Lets talk about stretching! Im sure most of you reading this have heard people talk about the benefits of stretching, like: increased range of motion, increased strength, and as an aid to rehabbing from an injury. Today I'm going to outline seven basic stretches I do with my horse every day, and you should too! These stretches, depending on how they are performed (more about this later) will increase your horses range of motion in their back and neck and strengthen the pelvic stabalizer and abdominal muscles.
These stretches can be grouped as: lateral stretches, curls, and extension.
*What you need: treats your horse really loves and an area with lots of space and comfortable non-slip footing.
*Start training each stretch by rewarding your horse when they have gone as far as they can go, gradually increasing the distance they can stretch each time until they have reached the target area.
*When your horse is perfoming all the stretches to the desired target area, you can gradually increase the time they hold the stretch up to ~10 seconds.
there are three in this group and should be done both to the right and to the left.
chin to girth area: using your treat of choice, lure your horses' nose to one side until it is about even with the elbow at the girth area.
Chin to flank area: use your treat to lure your horses nose until it is mid flank
Chin to hock: use your treat to lure your horses chin to her hock. This is the hardest one of this group! (the actual goal should be the hind fetlock, but i always have people start with the hock as the goal, then progress lower as your horse's flexibility, strength, and understanding of the exercise improves).
Duet has very good form in this image, however, she could be reaching lower to be closer to the hock.
*if you are just starting to do these with your horse, be patient, there is a learning curve! some people find it is helpful be near a wall to discourage the horse from simply moving their hind end away so their nose is more easily at the point of the treat! Use your judgement with your own horse, you know how they learn best!
*try to keep your horse square when doing these stretches
*be careful that your horse keeps good form: they shouldn't rotate their head excessively or rush through these exercises (your horse HAS to rotate its head some when flexing laterally because lateral flexion and rotation are coupled motions in the spine, but try not to let them rotate their head excessively).
this is an example of too much rotation in the lateral chin to girth stretch. Note how Duet has dropped her poll, tipped her nose up, and we can see too much of her forehead. Sometimes horses will do this just trying to figure out what you want, but sometimes they do this because this is their weaker side and it is easier to "cheat" through the movement (or they may need an adjustment!). If your horse is consistently doing this, take them back to neutral and slowly move more lateral, only proceeding if they are displaying good form.
Curl Stretch Group
Chin to chest: use your treat to lure your horses nose to her chest.
Duet could be stretching a little more so her chin is actually touching her chest in this image, but she has good form with her head and neck nice and straight and her feet fairly square.
Chin to knees: use your treat to lure your horses nose to her knees.
Duet is a bit of an over achiever in this image, which is causing her to be leaning her weight back over her haunches a bit more than I would like, but her head and neck are straight and she is nicely square.
Chin to coronary bands (feet): use your treat to lure your horses nose to their feet.
Duet could be a little more square, but she shows nice form in her head and neck in this stretch.
*for this group, try to keep your horses head stright, meaning not flexed to the right or the left. It is a common mistake that horses want to flex to the side that you are standing on when you are luring them through this group of stretches (especially because they now know how to do the lateral flexions :). Be patient with your horse and keep luring them to the center, sometimes it helps to put the treat between the forelegs for the lower stretches. If you really can not get your horse's head to stay centered, do them from both sides so you are stretching them evenly right to left.
there is only one stretch in this group and it is meant to be done last after all of the lateral flexions and curls are done. This stretch "releases" the neck and should be thought of as getting your horse to stretch her head and neck out as long as it will go.
extension: use your treat to lure your horse to stretch her head and neck out as far as it will go (think of the plane of your horses forehead being parallel with the ground).
*when starting to teach your horse the extension stretch, they often want to simply walk forward towards the treat, rather than keep their feet in place and stretch for it. I usually start this one by having the horse stand on the other side of a stall door, half wall, hitching post, etc. so they physically cant walk towards the treat. once they have the idea, just placing your hand on their chest should keep them in place while they stretch for the treat.
*make sure your horse's head isnt rotated left or right, their ears should be level.
*when starting to teach your horse the extension stretch, they often want to simply walk forward towards the treat, rather than keep theiyr feet in place and stretch for it. I usually start this one by having the horse stand on the other side of a stall door, half wall, hitching post, etc. so they physically cant walk towards the treat. once they have the idea, just placing your hand on their chest should keep them in place while they stretch for the treat.
When and how often should we be doing these stretches with our horse? The answer to this depends on how skilled your horse is at the stretches and what you are aiming to achieve with the stretching. In general, when you are just starting out with these with your horse , I recommend to do them AFTER exercise. Then, later, when they are skilled at performing them, to do them both before and after exercise (and sometimes in between :).
To help explain this, lets talk about the difference between dynamic and static stretching. Dynamic stretching involves movement-usually of more than one muscle group, while static stretching involves stretching an isolated muscle group by holding a position rather than moving through a range of motion. For example: if you are stretching your inner thigh muscles statically you might extend your leg out to your side and squat down holding that position until those muscles lengthen; dynamically you might stand up repeatedly swinging your leg towards and away (laterally/ out to the side) from your body increasing the height each time while staying in motion. It is thought the dynamic stretching increases strength in the muscle groups involved in the range of motion exercises, while there has been some evidence that static stretching decreases the force with which a muscle contracts. This doesn't mean that static stretching is bad or has no benefit though....AFTER exercise, when muscles are warm and have just been contracting, static stretching is beneficial to help prevent these muscles from tightening and becoming more stiff after work. For these reasons, I would perform these stretches with your horse as static stretches AFTER exercise when the muscles are warm, until your horse is very good at performing them.....then, you can start doing them dynamically BEFORE work to set them up for increased power AND after, statically, to help them stay limber for their next workout.
**these stretches can be done 3-5 times daily. For horses rehabbing from injury or coming back from a layoff they can be particularly helpful as part of your conditioning program.
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