). ATP is the energy provider to all the cells in the body.

So if we think about it, when energy aka ATP runs out, yet we continue to ask the horse to work on through, this will obviously create excess stress and subsequent dysfunction.

When a muscle is working as it was designed to it contracts then immediately relaxes or releases. Muscle Tension occurs when the muscle is overworked and therefore cannot release as it should.

When a muscle becomes chronically tense the muscle fibres lie closer together which results in constricted or reduced blood flow within the belly of the muscle. At this point the muscle is not functioning correctly in the way that it was designed to.

It is important to know also that injury or trauma will activate the body’s healing response where Tension is stimulated close to the injury site to protect the joint from further damage. If the initial trauma goes unnoticed and untreated, with the horse being given little or no time to recover, they will begin to conscript other muscles to help with the workload to elevate the pain. When this insidious response takes place, the muscle that should have been doing the work is no longer active so has reduced nerve activity, blood flow and oxygen.

Of course when any of the above occurs, horses being horses will try to get on as best they can so they recruit different muscles and even tendons to do the work and this then activates the horse’s compensation response.

We all know what compensation is, all you have to do is take stock when walking down the street at the amount of people struggling by with a limb discrepancy, or shuffling along with a sore shoulder or painful neck.

However what you do not see is an athlete running on the track or pitch with a similar visual disability, so why do our horses, who become athletes as soon as a human climbs on board, get the raw end of the deal?

Because they are so so much better at compensating than we are!

Firstly they have four limbs with which to offload onto, secondly they are PREY animals. This means that their brain is hardwired for survival and as such they do not willingly demonstrate pain, as this would only make them a weak and vulnerable member of the herd. In response to this essential need to feign wellness, horses are much better as shifting their weight around and unless we start looking out for it we won’t see what their body is telling us.

Pain to animals is just a normal part of life…..

It is when that pain becomes too much for them to compensate anymore that’s when we start to experience the “behavioural problems”. Which could easily come years after the initial and minor issue.

So getting back to Tension, Restriction and Releasing, we now know that Tension develops within the soft tissues of the body due to overwork, additionally horses can have minor injuries in the field that go unnoticed or some other form of trauma, say a bad saddle fit or unbalanced shoeing, that creates Tension in the soft tissue. We also know that horses will do their best to compensate and therefore mask underlying issues.


2) Restriction – “a limiting condition or state”.

So how does Restriction come about and how is it different to Tension.

When I use the term “Restriction”, when working with a horse, I am talking about Restriction in the range of movement (ROM),  around the joints.

So Tension is the acute and current pain or active response in the body. 

Restriction on the other hand is what comes after the Tension, when the muscles lose their elasticity due to diminished nerve innervations. As noted earlier, fibres within a chronically tense muscle will lie closer together which results in restricted blood flow. With diminished blood flow, nerve innervations and shortened contracted fibres,  subsequent Restriction in the ROM around the horse’s joint is guaranteed.

Therefore the horse’s ability to move coherently will be reduced and they will genuinely struggle to do as they are asked because they genuinely do not have the flexibility to do so.

Horses are, in my experience, extremely agreeable and polite animals. Yes they can be difficult and frustrating to us as humans but that, I believe and in simplistic terms, comes primarily down to a breakdown in communication and / or a lack of musculoskeletal ability.

So in my work as an equine physical therapist / body worker I initially palpate your horse for pain / Tension and denote on my evaluation sheet.

It is during the treatment that I become aware of the soft tissue restrictions around the joints. How is that? If I ask a horse to move a joint through a range of movement in a relaxed state and they are unwilling to do so, I take it that they are uncomfortable and therefore unable to do so. Horses do not lie so I accept what their body is telling me in that moment  as their current truth and during the treatment we work together to release soft tissue adhesions to create a new truth.

So why does this not show up during palpation you might wonder, because usually a site of Restriction will no longer elicit a pain reaction upon palpation. These areas, because of their Restriction, will have reduced nerve innervations and subsequent pain reactions.

Because these restricted joint areas are not performing movement as they are supposed to, the requirement for activity within the neurotransmitters and receptors decrease and as a consequence fluency of movement is lost.

As the old saying goes, “USE IT OR LOSE IT”, this applies for muscles too.

“The brain needs three things for survival: oxygen, glucose, and frequency of firing. If at a cellular level the muscles aren’t moving that means the nerves aren’t firing therefore cells are not receiving the nourishment they need to stay alive. Going further, if the damaged area doesn’t need to be moving properly, than the part of the brain that controls that region may go on vacation as well!”

Recognising Horse IN Pain

Excerpt from the book,

“Recognizing the Horse in Pain”,

by Joanna Dobson, DVM.

So during treatment we become aware of the restricted soft tissues and also denote these onto the evaluation sheet.

As we continue to become aware of how the horse is feeling we start to develop a picture of how these Tensions and Restrictions reduce your horse’s ability to perform.


So finally onto the good stuff 🙂

3) Releasing – “allow (something) to move, act, or flow freely”.


So if you’ve ever had me out to work with your horse you will most definitely have had me refer to your horse releasing, oh at least once.  So what does this actually mean and what is the horse actually releasing!

Taking what we’ve learnt from above, a horse who is demonstrating Tension and or Restriction will have reduced action and ROM and therefore will not be moving to the best of their sound state ability.

Ill Horse

So your horse is experiencing prolonged muscle contractions and / or old injuries where there are diminished nerve innervations.

Cellular dysfunction on this level, as we know, results in reduced blood flow through the capillaries in the damaged tissues. Where there is reduced blood flow there are reduced nutrients and also waste removal.

A release during a treatment comes following a facilitation technique and is a combination of unrestricted flow of blood, energy,  oxygen, nutrients and waste removal through the affected area. Clearing out the damaged cells and bringing life to the injury site.

Where there is a facilitated release of pain, tension and restriction around the joints in the horse’s body we allow the body to move into a less toxic, healthier and more balanced state of wellness.


When healing transacts in the horse the release of tension accumulation is oftentimes a physical response. This comes in the form of licking and chewing, deep cellular processing, snorting and sneezing, shaking the head and body, gurgling of the intestines, yawning, rolling back the second eyelid, shifting of weight and stretching and flexing to test increased ROM.

Equine Therapies Ireland combines both physical and energetic therapeutic techniques which can facilitate a profound healing response in the body.

As many of you will already know, and have experienced, in addition to the work I do with your horse on a physical level I also utilize an energetic protocol called Quantum Coherence Therapy to facilitate healing of the organs and other energetic systems in the body. But regardless of the techniques I’m using the responses from the horse are consistent.

I hope I’ve been able to provide some clarity now around these terms and when I use them in reference to the horse. If you would like to learn more about what I can do and how I apply these techniques to facilitate these deep releases in your horses system why not check out my webpage

or you could always have me come and do a demonstration at your horses yard to see and learn more about the above in person – click on the link Masterson Method Bodywork Demonstration