Why do horses benefit from stretching?
Passive, or manual, stretching of the horse’s body can be beneficial for most horses. There are situations where stretching may not be appropriate, such as following injury, so professional advice should be sought before commencing a stretching program on a horse who is not completely sound.
The purpose of stretching a healthy horse is to lengthen muscles that have shortened during the normal process of athletic movement. Shortened muscles reduce the range of motion of the joints and limbs with which they are associated. This restricts both step and stride length, and reduces the ability of the horse to bend and flex. Lack of flexibility exposes the horse to a greater potential for injury as well as a reduced level of performance in any athletic pursuit. Stretching also assists with removal of acids from muscles after exercise. Every serious sportsperson incorporates a stretching program into their own training, knowing they will not be competitive without it, and every gym instructor will encourage visitors to stretch properly with each workout. Equine bodies have the same needs.
There are numerous factors that can cause a muscle to become shorter than ideal. Most commonly, muscles will slowly shorten when they are repetitively used for the same action, even everyday type movement will eventually lead to a shortening of the muscle. Stretching can restore muscle length to a basically healthy, strong and well-functioning body.
Another fairly common scenario is when a group of muscles has tightened, or shortened, as a protective mechanism for an essential body part, for instance the spine, which carries the fragile nerves of the spinal cord. Lack of core strength is one of the main reasons for tightening of some of the large muscle groups of the hindlegs, such as hamstrings, adductors, quadriceps. These muscles may be bracing to prevent excessive movement of the pelvis, which could threaten the safety of the spine in the vulnerable lumbar area; this is a job which should be done by a strong corset of abdominal muscles. In this situation stretching would be unwise because the braced muscles are acting like a crutch; removing the crutch could expose the horse to a more serious injury. It is then essential to build some core strength and stability before beginning to stretch.
Most horses will benefit immensely from simple regular stretching. Stretching feels as good for them as it does for us. To feel the difference yourself, try stretching just one of your own legs - do hamstring, calf and quads, holding each stretch for 30 seconds - then walk around to compare the two legs. The one that has been stretched will feel lighter, looser, more free - a good feeling.
It is not unusual for the temperament of the horse to improve markedly. A middle-aged riding school pony had progressively become sour and bad-tempered, to the extent that the owner considered she was becoming dangerous. It was decided she could no longer be used for beginner’s lessons. There were no major problems with this pony, just an overall stiffness from tight, shortened musculature. A stretching program was commenced and in less than a week the pony was back to her normal cheerful, tolerant self. The owner of the pony did a wonderful job in ensuring the pony was stretched every day and even taught the children how to do it after every lesson. The pony never again lost her sweet temper.
When should a horse be stretched?
There are a few golden rules to keep in mind when stretching:
* The horse must be relaxed at all times.
* No stretch should be forced. Simply move the limb until the first resistance is felt, rather like ‘taking up the slack’.
Do not pull, ever.
* Do not try to stretch cold muscles.
Warm-up first with a few minutes of walking. If stretching is being done at the end of a long or strenuous ride, cool down with several minutes of walking, untack, stretch - then hose or wash the horse if needed.
For best results, it is advisable to stretch all of the major muscle groups of the horse as isolating just one or two groups will have little benefit. Competition horses in hard work will benefit most from stretching both before and after a training session. For horses in light work, stretching after a ride will be sufficient in most cases.
Horse limbs are heavy – Is stretching difficult?
Using the correct technique will make stretching easy and enjoyable for both horse and handler. Once both horse and handler are accustomed to stretching regularly, the whole sequence can be done in less than ten minutes.
The following pages give detailed guidelines, with some photographs, of how stretching can be done without any strain to the handler. It should be noted the demonstration horse is peaceful and accustomed to being handled in this manner. Handler safety should be a priority at all times. It is not essential to kneel on the ground, as shown in some of the photos, if safety dictates that doing so would be too much of a risk with any individual horse. The handler’s own upper body weight can be taken via the elbow on a bent knee, or a rope can be used instead. Do not attempt to stretch horses who are likely to kick, bite or otherwise injure the handler.
How should stretching be done?
There are a few general guidelines that apply to all stretches:
a) Ensure the horse is standing on level ground, more or less square, so he will be comfortable taking his weight on 3 legs. The horse will soon understand what is happening and will then start to organize his own legs in preparation.
b) Listen to the horse, watch his reactions carefully. He will tell you if he is not comfortable by looking worried, taking his leg back or swaying. Believe him.
c) Problems usually only occur when the limb is being overstretched or is held at an awkward angle. Horses accustomed to stretching will get a soft, half-asleep look in their eyes.
d) Ideally, each stretch should be held for 30 seconds but initially that is too long for most horses. To start with, move the limb to the desired position, count to 5, then slowly put it down. Gradually build up from there - it is not a race.
e) Never take the weight of a horse's leg with your back unsupported, even if you are fit and strong, as a sudden movement by the horse can easily throw you off balance, leading to injury. Always have one of your elbows resting on your own thigh or knee if you cannot keep your back vertical – more specific details follow. None of the stretches described here requires any strength but good technique is vital. Anyone can do this, even those who are not naturally strong.
f) Each leg needs to be stretched in the 4 basic directions in which it moves. After that there are 3 stretches for the torso - a total of 19 stretches @ 30 seconds each = under 10 minutes.
g) Each stretch is described on the following pages as it is done on the left side of the horse, although some of the photos are of the stretches being done on right side of the horse.
(Click on any image to see a larger version)
1. Flexor Stretch
The leg is taken straight forward, with a slight bend kept in the knee and fetlock.
Do not completely straighten the leg so there will be no possibility of overstretching the long tendons of the flexor muscles. Be careful not to pull the leg out to the side - the shoulder joint cannot move like that.
Standing facing his shoulder, pick up the leg as though you were going to clean the foot. Take a step to your left so you are now facing the middle of his neck as you place your right hand behind the knee joint and your left hand under the fetlock joint, drawing the whole limb forward. Take another step to your left so you are about level with his nose, at the same time twisting around to your left a little so you are standing facing diagonally across in front of the horse. As you do this, bend your right knee a little and place your left foot a step behind you to give support and balance - rest the cannon or fetlock on your thigh and keep your back straight up. Leave your right hand under the knee, your left hand can lightly grasp the top of the fetlock to stop it sliding off your thigh.
This stretch can also be done without any need for your hands to remain on the horse, as shown in this photo, which is being done on the right side of the horse.
2. Abductor Stretch
The upper leg is taken across the chest of the horse, while the lower leg dangles from the knee.
In this stretch the limb does not move very far across.
Start in the same position as the flexor stretch in (1) above. Take a step to the left so you are facing the middle of his neck as you place your right hand under his leg just above the knee joint and your left hand on top of his knee joint - let the lower leg just hang loosely as you draw the leg forward. Turn diagonally as above, placing the knee joint over your mid or upper thigh, with one or both of your hands now on top of the leg to stop it sliding off your thigh. Lean towards the horse slightly (as though doing a tiny lunge) until you feel that first resistance.
Remember to keep your back straight up. The horse's knee will only move to about mid-chest level at most. Hold in this position.
(photo demonstrates stretch on the right side)
3. Extensor Stretch
The leg is taken back in a straight line towards the hindleg on the same side.
Pick up the leg as in (1) above. Lean forward as you place your right hand under the pastern and your right forearm on your right bent knee, with your left leg a little behind you for balance, or kneel on your left knee. Cup your left hand around the horse's knee as you gently guide the leg back with the hoof pointing downhill towards the back foot. Hold in this position.
The weight of the horse's leg is being taken on your own right leg via your arm, and your upper body is also supported on your right leg with no strain to your back. There will be very little movement in this stretch, only an inch or two.
If you can reach up with your left hand to feel the chest pectoral muscles just inside the leg, you will feel the tension that prevents the leg from moving any further back.
4. Adductor Stretch
The upper leg above the knee is drawn out sideways.
As you finish the previous extensor stretch (3), keep your own position and allow the upper leg to return to a roughly vertical position. Your right hand is still supporting the pastern. Place your left hand on the inside of the bent knee joint and gently draw out towards you until you feel that first resistance. Hold in this position.
This also will be a very small movement. Do not pull out with your right hand, it is supporting only.
(photo demonstrates stretch on the right side)
5. Flexor Stretch
The leg is drawn forward in line with the back of the front leg.
Do not have the back hoof higher than the front canon bone. Start with the back foot low to the ground, it is much easier for the horse.
Facing the same way as the horse, just in front of the stifle, turn slightly to your right as you pick up the foot and hold under the fetlock joint with your left hand, placing your left forearm on your left bent knee. Put your left leg back behind you for balance, or kneel on your left knee, as the weight of the horse’s leg is transferred to your right knee, with your right hand on the feltock joint. Slowly take the hoof as far forward as it will easily go. Hold in this position.
The weight of the hindleg is taken on your right knee with no strain to your back. With regular stretching most horses will easily be able to touch their front leg with their back hoof, some will go past it.
6. Extensor Stretch
The leg is taken directly out in a straight line behind the horse.
Pick up the foot as though to clean it out, placing your own left leg diagonally behind the hock, allowing the leg to drape over your left thigh as you stand up straight. Your right hand can lightly hold the hock to stop it slipping off your thigh. Hold in this position.
To start with, take the leg back only a few inches beyond the tail, working up to a full 45 º angle, always keeping the foot close to the ground.
7. Adductor Stretch
The leg is first flexed and then drawn outwards.
Facing the stifle area, lift and bend the leg so that the stifle, hock and fetlock are all flexed. Draw the whole leg out towards you, resting the fetlock on your own bent left thigh while standing up straight. Your left hand will be holding the fetlock with your right hand on the hock. Hold in this position.
To start with, only draw the leg out a short way as the horse must learn to balance on the other leg.
8. Abductor Stretch (a)
The leg is drawn diagonally across in front of the other hind leg.
Standing on the right side of the horse at flank level, reach across to pick up the left hind foot. Draw it across in front of the right hind foot at a 45? angle as far as it will easily go. Keep the foot low to the ground but not on the ground. Kneel on your left knee with your right elbow on your right knee to support your back. If you are unsure of your horse, use a soft rope to draw the foot across whilst you remain standing. Hold in this position.
This is usually the hardest stretch for the horse to learn, but having done so, it seems
to be the one they all like best. Many will want to park the toe on the ground and have a snooze. Do not allow them to do this, they will not be getting a full stretch, and it is not safe if you are kneeling at their hind feet as they can lose their balance.
Abductor Stretch (b)
The leg is guided across the body behind the other hind foot.
Pick up the leg as for the flexor stretch in (6) above with the gaskin area above the hock resting across your thigh. Allow the lower limb to dangle from the hock. Lean across slightly as though doing a tiny lunge, slowly guiding the limb across behind the other leg. Take care the horse does not lose his balance by ensuring the weightbearing leg is first placed well under the horse.
9. Lateral Stretch
The horse bends his whole body to the side.
Stand with your back against the girth area of the horse. With your right hand on the halter cheek piece, slowly draw the horse's head around in front of you, using a strip of carrot held in your left hand as a lure. Tease the horse a little to lengthen the time he is in this position. Do not allow him to snatch for the carrot - that is not a stretch and is of no value.
To start with, it is helpful to have the horse standing up against a wall or fence to prevent him from simply spinning around you.
A horse accustomed to doing this stretch regularly will eventually be able to take the carrot from beyond his stifle area without moving his front feet. The 21-yr old TB in the photos above demonstrates the extent of lateral flexion through his spine. It is not unusual for many horses to be so stiff they can barely reach to their own shoulder level.
This stretch is particularly useful when teaching a crooked horse to carry himself straight. For example, if a horse leans to the left he will likely be permanently flexed to the right - the muscles on his right side will be shorter than those on the left. This stretch will make it easier for him to change his bend when asked to step under his body shadow with his left hind. In this case it is beneficial to do 3 consecutive stretches where the horse bends to his left, and just one to his right. When the horse is habitually straight, revert to equal repeats on each side.
10. Topline Stretch
The horse lowers his head to the ground between his front feet.
Using a carrot strip as a lure, ask the horse to first stretch his neck forward, then downwards to his feet, then between his feet. Keep the carrot almost on the ground at that point to avoid overstretching the nuchal and supraspinous ligaments.
Take this stretch very slowly. Initially, some horses cannot get their nose past their own knees. Do not allow them to splay their legs (like a foal) or bend at the knees as this defeats the purpose. A horse doing this stretch regularly will eventually be able to get his ears between his front legs while standing square without bending his knees.
Physical Therapy and Massage
for the Horse
Jean-Marie Denoix, Jean-Pierre Pailloux