My first order of business before anything that I will repeat again and again and again when it comes to active stretches with your horse:
Never stretch a cold muscle.
Again, for the people in the back.
Never stretch a cold muscle.
One last time, for good measure.
Never. Stretch. A. Cold. Muscle.
Ok, now that we have gotten that out of the way …
Hi! My name is Ashley, I am the owner of Wild Shape Equine Care and I am an equine bodyworker and nutritionist. I am enthusiastically passionate (i.e., a HUGE nerd) about your horse’s health and helping you understand it.
It’s so easy to be overwhelmed when it comes to horses, between our intense love for them, the plethora of information that is casually available (some of it not only confusing but also blatantly wrong!), and the potential financial output they require. Incorporating stretches after your lessons/work is an excellent way to keep their bodies healthy and supported – both excellent ways to keep vet bills out of the picture.
So, let’s talk about stretches for your horse.
Don’t be annoyed, we are going to start with the foundation to understand the how’s, why’s, and when’s to stretching.
To begin, what kind of muscles do we want in our horses to prevent injury, encourage a healthy and expansive range of motion, and prevent and/or alleviate pain? These goals can all be accomplished when muscles are long, supple, and strong. Muscles that are short and tight are recipes for injuries and pain. Think of your horse having yoga muscles. The only problem – yoga is pretty difficult for a horse.
That’s where we come in.
Remember that there’s a difference between your warmup with your horse and when you stretch your horse. Warmups should be dynamic movement that you do before work. Aerobic – exercises that stimulate and strengthen the heart and lungs. Walking, trotting, circles (starting large, moving smaller, staying balanced). Get the heart pumping and the cardiovascular system firing.
Stretches are implemented after you work when muscles are warm and ready to receive and incorporate change.
I may have mentioned never stretch a cold muscle.
There are certain things to keep in mind when assisting your horse in a stretch. When starting out with stretches put yourself in the position of more of a support than pushing or pulling. Your horse is also trying to figure out what you are doing, and until they understand they’re going to be cautious in their movements. Pushing them too far too fast will make this new situation scary (and perhaps painful) for them and make them less likely to want to engage in it in the future.
Think of yourself as a support and a guide. Don’t worry about depth. That’ll come with time and practice.
Let’s begin with simple leg stretches. In the most basic sense, we are going to be helping your horse bring their legs away from their bodies and under their bodies. I always start with bringing their legs under their bodies just in case they lose their balance. Much easier to recover from balance issues when their legs are under them rather than away.
Starting at the front, pick up a leg like you were going to clean their hoof. Pause here, give them a moment to adjust before moving, then support the fetlock and the knee. You may be tempted to just grab the end of the hoof, but then the weight of the leg will over-flex the fetlock joint and put undo stress in that area. Then guide the leg backwards, allowing the leg to straighten so it makes contact with the ground at an angle, toe first, rolling back to the heel of the hoof. Again, don’t worry about depth. This stretch will affect the muscles in the front of the leg, the chest, and the bottom of their necks.
Often when they are invited to stretch in this way when they put their foot down, they will stand in this stretch. Let them do that until they release themselves on their own.
Repeat 3 – 5 times.
Now, bring the leg forward. Pick up the leg again like you are about to clean the hoof, and again supporting the fetlock and the knee guide the leg forward in front of their body. When first starting out, keep the hoof close to the ground, lifting too high too fast will put undo strain on the shoulder joint and muscles. Gently lower to the ground, let the hoof make contact with the ground, and then release – never drop. This will stretch the muscles in the back on the leg, the chest muscles that blend into the belly muscles, and the shoulder muscles.
Repeat 3 – 5 times.
And if your horse says, “No thank you, I am done,” let them be done! Respecting them in new experiences will strengthen your bond.
All of this won’t take any longer than 10 minutes. I promise you have 10 minutes! And the difference this will make in the long term will benefit your horse from the outside to the inside.