For anyone that doesn’t know me, I’m an enthusiastic rider with 25+ years experience. I studied Equine Science at Chichester university, graduating in 2002. Realising there was no money in teaching, I fell into a career in marketing. Always wanting to mix my love of science and horses, I am now studying Equine and Canine Physiotherapy with The College of Animal Physiotherapy and hope to be fully qualified by next year. My passions are eventing, my horse Anselmo, and equine physiology.
As horse owners, riders and trainers, we all know that stretching, whether under the saddle in a warm-up, or pre riding, is important. But do we know why, where and how much?
Anselmo, my 11 year old Trakenher, has been injured for the past 6 months, I gave him massages and stretches at least 5 times a week throughout that period and I credit that (and his tenacity!) with the fact he’s coming slowly back into work. I believe this is as important in your daily routine as your warm up and cool down.
In this article I hope to show you in 5 easy steps how to do some gentle stretching for your horse before and after exercise to improve his suppleness, relaxation and strengthening your bond by getting your hands on your horse’s body.
Before you begin, make sure you’re in a suitable space, some horses will tolerate being in their stable, however some may prefer to be outside. It’s also useful to have some treats for the less amenable of our four-legged friends! Also please ensure you’re wearing your riding boots, or a safe, similar alternative.
You should try to do these exercises every time you ride to really feel the benefit, also ensuring you do repetitions of 4 on each side. This will guarantee your horse doesn’t become stretchier on one side!
If you have a stressy horse, or one that doesn’t like being touched, start with some relaxing long strokes, beginning at his ears and working your way all along his body to his tail. This will relax him and get him used to your touch. Use a good amount of pressure. Getting your hands on your horse in this way is invaluable. Knowing where he is sore, or tight, or if there are any new lumps and bumps will help you to know if anything has changed, sometimes alerting you to an injury.
In the UAE we are all guilty of being more ‘hands off’ with our horses than perhaps we would be at home, however a good horseman will always check his horse before he rides, even if the groom has tacked him up.
Stretch 1: Chin to Chest
This stretch is a good one to begin with, but you’ll probably need your carrot!
This stretch encourages deep flexion in the top-line and mid-neck area, especially good for dressage horses, who use this area a lot when in a ‘competition outline’.
As demonstrated beautifully by our model Anselmo, put a carrot in your hand between your horse’s front legs and encourage him to reach down. Some will get it immediately, some may need you to come and bit further forward. When they reach down and through, hold the carrot for at least 5 seconds so they get a good stretch in this area, and they’re not ‘snatching’ the treat from you. As your horse’s flexibility increases, encourage him to bring his chin closer to his chest to increase the degree of flexion in the mid-neck.
Stretch 2: Chin to fetlock stretch
This stretch stimulates the lateral bend in the thoracolumbar and the spine and helps activate the abdominal and pelvic stabiliser muscles.
Note: If your horse is new to these side stretches and tries to turn to face you, push him up against a wall so he can’t turn
Stand adjacent to your horse’s flank about a foot away from him holding your carrot (you may need to hold it out until he smells it and gets what you want him to do!). When he starts reaching round hold the carrot down towards his hind feet. You can lean your back against him at this point if he’s really stretchy. Again try to keep him in the position for a few seconds.
Don’t forget to do this on both sides, at least twice!
Stretch 3: Sternal, Wither and Thoracic lift
This is a great stretch to encourage horses to round and lift up through their backs (as they should do under the saddle), it also activates their core abdominal muscles and the thoracic sling.
Note: Horses don’t have any joints to attach their front legs to their ribcage, as humans do (the breastbone or clavicle), it is held together by the ‘thoracic sling’ which is a series of muscles, tendons and ligaments that bind the ribcage to the apparatus of the front limb. This gives a ‘sweeping’ rather than ‘pivoting’ movement of the front limb, essential in grazing animals.
Standing next to your horse’s elbow, make your hand into a bowl shape with your fingers pointing upwards. The place your fingers between your horse’s front legs and run them along his belly to just after his girth area. You should see him lifting his withers upwards, it’s only a small movement, so watch his shoulders whilst you’re doing it. If you don’t see any movement, you may have to use slightly more pressure.
Stretch 4: Front Limb Anterior
I think we’ve all done these stretches at some point, when releasing the legs before mounting to ensure the skin lies smoothly under the girth.
This stretch will release any tension in his deltoid and triceps. We all ask our horses for so much extension and lateral movement, this is a danger spot for soreness and tightness.
Stand in front of your horse and lift one of his legs towards you, holding either his pastern or his hoof. In my experience they will usually try and lean on you, which can be painful on your back, so make sure you stand properly and don’t bend forward at the waist. Pull the limb forwards until you feel the limit of their reach. Hold this for a few seconds and then try and pull them limb forward by another few inches outside the horse’s natural boundary. This ensures you’re progressing with the stretch.
When I first started stretching Anselmo, he would snatch back his leg when it became uncomfortable, so make sure you have hold of them and your feet are well planted on the floor. After a few weeks of daily stretches you should be able to get your horse’s leg to be 45 degrees from the floor.
Stretch 5: Front Limb Posterior
This stretch follows on nicely from the front limb anterior stretch. When you’ve finished pulling the limb forwards, cradle the foot and allow the limb to come back to centre. Then turn to face the horse’s head and cradle the knee in one hand and the foot in another. Encourage the upper limb to come back towards the back-end. This stretch releases the big muscle in the underside of the neck (brachiocephalicus) and the delts and pecs. Don’t expect it to go back further than a few inches.
Don’t forget for maximum gain, you need to do these before and after riding. Don’t feel disheartened if you don’t have time to do it every time, but aim for some stretching at least 3 times a week.
This is only the tip of the iceberg in terms of therapeutic stretching for horses, there are many different types that work on different muscle types. If you would like assistance in these I’d be happy to help, please email me on: email@example.com