Bild: A.M. Anderson
Segovia loves the massage of the masseter.

The temporomandibular system has the foremost function of being responsible for the horse’s chewing and with that the processing of food and preparing it for digestion. But dysfunctions in the area between the skull (cranium) and jaw (mandibular) will easily affect the whole system of the horse, as the jaw is basically connected to everything. As most horses are affected in one way or another in this area, that is an interesting detail to understand. Anatomically, the relationships are not that hard to understand. Let’s look at more details: One compound of the skull and upper jaw is via the upper fascia chain with the Atlas, the other connection via jaw and tongue bone is the lower line sternum and rib cage all the way to the hindquarters. For most riders, the top line with the ligamentum nuchae is a gross concept. That the ligamentum nuchae later continues as a back ligament all the way down to the sacrum, is no longer so often known. Neither, that via the posterior fascia chain the tissue connects the jaw all the way down to the hoof. Another exciting fact is that the hard cerebral membrane (dura mater) extends from the skull through the spinal cord to the 2. Sacral vertebrae.  Here you already realise that this system is not a one way road, but a more comparable to a roadmap where everything is connected with everything else. The connection of head and pelvis is therefore unavoidable. Let’s make a small digression into the anatomy of the horse, to get a better overview. 

Roughly, the muscle chains are connected like this:

The dorsal (i.e. upper) muscle chain with M. splenius, Lgg. Nuchae, M. longissimus (that’s the long back muscle), fascia thoracolumbar and M. gluteus. Which means: Everything that happens in the neck, also happens in the hindquarters. Using rider’s tongue, one can say: neck and hips are reflecting each other. Or summarized in one word: stellning.

The second important connection at this point is the ventral (lower) muscle chain to which, for example, the abdominal muscles (Mm. Abdomini with Linea Alba), the muscles of the thorax sling (Mm. Pectoralii, M. serratus) and the deep abdominal muscles, Mm. iliopsoas, belong. Details are sometimes exiting. The muscles of the thorax sling relate to the start of the sternum in between the shoulders. The rear end of the sternum though is naturally connected with the abdominal muscles. Another interesting fact for the nerd: the upper end of the sternum is connected with 5 muscle strings that connect the chest with the lower jaw or tongue bone, including the M. sternomandibularis (this muscle is even named after the structures it connects  – from sternum to jaw). Here, too, you can see the direct connection between the head (or more accurately the lower jaw) and hindquarters. It shows as well why mental matters as stress and handling issues have often deep impact on other parts of the equine body.

So if we say in rider’s tongue “neck and hips are reflecting each other” we have quite well understood the rough anatomical relationships. If we succeed to use this knowledge when educating a horse, it’s even better. The sternum is the key to the equine chest and therefore has a key role as part of the stellning (the positioning of poll and hip). That is so complex but important, it’s worth an own article. Let’s look at it another time even more closely.

Why is that important?

In human medicine, the importance of dysfunctions of the temporomandibular system are already well understood. This difficult word expresses nothing else than the fact that problems in the jaw and teeth can manifest in completely other parts of the body. Migraines, jaw pain, pain in the cervical spine in the thoracic spine and above all very often in the lower lumbar spine – but also very often as issues in hips and knees – are most often associated with dysfunctions in the jaw. And of course, vice versa – back or knee problems manifest wonderfully in the jaw. Whether the pain is ascending or descending – the symptom is often found at both ends.

In horses, this syndrome is still poorly researched. Following the logic of muscles and fascial chains, and especially the practical experience, however, there is not much of a difference.

Disproportionately often, there are issues to be found in a horse’s jaw and Atlas. Of course, none of us is straight. Natural crookedness is part of life, even with the very best gymnastics of the world. A good therapist, if searching well, will find tensions here or there. Manifested tensions, however, or pain reflexes that are wrongly considered equine disobedience are less tolerable. Especially with reoccurring issues, it is important to find the underlying cause of the matter.

Some important symptoms you can find here:

  • By nature, jaw and teeth are designed for chewing roughage. The front row of teeth is made for plucking leaves, bark and grass. The rear part, the molars, is responsible for crushing the feed. Besides the general problem that modern head shape does not allow all horses enough space for their teeth, a lack of (or too soft) roughage often is a problem. Concentrates or small chopped roughage is chewed with the molars. With the front teeth little used, over the years they often get more and more skewed.
  • The equine body is designed for mainly eating food from the ground. When the head hanging down relaxed to ground level, the pressure from the lower jaw will automatically release. It hangs loose in its structure and can do its service. Ideally, even with constant, slow forward movement. If the feeding posture is unnaturally high, this naturally favours lesions in this area. Particularly high-hung racks, Heutoys or similar intensify lesions in the neck and jaw.
  • Hoovebalance, another exciting aspect. Unequal height in front and / or back hooves, unstraight walls, pressure, infections, unbalances or compensation postures – any ambiguities of the base have an effect on the limbs and therefore on the chest, the sternum and thus on the Mandibular system. And vice versa, of course, as well. Is the horse on the bodylevel crooked, the best blacksmith in the world cannot conjure straight, balanced hooves. One of the reasons why it is so important that blacksmith, therapist and riding instructors work closely together.
  • Leaning in the hindquarters. For most horses we see as problems in the jaw and neck skewness in the pelvis. Just as this lesion can be passed from front to back, it also goes the other way.
  • For completeness, we also need to think about the rider seat. The rider sits on the chest in the middle of the spine. If the rider sits crooked or has physical issues, it is transferred directly in to the equine chest and through the cause-effect chain to the cranium. 
  • Last but not least of course the actions of the rider’s hand.
    Whatever headpiece we decide for – with or without bit, Bosal, Caveson, Cave-whatever, snaffle, wheel of fortune, or curb: there is always impact on the mandibular system. Anyone who believes that bitless is necessarily better has not yet understood that the vast majority of bit less bridles influence the jaw directly or even worse, compresses the jaw when the hand does not give quick enough. If the headpiece does not press the jaw, it presses on the poll. The rope halter or a Miklem are typical examples of this. When using a bit, each action is directly on the lower jaw. Even a neck ring exerts pressure on the sternum – and thus indirectly to the position of the neck and jaw. There is no ‘safe’ or ‘fool proof’ headpiece – only a well balanced rider and hand independent riding.

In this little video I am working on with tissue around the lumbar spine all the up to the horses head. Beautiful to see how the horse is moving jaw and tongue. The gelding did not allow me to work on his head directly, so this was a very elegant solution to release him there. Since this session, I am allowed to work on his head, too.

Typical Symptoms:

  • The horse chews ALWAYS in one direction only.
  • Permanent/ often unstraigthness in the poll or in the tail.
  • Head-shy.
  • Unclean beat.
  • Lameness.
  • Problems with the transition to canter, or problems with lead canter.
  • Problems to take or give the bridle.
  • Feed ingredients / oats can not be crushed properly and may be clearly seen in the horse’s droppings.
  • Sensitivity to light, sensitivity to light and dark differences.
  • Spontaneous “bad mood”, moodiness (headache).
  • Head banging.
  • Heavy on the rider’s hand.
  • Solid support line.
  • Teeth are worn very uneven, the horse dentist needs to show up very regularly.
  • Tripping with the forelegs.
  • Again and again the same osteopathic lesion in a certain body part, like in the lumbar spine or lower neck.
  • The masseter muscles (jaw muscle, found on the ganache) is clearly visible (often a sign of mental stress, too).
  • Sinus infections.

If you were in doubt whether massage and acupressure on the jaw is for you and for your horse, you now see: the vast majority of horses can benefit from it somehow, and if it’s just relaxation. I do prefer to show you techniques online that are nearly fool proof. That’s why I prepared today two very effective, but simple relaxation techniques for you. You are welcome to test them with the minimal pressure of 2-4 grams. Note: They are wellness techniques, and do not promise treatment or even a cure! They do not replace a proper examination of a vet or specialist. In case of doubt or trouble, you should get a local veterinarian or therapist immediately.

And as always – CAVE!
If your horse reacts with a pain response, want to pull the head up or is even afraid and bites – try your approach very careful. At first, only lift your hand without touching the horse’s head. If the immediate response is still too so clearly – VERY URGENT AND IMMEDIATELY call in the experts. Many undetected lameness and psychological problems manifest themselves here. Never force your horse. The time you use to start with our first fascia technique shown in the blog, following the topline, is time well spend. Here you can often get a good feel for your horse and its preferences. How much or little pressure? Slow or fast movements? How much does it trust your hands yet?

On the horse

This wellness series building the techniques up on each other. Have you tested Part 1 or Part 2 yet? Try it, it is as well much more polite to your horse to slowly feel in.

Masseter massage

The masseter muscle is the large jaw muscle. It is structured in four different layers and muscle fibre directions. In this gentle massage technique, we work with the top layer, as this the layer we can reach. Put your fingertips on one side gently on the ganache, just below the cheekbone. Wait for the feeling that your horse relaxes under your touch. Then, in slow motion, the hand moving down-back and swipe the muscles gently out. Repeat as often as your horse likes it or sends out noticeable relaxation signals. Then do the same on the other side of the jaw, as gentle, slow and sustainable.

Akupressur Masseter

Somewhere here you find the spot on the masseter. Bodies are different, though. The feeling in your fingertips is needed now :-)
Somewhere here you find the spot on the masseter. Bodies are different, though. The feeling in your fingertips is needed now

In the middle of the lower jaw you might have noticed one ‘spot’ feels a bit different. In some horses it feels more “hollow”, i.e. a muscular hole that is shown. For other equines it is more of a bump. Is it a bump, we speak of a trigger point. Is it a hole, then the acupuncturist says something of an energetic emptiness. For our application it has little impact, as the treatment is the same. You can press on this acupressure point just very very gently. Put two finders on this spot, offer very light pressure. Again, something around 2-4 gram. If your horse likes more pressure, it will press on your fingers all by itself. Perhaps you are already so good in feeling responses that you manage to feel a pulsing under  your fingertips. Then you simply wait until this pulsing stops. Usually it is first getting stronger, then weaker until it is finally completely gone. Or you might feel heat, or at least a difference in temperature. Maybe you can feel none of it. That is ok, too. Then let your fingers rest here about 90 -120 seconds. That is usually enough for your horse to show significant easing signals. First one, then the other side, never apply pressure on both sides at the same time.

If the horse is very relaxed, it might look like Segocia here on the Picture. That is just perfect…. follow the ponies lead.

Is your horse not relaxed? Then check  yourself :

Are you tensed? Stressed or with your thoughts somewhere else than with your pony? Are you breathing? Take a deep breath, focus and try again.

When the muscles in this area are  released, it  can happen that nasal mucus is showing. This is a good thing that something old releases, don’t be afraid. But again: In case of doubt, check with a vet.

Have a you a lot of fun and relaxation while trying and testing. Looking forward to hear about your experiences and questions! If you like this, please share with your friends.

Enjoy the journey!

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Detecting equine pain