Stretching your horse's muscles will improve performance and decrease the occurrence of injuries. Whether you thrive in the competitive world or prefer a quiet trail ride, you owe it to your horse to stretch his muscles make sure he is ready for whatever you pursue.
Stretching in horses offers both visible and invisible benefits. For one, it enhances the sensory nerve endings in the muscles, tendons, ligaments, and joints (also known as "proprioceptors") that give the brain information about movement and body position.
For instance, after an injury, proprioception is modified by sensations of pain and lameness. The body tries to avoid these unpleasant feelings by limiting movement or by using other muscles to do the job. Stretching helps to "reset" the proprioceptors. By holding a stretch for a minimum of 30 seconds, you can help jump-start the body's remodeling process. This can restore positive responses instead of reinforcing negative ones.
As you increase your awareness of how your horse moves and responds, you'll notice other benefits of stretching. Is he short-striding this morning? Does he seem particularly stiff or resistant on one side? Early detection of issues like these can help prevent bigger problems down the road.
A regular stretching routine is the best preventive advantage you can give your horse. By increasing his suppleness and elasticity, you can greatly reduce the risk of pulled muscles or tendons. You'll improve circulation and relieve pain, inflammation, and muscle spasms. If muscles aren't being used properly, they shorten and contract. If this continues for a period of time, the tendons and ligaments will start pulling on the bones of the joints. Stretching lengthens contracted muscles and extends them to their proper position, relieving pain by taking the stress off the joint.
When to Stretch
Stretching benefits your horse the most when he is warm. Stretching can be part of your pre-ride warm up, but remember you only want to stretch warmed-up muscle tissue. Walking or longeing your horse lightly are great muscle-warmers. You can also massage the muscles (see the April 2007 issue of Perfect Horse) using effluerage strokes, compression, or friction. You can even use a warm towel for a few minutes to transfer some heat into the muscles before stretching.
Stretching after a ride as part of your cool-down is probably the most beneficial because your horse's entire body is already warm. Stretching after a ride will increase circulation, promote relaxation, and cut down on muscle contracture from intense work. Importantly, making sure that the muscles you're stretching are warm helps to limit the risk of injury from over-stretching.
As you introduce your horse to a stretching routine, be patient. Allow him to learn that what you're doing feels good. If you work slowly through each apprehensive moment, your horse will learn to trust you and go with the flow. He'll relax those muscles instead of tensing and resisting.
Be careful, too, not to over-stretch whichever muscle or tendon group you're working. Over-stretching can result in soreness or even muscle/tendon damage. You don't want to stretch too far or move too fast. Here's a short list of boundaries to keep in mind:
- Start with an easy stretch. Stretch only 75% to 80% of the total stretching capability of the body part, and hold it for only 10 to 15 seconds.
- Stretch only in line with the joint and stay within your horse's comfortable range of motion. Avoid twisting or sideways movements.
- Do not bounce, jerk, or pull excessively on the limb. The horse will resist your efforts and tense all the muscles you're trying to relax.
- Only pull on the body part until you can feel mild tension.
Once your horse gets used to an easy stretch, try holding the stretch longer. I do caution you, though: You should never hold a stretch for longer than one minute. If you count the time to yourself as you stretch, it will become habit and you will develop an instinct about when to release. Then you can try building to two or three repetitions of the one-minute stretch. The entire purpose here is to stretch the muscle to its full potential without straining.
Setting Up the Stretch
Stretching works only if your horse is in a relaxed and accepting state. Avoid trying to fit in a few ground stretches when you're feeling rushed while six other riders are mounted and waiting for you to join them. Instead, plan to get to the barn 10 to 15 minutes early so you can stretch your horse and still make the group ride.
Find a location where you have ample space all the way around your horse. A round pen or a quiet arena is an ideal place for stretching. When you introduce your horse to stretching, he probably will pull his legs back and step back if he's unsure of what you're doing. These are normal reactions. But you could put yourself at risk of being stepped on or slammed into a wall if you're doing this within the confines of a stall.
Never tie your horse when you're doing stretching exercises. In fact, I avoid the tie rail completely. Your horse will likely sit back against the rope if you try stretching him while he's tied. It's also too difficult to stretch the front legs with the tie rail in the way. I usually do stretches by myself in an open area with nothing in the way. If you're nervous about working with your horse untied, you can have someone hold your horse with a halter and loose lead rope.
Your horse will need to accept you working around and directly with his legs. If this is something that's been a little rough between you and your horse, you'll want to perfect your leg- and foot-handling skills before putting yourself in a vulnerable position. Many Lyons techniques are designed to create a trusting and cooperative relationship. Ground manners are crucial for both horse and handler safety while stretching. (For more information on enhancing ground manners, review our year-long "Perfect Ground Manners" series, which ran January-December 2006.)
Great Stretching How-Tos
There are two forms of stretching you can do with your horse: "passive stretching," which you'll do from the ground, and "active stretching," which you'll do while mounted (see the sidebar "Active Stretching for the Saddle-Bound"). I prefer to stretch my horses from the ground first, so that's where I'll start.
Passive neck stretches. These are also called "carrot stretches," because you will use a carrot or treat to guide your horse's nose to go for the stretch. Most horses adapt to these stretches very readily, but your horse must have good manners about taking food from your hands. They are probably the easiest and least dangerous stretches, and also the most widely known.
Lateral neck stretches. Stand on your horse's left side, just at his withers, facing the front of the horse. Allow him to sniff the carrot or treat that you're holding in your left hand. Then using your left hand, guide his nose back toward the withers. When he reaches the "point of intent"-in other words, the point at which he's lengthened his muscles to the desired degree-you may give him the carrot. Do this several times, moving the treat a little farther back toward the point of the hip each time. Then switch to the right side and repeat the steps. A couple of cautions: You may have to place the hand that is closest to the horse on his neck or back to help him turn just his neck, not his entire body. If the horse steps forward during this exercise, the stretch will be non-productive, so keep his feet in place.
Vertical neck stretches. On the horse's left side, stand facing forward just behind the horse's front leg. Holding the carrot in your left hand, guide the horse's nose straight down, squatting in a stable position as you go down. End with the carrot in your right hand held between his front legs at ground level. Repeat this several times. You also can hold a carrot up and out in front of the horse to help with neck extension. One caution: For these stretches to be beneficial, the horse's legs must be straight throughout.
Passive shoulder/foreleg stretches. Because it is easy to over-stretch the legs, you must be very aware and respectful of the structures you're working on. In addition, be aware of your own posture to lessen the risk of injuring yourself.
Shoulder rolls. Stand at the front leg on the horse's left side facing the horse's side. Pick up the horse's foot, as though you were about to clean the hoof. Place your hands on the leg between the fetlock and cannon bone, holding the leg in the palms of your hands. With your knees bent, and using your leg muscles, slowly lift up, keeping the horse's leg in line with his body. Be careful not to pull it out to the side. As you lift, notice how the shoulder blade moves up. Pause and count to three. Then lower the shoulder and leg while leaning slightly to the left until you return the foot to the ground. Repeat this process two to three times. Then, reverse direction by leaning to the right as you lower the leg; this also can be repeated two to three times. Think of this as a clockwise/counter-clockwise movement.
Remember that you want to stretch both sides of your horse equally, so move around and perform the whole sequence on the right side, as well. One caution: When introducing this stretch to your horse, there is a good chance he will try to pull away, so hold on tight, but don't make it into a fight or put either of you at risk for injury.
Shoulder extensions. Stand in front of and slightly to the right of your horse, facing toward him. Using one hand, gently pick up the horse's left foot and place your other hand behind the horse's left knee. Start backing slowly away from the horse and gently bring the leg forward, keeping it low. Then slowly lift upward until you feel some tension. Maintain the tension for 10 to 15 seconds, but make sure the horse is comfortable. Slowly return the leg back to its resting position. Repeat this process two to three times, seeing if you can lift a little higher each time. Then move so you're standing slightly to the left in front of your horse and repeat these steps with his right leg. Two cautions: Be sure to keep the leg low, and don't worry about straightening the knee joint.
Shoulder flexions. From the horse's left side, stand close to the horse, facing to the rear, as though you were going to pick the hoof. Pick up the foot, placing one hand just above the hoof and the other hand in front of and above the knee. Slowly bring the leg backward until it is at a 90-degree angle. Hold this position for 10 to 15 seconds, then return the foot slowly and gently to its resting position. This stretch also can be repeated two or three times; then switch to the horse's right side to perform the same stretches.
Passive tail/back stretches. Since humans don't have tails, we generally aren't conscious of how the tail and the back are tied together via the vertebrae and spinal column. Pulling on the tail stretches not only the tail, but also the back, and it can give you a good indication of how your horse's back is feeling. A horse with a sore back and/or nerve impingement will clamp his tail and resist any upward tail movement by his handler, so take note of reactions as you perform these stretches.
Tail rotations. Stand close behind or to the side of your horse's rear end, but be wary of kicks or backward steps. Hold the dock of the tail with both hands and lift up slightly. Make small circular motions with the tail, rotating in both directions for three to five rotations. Stay calm and relaxed and work very slowly. Soon your horse will love this stretch.
One caution: While this sounds simple, many horses will clamp down their tails and refuse to budge. You can get your horse to relax his tail by rubbing or tickling the hairless underside at the base of the tail for a moment with your fingers. If he reacts violently to having you try to lift his tail, you may want to consult an equine body specialist or healthcare professional.
Tail pulls. Stand about an arm's length behind your horse's rear end. Because this is a very dangerous position, you must be aware at all times of the horse's reactions to your stretches. Be prepared to move out of danger immediately if necessary. Grasp the tail just above the end of the tail bone and visually align the tail with the horse's spine. Slowly and gently pull straight out from your horse's back, hold for a few seconds, and then slowly release. A sudden release of this pressure on the tail is uncomfortable for a horse's back, so go slowly. You can work up to holding this stretch for as long as two minutes, again releasing very slowly, a little pressure at a time.
When doing tail pulls, heed this caution: Because this is likely the most dangerous position for you to put yourself in, don't take your eyes off of your horse's demeanor and reaction as you perform this stretch. If your horse shows any signs of anger, fear, or distress, forego this stretch until you've had more time to prepare him mentally and physically.
Remember, stretching should be physically and mentally beneficial. Done in a kind, gentle, and effective way, it's a routine your horse will soon come to relish.