Need more extension in your trot or fewer faults in the showjumping ring? Is your horse stiff on one rein or do you simply want to make them more comfortable?
Stretching is hugely beneficial for performance and leisure horses, improving range of motion and providing effective pain relief for short, tight, stiff or sore muscles. Each muscle in the body spans one or more joints, dictating the movement for that joint. Tight, painful muscles limit joint range of motion, restricting your horse's movement and hindering performance.
Short, tight muscles are also more prone to injury. This is an especially important consideration for those muscles associated with the lower limb tendons; by keeping these muscles functioning well, we can help avoid injury and strain.
When injury does occur, careful stretching can optimise healing, helping your horse to recover and reducing the risk of re-injury. Regular stretching also helps maintain joint health, reducing the risk and/or impact of degenerative joint disease.
And it's not just the dynamic muscles that benefit from stretching. When applied regularly, 'carrot stretches' engage the postural muscles, improving core strength and flexibility; helping maintain your horse's spinal health and improving self-carriage.
The key to an effective stretching programme is to gradually increase intensity at a rate appropriate for your horse. Stretching should always be carried out after a suitable warm-up.
Below are a few examples of stretches we can apply to horses and the areas targeted. Your musculoskeletal practitioner can advise which stretches are most appropriate for your animal.
Neck Stretches to Chest, Knees and Fetlocks
Targets; Tension in the poll and upper neck muscles, withers and back. Improves core strength and stability.
How; Have your horse stand as square as possible. Using a treat or lick, keep your horses head straight and encourage their nose towards the chest, knees and fetlocks.
As you take the head lower you should see the abdominal muscles engaging and the back lifting - this exercise is the equivalent of us doing sit-ups!
Neck Stretches to Shoulder, Flank and Hock
Targets; Tension in the lateral neck and paraspinal muscles, improves core strength and stability.
How; Have your horse stand as square as possible. Using a treat or lick, keeping your horses head straight encourage their head around towards the elbow, flank and hock. Difficulty is increased as you work towards the mid flank and hock.
Forelimb Protraction Stretch
Targets; Tightness in shoulder and limb flexors. This also stretches an important muscle spanning the area under the saddle.
How; Lift the leg and wait for your horse to relax. Supporting the fetlock in cupped hands, gently bring the leg forward. Make yourself comfortable by resting your elbow on your leg for support.
Forelimb Retraction Stretch
Targets; Tightness in base of neck, front of shoulder and pectoral muscles.
How; Lift the leg and wait for your horse to relax. Rest the front of the fetlock in one hand and place the other hand on the front of the knee. Using your 'knee hand', gently draw the leg backwards, shifting your weight back as you go. This is a small movement - do not expect the leg to move too far back!
You can increase the stretch through the lower neck by asking someone to help you encourage the horse's head and neck around to the opposite side.
Hindlimb Protraction Stretch
Targets; Tightness in hamstrings, gluteals and lower back/lumbars.
How; Lift the leg and wait for your horse to relax. Supporting the fetlock in cupped hands, gently bring the leg forward, aiming towards the outside of the forelimb fetlock.
Protect your own back by resting your elbow on your leg for support.
Hindlimb Retraction Stretch
Targets; Tightness in quadriceps and hip flexors.
How; Lift the leg and wait for your horse to relax. Gently bring the leg backwards into a 'farrier stretch'.
Once your horse relaxes into the stretch, you can place one hand on top of the hock to gently increase the stretch.
A gluteal stretch can be incorporated by gently bringing the leg across to the opposite side.