Stretching Your Horse For Success

by Ava Frick, DVM

Athletes of every sport who receive massage and chiropractic care and do regular stretches have fewer injuries and recover with a shorter down time when an injury does occur. So it goes with horses too. A regular stretching routine is even more important for the stalled horse. These horses do not have the opportunity to graze, flex and extend joints through their range of motion, or engage all of their muscle groups throughout the day outside of their training program. Without adequate pre-exercise massage techniques, warm-up, and post-exercise ground stretches, these horses are predisposed to injury. The in-saddle training warm-up cannot compensate for good regular ground stretches.

When a horse is unable to execute a maneuver or perform in a standard trained pattern, humans often perceive it as being unwilling. Nothing could be further from the truth. A horse that has been agreeable and capable will not suddenly go south and begin refusing to complete a previous skill. Any deviations are because “I cannot” rather than “I will not.”

Stiffness is a symptom and reaction to pain or discomfort, be it from overworking unprepared muscle groups (sore muscles), arthritis, spinal bone instability or fixation, dental malocclusion, bad shoeing, or poor saddle fit. Any of these etiologies can lead to a tissue’s inability to stretch. If the tissue cannot adequately stretch, neither can the horse.

Massaging the body and properly stretching the joints will loosen muscles and connective tissue, sending signals to the mechanoreceptors about the joints and their capacity to flex and extend. Massage will also help to eliminate toxins and lactic acid by improving circulation to the tissue, further reducing soreness.

Passive or relaxed stretching is the most common type used with stretching exercises in horses as the person control the motion and positioning desired. Slow, relaxed stretching is useful in relieving spasms in muscles that are healing after an injury. Relaxed stretching is also good for “cooling down” after a workout and helps reduce post workout muscle fatigue and soreness.
Anyone can learn to be effective and safe at stretching a horse. Improved flexibility is achieved when stretching becomes a regular part of the horse athlete’s routine.

Here are a few key points:
• Find an exercise program that is recommended by a veterinarian or professional therapist.
• Understand the goals or purpose and how to effectively deliver the exercises.
• Take the time to do them correctly (no short cuts).
• Always start conservatively then gradually increase the length of stretch, the angle or height of the stretch, and the number or repetitions.
• Pay attention to the behavior or response(s) your horse gives with each stretch.
• Keep notes on the changes you see and periodically re-evaluate posture, movement and balance from a distance.
• A good stretch will be comfortable and effective if you follow the above steps. A “bad” stretch will be met with resistance or failure to make any positive gain in flexibility, range of motion, or performance.
For more details and photos on how to do this simple exercise look for my book, Fitness in Motion. It is available at major bookstores and online. Or for an autographed copy, contact www.avafrick.com.

The Healthy Planet does not endorse any information contained in articles, advertisements or directory listings and we suggest consulting a health care professional before beginning any therapy or medical treatment.