The TMJ, or Temporo-Mandibular Joint, is an area on a horse that easily accumulates both physical and mental stress. Horses are designed to compensate in their bodies when they experience pain or discomfort. When a horse accumulates pain in the TMJ, it will begin to affect their poll. When tension accumulates in their poll, it moves down their neck, through their back, and into their hind end. First step is to rule out any dental problems. Dental issues can be a direct path to pain and tension accumulation in the jaw. If it does appear that your horse has a dental issue, it’s a good idea to release the TMJ of any residual restriction. Other issues that can create TMJ pain are rider related. Using a bit that is ill-fitted to your horse's mouth, especially if dental issues are present, will create significant pain in the TMJ. My favorite TMJ releases were developed by Jim Masterson. He is an amazing equine bodyworker who has many helpful videos online where he demonstrates a variety of techniques to help release tension in your horse's body.
The first TMJ release technique is very simple. Using your fingers and very light pressure, just skimming the hair, lightly place your fingers on top of your horse's TMJ joint. You can either rest it there or skim your fingers over the joint looking for a reaction in your horse's eye or posture. Common reactions would be blinking every time you graze over the same spot/area, rocking back and forth, or head tossing when your fingers are over a certain spot of the TMJ. These are indicators that you’ve found a spot of tension! Hold your fingers there with very light pressure and watch your horse's eye. They may start to fidget and move around, just try to move with them, paying attention to the amount of pressure you’re using. You’ll know it’s working if/when your horse starts to lick and chew or yawn. Once you get that reaction, step back, give your horse a second, and then repeat on the other side. Do this exercise once or twice a week to help relieve tension.
The next technique is one I most commonly perform at the end of bodywork sessions. Place your thumb on the inside of the horses mouth, right where their bit rests in the inter-dental space where they have no teeth. Your horse will move their jaw side-to-side, extend their tongue, and begin to lick. These movements will work their TMJ joint and help release tension. Your horse will likely try to move its head away from you so keep your other hand gently on their halter. Keep your finger there for 10-30 seconds and then repeat on the other side. This is a huge tension reliever!
If you’ve never tried releasing tension in your horse, give one or both of these techniques a try! If you’ve noticed your horse is head shy or resists taking a bit, releasing pain in the TMJ may be the ticket to a happier horse!
By Erin Quitoriano – Erin specializes in the Masterson Method style of Bodywork and is certified in Sports Massage Therapy and Kinesiology Taping. She is also a Barefoot Trimmer and is a member of the PHCP. (Progressive Hoof Care Practitioners)
*Photo Credit Jim Masterson of mastersonmethod.com