(originally published in Southwest Horse Trader magazine, 2005)
From big, beefy bulldog quarterhorse types to rounded Arabians, from tall slender Thoroughbreds to rangy, muscular Tennessee Walkers, there is one thing that all horses have in common. Muscles get sore.
In years past, the common ways to overcome stiffness and soreness in your horse would be to either turn them out to pasture for a few days or to administer a drug like phenylbutazone or “bute”. However, with the newly re-found therapies such as chiropractic, massage, and acupuncture come a new way of looking at our horse’s health.
Equine massage and stretching can provide much of the benefits of time off and normal healing in a shorter amount of time. It can decrease muscle soreness by removing the toxins normally generated by overexertion. By increasing the flow of blood and of synovial fluid (which lubricates the joint itself), you can help your horse’s body heal at the cellular level. Stretching helps restore smooth muscle fibers, which prevent painful knots and spasms that can be caused by the normal small tears and toxin build-up in an exerted muscle.
Stretching is neither weight training for you, nor an aerobic sport for him! The most effective stretching exercises are done after a short (5-10 minute walk or trot) warmup, but prior to actually working your horse, just as a human athlete will first walk a bit, then stretch hamstrings and quadriceps prior to beginning to run. Keep in mind that stretching your horse is not a matter of brute strength, in fact it is the opposite – stretching cold muscles should always be done very gently so as not to tear delicate muscle tissue. This is not a fight between you and him over possession of his leg, for example! As with any effective work you do with your horse, you should maintain a calm demeanor and speak to your horse in a relaxed, unhurried manner while you perform these stretches with him.
The simplest stretches are natural movements for the horse. In fact, many people call these “carrot stretches” because they use a carrot (or other favored treat) to help guide a horse into position for his stretch. The person does not actually put their hands on the horse to stretch any muscle; the horse performs the stretch of their own will. For example, beginning on flat, level ground and preferably, using a horse handler with your horse on a 12-15 foot lead line, position yourself beside your horse. Show him the carrot and ask him to bend his head around as far back as his hip before giving him a small bite. Keep in mind that you may need to start off just bending to his shoulder, girth line, etc before he limbers up enough over time to reach his own hip. Make sure to do this on both sides. Two or three stretches per side should be adequate, and you should encourage your horse to hold the stretch for up to 30 seconds.
You can also use the carrot to stretch his neck and topline out by lowering the carrot all the way down to the ground, passing it to your other hand, and moving it slightly behind his front feet. Let him take a bite only when he is in proper position. You’ll find your horse handler invaluable to keep your horse from walking around trying to get to the treat! You may also set up against a wall, horse trailer, fenceline, etc to keep your horse from swinging around in a circle, especially for the side-to-hip stretch.
A third effective carrot stretch is to hold the carrot between the horse’s front legs and close to his chest. He must arch his neck and tuck in to reach the carrot.
Passive stretching is the act of using your hands to physically manipulate your horse’s body into stretches. This type of stretching is very effective, however, it is also more dangerous to the horse because if it is not performed carefully and in a knowledgeable manner, it can easily cause muscle and/or tendon damage.
A good way to begin passive stretching is by performing hoof rotations. Pick up your horse’s foot and once he has relaxed, gently rotate. Then gently place the hoof back on the ground. You should not exert any pressure, rather, you are building his trust in you. Perform this on all 4 feet. As with any horse training, repetition is vital to the success of your goal! If you can do this every time you ride your horse, or every day you groom him, do so. He will become accustomed to having his feet and legs handled by you and will be much more relaxed and confident (resulting in less resistance) as you continue your stretching exercises.
There’s a great book on horse stretching called “Stretch Exercises for your Horse” by Karin Blingnault by JA Allen Publishers out of Australia. We recommend further reading for more information and many effective stretches!