The long winter months can leave your horse feeling tight and stiff. A good stretching routine can help keep him limber.
Who doesn’t enjoy a good stretch? You feel every muscle release the day’s tension, and the euphoric sensation travels from joint to joint. Now, imagine your horse feeling the same way.
Stretching is free! With everything costing so much these days, this versatile tool gives your pocketbook a welcome break. Stretching can and should be performed daily, but pay more attention to it when heading into the long winter months, when riding becomes somewhat more challenging. Riders often decide to give their horses the winter off, free from exercise. Inclement weather makes turnout limited and horses are stuck inside with very little movement. Stretching can temporarily replace exercise during such times.
Before you stretch
Stretching should not be used to replace regular veterinary medicine. If your horse is injured, or experiencing any degree of lameness, have him looked at by a veterinarian before attempting any stretches. As well, certain stretches should be avoided depending on the severity of an injury. One example is during recovery from ligament damage. When a ligament is insulted, scar tissue is encouraged so the area can regain some strength. When you stretch that area, the scar tissue weakens, defeating its purpose. Conversely, when muscles or tendons tear, the range of motion in that area is often decreased, and stretching these tissues allows the fibers to realign and regain most if not all their initial range of motion.
Before you launch into a full stretching routine, make these preparations:
1. Make sure you are working in an area free of clutter. Wheelbarrows, hay bales and other barn items should be removed to prevent any unwanted hazard.
2. Be sure your horse’s muscles are warmed up. This can be done with a walk around the arena for a few minutes. Cold muscles and stretching don’t mix. Muscle fibers, tendons and ligaments run the risk of tearing if they aren’t adequately prepared for the stretch.
3. Have a handler hold your horse. Crossties can be used with caution.
Now that your horse is warmed up and your working area free of stray barn items, you are ready to perform some stretches! Go through the checklist of rules (see sidebar) to ensure a safe and beneficial session.
8 stretches explained
To make things easier, we’ve broken the stretches up into groups – forelimb, hind limb, back, trunk and neck.
1. Shoulder flexor
I and elbow extensor stretch This stretch actually targets two areas at once, the shoulder flexor group and the elbow extensor group. Facing the tail, lift your horse’s front leg and allow him to regain balance. Place both hands behind his carpus (knee) to maximize support. Place his cannon bone against your thigh, and slowly pull the limb upward and forward. This stretch is great for horses experiencing a shortened forelimb stride and tight shoulders. Many people do a form of this stretch when trying to get the skin smooth underneath the girth.
2. Shoulder flexor II,
elbow extensor, and carpal flexor stretch This seems like a lot for one stretch, but you are actually targeting three different areas. Stand beside your horse, facing his tail, and lift his forelimb. Supporting his carpus (knee) with your outside hand and his toe with your inside hand, extend the limb forward. Rest your elbows on your knees to support your back. Often horses can snap their legs back quickly, so be sure to keep your head off to one side. If your horse has experienced lower limb ligament injuries, avoid performing this stretch.
3. Shoulder extensor stretch
Pick the horse’s limb up as though you were cleaning out the hoof. Place your inside hand (the hand closest to the horse) on front of the knee, and support the fetlock with your outside hand. Gently push back from the knee, bringing the limb underneath his belly. You will feel a natural point of resistance – it’s important that you do not attempt to stretch beyond this point. This stretch is great for horses that are tight through their chest and shoulders.
4. Hip flexor stretch
Supporting the hoof with your outside hand (again as though you were picking out his hoof), gently place your inside hand on the hock. Be sure not to apply any downward pressure on the hock. Bring your knee closest to the horse (your inside knee) up to make contact with the front of his fetlock. Apply forward pressure with your knee to extend the limb behind the horse. This stretch is helpful for horses that need to improve their range of motion through the hips and pelvis.
5. Hip extensor, stifle flexor stretch
This maneuver stretches the hip extensors and stifle flexors respectively. Lift your horse’s hind limb facing the tail, as though you were picking out his hoof. Grasp the fetlock with your inside hand, and hold his toe with your outside hand. Pull the limb forward, towards the middle of his front legs. Rest your elbows on your knees to support your back. If your horse is having difficulty attaining a full stretch, release the toe and hold the fetlock with both hands for a slightly lesser stretch. If your horse is experiencing a shortened stride with his hind legs, this stretch will help elongate and release the hamstring muscles, which will help him move more freely.
Back, trunk and neck
These stretches are performed in a particular order – back, trunk and neck respectively. I’ve learned from experience that the neck stretches are best performed with carrots, but once a horse gets the taste of a treat, he’ll tend to not focus on the remaining stretches. So I prefer to leave the neck stretches for last.
6. Spinal extensor stretch, aka. gluteal scratch
This stretch is a crowd pleaser. Use caution – it requires you to stand directly behind your horse. If you have an unpredictable horse, stand off to one side. Find the point approximately 4” on either side of the base of your horse’s tail. Then use your fingers and scratch. Your horse should raise his back. If you aren’t getting a reaction, apply more pressure. Once he elevates his back, let him come back to normal and repeat the stretch two more times. This stretch is great before and after riding to help prepare the horse’s back muscles for the tasks ahead.
7. Neck lateral flexor stretch, aka. lateral trunk stretch/carrot stretch
Using a carrot and standing beside your horse, encourage him to extend his head and neck around his body towards his barrel. Be careful, because when horses get used to performing these stretches, they tend to rush them – watch out for your fingers! Once your horse is comfortable stretching to his barrel, you may extend the stretch closer to the point of his hip. If you are having difficulties and your horse keeps making small circles, use the support of a wall or stall. He may also be turning because it is too uncomfortable – if this is the case, lessen the intensity of the stretch by not asking him to stretch so far around. Repeat on both sides.
8. Neck extensor stretch
This stretch should always follow the lateral trunk stretch. This is because you want to ensure the muscles along the top line are always left stretching on the center line, so one side isn’t left contracted. The neck extensor stretch is performed at three different levels:
a. Chest: Hold the carrot to his chest. This stretches the topline of the poll down to the base of the neck.
b. Knees: Hold the carrot between your horse’s knees. This stretches the topline from the poll to the loin.
c. Ground: Hold the carrot between the hooves. This stretches the entire topline from the poll to the base of the tail.
Encourage your horse to stretch down as straight as possible. He will not benefit from the stretch if he flexes his knees, so if this is what happens, don’t ask him to extend as far down.
Now that you have “stretched your knowledge” and ruled out any contraindications with your veterinarian, you are ready to maximize your horse’s performance by creating a daily stretching routine. As a rider, it might also be helpful to familiarize yourself with a series of human stretches. I offer some exercises on my website for both horse and rider.
Jessica McLoughlin graduated from D’Arcy Lane School of Equine Massage Therapy in London, ON in 2003. She is an active member of the International Federation of Registered Equine Massage Therapists and completed a four-month internship, followed by a one-year work term, at the Kentucky Equine Sports Medicine and Rehabilitation Center (KES MARC) in Lexington. Jess returned to Nova Scotia, established Atlantic Equine Massage in 2007, and is now the Maritimes’ only registered equine massage therapist. (902) 275-7972 atlanticequinemassage.com