Stretching is one of the best ways to help keep your horse flexible and strong, maintain his health and reduce injury risks – a bit like equine yoga!
When your horse works, his muscles contract, and if they stay short and tight, they can build up into painful knots, which he may start reacting to with symptoms such as head throwing, resisting in transitions and favouring one rein or the other. Older horses get stiff in their muscles, too, and stretches can help keep them mobile, avoiding all sorts of health problems associated with ageing. If your horse’s muscles are tight, it’ll start to restrict his movement. Stretching helps to relax his muscles and, over time, increases their range of motion.
Safe to practise
These stretches are safe to do because your horse only stretches as far as he can – no force is involved. With practice and as he gradually supples up, he’ll be able to stretch further and for longer periods, but he won’t go beyond the limits of his soft tissue, such as his muscles and ligaments.
Treats work best
For stretches to be beneficial, they need to be held for about 30 seconds. Although these are often called carrot stretches, with carrots, the horse tends to stretch, snatch the carrot and immediately straightens up again. To help encourage him to hold the stretch you can use Likit Snaks treats, he should stay nibbling and hold the stretch for longer.
Where, when, how to stretch
Practise these stretches on a level, non-slip surface. You can do them on the yard or in a stable, which will help if your horse moves around a lot. Ask a friend to help you initially so they can hold your horse and stop him moving his feet instead of stretching for the treats. Usually horses learn them quickly, then you can do them yourself.
- stretch your horse before riding to warm him up for exercise – this is especially beneficial before a schooling session or any taxing work
- stretch him after riding, too, to help remove any tension and warm him down completely so he goes back to his stable or field comfortable and loose
- unridden horses and ponies will also benefit from these stretches, especially if they are old and stiff
Stretch 1 – bonding
With a few treats in your hand, stand with your back to your horse and encourage him to stretch around your body to nibble them, holding the position for about 30 seconds. Repeat 3 times on each side.
This loosens the neck and shoulder muscles, and the ligaments on the opposite side. It also helps you bond with your horse, or make him more confident if he’s nervous of being touched.
Stretch 2 – topline toning
This exercise stretches the whole of your horse’s topline. Bend forward or crouch in front of your horse and hold the treats low down in front of him, encouraging him into a long-and-low stretch and holding it for about 30 seconds. Repeat 2–3 times. If your horse cheats and walks forward, get a friend to put a hand on his chest to hold him still.
Stretch 3 – neck and back
With a few treats in your hand, encourage your horse to reach around, past his girth area, as far as he can to nibble them and then hold the stretch for about 30 seconds. Repeat 2–3 times on each side. This loosens the horse’s neck muscles on the outside. The further around the stretch, the tighter the pull, so it will start to benefit the back muscles, too.
A very supple horse can stretch right up to his croup, but don’t worry if he can’t do this straightaway. Just increase your horse’s stretch by gradually moving the treats a couple of centimetres every two weeks until he’s at his limit. Increasing the stretch gradually like this will give his muscles and ligaments the chance to adapt to the extra effort – you don’t want to make him sore!
Stretch 4 – back and abs
You want to get your horse to reach down between his front legs, so bring your hand holding the treats down between them – start at the side if necessary – as far as he’ll go and hold the stretch for about 30 seconds. Keep his head and neck as straight as possible, so that the stretch is symmetrical. This really lifts your horse’s back, stretches the whole of his topline and works his abdominal muscles. Repeat 2-3 times.
If your horse cheats and moves back to reach the treats, back him up against a wall. The aim is to get your horse’s head between his knees, but don’t worry if he finds this difficult – just increase the stretch every couple of weeks. He’ll need to bend his knees to achieve the full stretch.
Stretches 5 and 6 – to loosen the legs post-riding
For the forelegs
Lift your horse’s leg as if you’re picking out his feet, then hold the lower leg at a right angle, bring it back a little and hold the stretch for 30 seconds. Repeat 2-3 times each leg. The foreleg stretch lengthens and loosens the muscles at the top of the leg.
For the hindlegs
Pick his leg up and keep it low, stretching it forward for 30 seconds and repeat 2–3 times each leg. With the hindleg exercise, you want to aim for a nice straight leg for maximum stretching benefit. If he pulls away, let his leg go back a bit – it means you’ve pulled it too far forward. If he puts his foot on the ground, that’s a bonus! The hindleg exercises the hamstring and muscles at the back of the hindquarters – particularly good if you’re doing a lot of schooling and jumping with your horse which uses his back end a lot.
- take your time! Stretches are only of benefit if they’re held
- listen to your horse and stay within his comfort range. It’s better to understretch than overstretch – your horse will guide you
- if you have any concerns about your horse’s health, talk to your vet.
- protect your back – keep it straight!