3 beneficial stretches and core strengthening for your horse.
As we learn more about the horse’s body and how things are connected, therapists are finding better ways of keeping our fur-kids safe, healthy and, most importantly, happy.
There are many new fads that promise quick cures for imbalances, whether they are in the feet or the upper body. But to find a long-term solution, we must first realise that, inevitably, these imbalances have underlying causes…
Usually, the underlying cause is either pain, bad training, ill-fitting gear, an unbalanced rider or husbandry issue, and your aim should be to find the cause.
If the problem is a badly fitting saddle, a change in training is not going to help much. If the horse has grown unbalanced feet due to compensating for shoulder pain, feeding minerals for hoof growth is not the solution. And a horse that is kept isolated and develops stress-induced behaviour issues, will not become calm and happy with a chiropractic treatment.
A healthy and happy horse needs friends, forage, exercise and good nutrition, and it is all in your hands. Your horse’s long-term health and fitness relies on your commitment to becoming their best manager, personal trainer and even their life coach.
This article follows on from articles in the March-April 2020 magazine, which I wrote in collaboration with Hayley Chambers from Outback Equines. They contain a more thorough introduction into core strength, as well as three beneficial exercises.
Compensating is the horse’s way to hide pain
Horses are so good at compensating and hiding pain that it can be hard to notice when things start to go wrong. The good news is that, however much they try to hide their discomfort to appear sound and strong, there are clues in the horse’s body that we can use as a guide. And, if we are able to notice changes before they become a real problem, we can prevent more serious injury or even damage that is beyond repair.
In the previous articles I explained that horses need movement and although most of our horses move while they are in the paddock with their friends and while being ridden or trained, we can also add more specific, beneficial movements to their day.
Adding a few stretches and core strengthening exercises to your horse’s everyday routine has many benefits:
- The appropriate exercises can improve your horse’s mobility, flexibility, stability and strength.
- The interactions can help improve your own training skills and strengthen the bond between you and your horse, particularly if you shape the stretches gradually and, where appropriate, you use positive reinforcement techniques like target training. This is because when applied correctly, reward-based training can dramatically improve the way your horse feels about it.
- Over time, you will get to know your horse’s body better. Each exercise session is an opportunity to evaluate their progress, watch how they respond and quickly notice when things are ‘not quite right’. If one day they are not as flexible as they were yesterday or a week ago, you have the opportunity to get these problems addressed before the rest of the body has to compensate too much.
- With increased flexibility we also increase joint stability as well as overall mobility and we decrease the risk of injury.
- Knowing where your horse’s weaknesses and strengths will also help you manage your training program.
- Regardless of whether you compete at the highest level or you simply enjoy taking your horse on a trail ride once every few weeks, the stronger the core the healthier they will be.
Before practicing these stretches, refer to the article published in the March-April magazine to learn more about core strength, the multifidus muscles and the horse’s nervous system.
The following stretches can be done without special training or a target because you will act as therapist to facilitate the stretch. The only requirements are that your horse is lightlly warmed up, can park (stand still and square) and is used to being handled and having his legs picked up.
The aim of this stretch is to improve the flexibility of the shoulder, release the shoulder girdle and girth area, and develop anterior-posterior stability and core strength.
Muscle groups that benefit: Triceps, pectoral muscles, flexor muscles in the front leg.
Recommended repetitions: One time each front leg, before work or once a day.
How to stretch:
You are going to pick up one front leg and stretch it forwards.
In order to protect your back, your final position will be with your legs apart, knees bent, back long and straight, and resting your elbows on your knees.
Start by picking up one front leg and adjusting your position until you are standing in front of the horse as shown.
Hold the hoof by wrapping your hands around the heel – this keeps your fingers safe should your horse put his foot down. As shown in Image C
Take the leg slowly forward, keeping it below the height of your own knees as shown in Image A.
Your horse will have his knee slightly bent or you may feel a restriction. Wait there until your horse releases the shoulder by pushing into the stretch and straightening the leg all the way through the heel. Image B.
This might take a moment so wait for the horse, don’t pull on the leg!
Dos: Make sure your horse is warmed-up (e.g. a few minutes walk), and standing square before starting the stretch. Make sure you are right in front of your horse. Keep the hoof low and straight and wait for the horse to push into the stretch. Always be mindful of your horse’s strengths and weaknesses, increase the duration of the stretch as the horse gets stronger.
Don’ts: Stretches are not for horses in the first three months after any surgery. Do not pull on the leg to stretch it but rather wait for the horse to push into your hands. Do not pull the leg sideways. Never push or pressure your horse past it’s comfort zone.
Variation: If the horse finds it difficult to release into this stretch, move his leg slightly and very slowly from side to side while bracing your back with your elbows on your knees. The movement does not need to be greater than 5 cm to either side and is very, very slow. Soon, you will find a sweet spot where the horse will start to release.
The aim of this stretch is to improve the flexibility of the shoulder, release the shoulder girdle and shoulder blade, as well as release muscles around lower neck and wither.
Muscle groups that benefit: All the muscles around the shoulder area, lower neck and withers.
How to stretch:
Pick one front leg up, standing next to your horse, facing backwards.
Lower the toe gently towards the ground, placing it approximately level with the heel of the other leg, while keeping knee and fetlock bent.
As the horse begins to release and allow the shoulder blade to drop downwards, you can encourage the dorsal wall towards the ground.
See images above.
Many horses initially find it difficult to release the leg and will try to plant their foot down, probably because it’s a new experience and they have been trained to hold their legs up for trimming or cleaning, be patient.
You can help by keeping your hands on the leg, supporting the knee and the heel, or try stroking the leg to encourage your horse to relax it down.
It may take a few tries but, once your horse knows what you mean, they will start to release the shoulder blade and shoulder girdle muscles, allowing the shoulder blade to drop down.
Repetions: Once each leg, before work or once a day.
Duration: Start with a single second and work up to 30 seconds – for very advanced horses.
Dos: Make sure your horse is standing square before starting the stretch. Always be mindful of your horses strengths and weaknesses, increase the duration gradually as your horse gets stronger and more comfortable with the release.
Don’ts: Stretches are not recommended for horses in the first three months after any surgery. Don’t try and hold your horse’s leg in position with force. Don’t push your horse past their comfort zone, don’t stretch when the horse’s muscles are not warmed up.
Variation: You can do the same exercise with the hind legs to achieve a hip release. This exercise is particularly good for horses that favour one leg when resting.
The main difference between a single leg resting stance and the hip relsease is that when resting, the horse will normally place his toe forward (approx. level with the toe of the other hind leg), whereas for the stretch you place the toe further back, level with the heel of the other leg to allow the weight of the hip to drop down vertically.
The aim of this stretch is to improve flexibility in the back and around the withers as well as engage and strengthen the abdominal muscles, which improves core strength.
Muscle groups that benefit: All muscles around the back, the belly and withers.
How to stretch:
Stand facing your horse, level with his girth (see Image A). Place your fingers underneath the horse’s ribcage, where the girth would be. You will feel a little hollow in the midline between the pectoral muscles. (Image C).
Place your fingers in along the hollow and push gently, tickle or scratch your horse there. Your horse will lift and round his back, and tuck the belly.
Watch for the slightest lift and allow your horse to relax again. Image B.
Repetitions: Repeat twice, before work or once a day.
Dos: Make sure your horse is standing square before starting the stretch. Be gentle and only use your fingers. Always be mindful of your horses strength and weakness, increase duration as the horse gets stronger.
Don’ts: Not for horses in the first three months after any surgery. Do not use any tools to make the horse lift the back. Watch for the response and never push your horse past his comfort zone. Don’t stretch when the horse’s muscles are not warmed up.
Take care! Make sure you stand close to the horse and you start with very little pressure. If your horse is sore through the girth area, he may react and try kicking.
Less is more: Watch out for even the slightest movement upwards and then allow your horse to relax again. Stiff or sore horses might not be able to give you much lift at all to start with. Only ask for more when your horse becomes more relaxed and flexible.
Adding these 3 beneficial stretches and core strengthening exercises to your horse’s everyday routine doesn’t take long and has many benefits. Nevertheless, always check that these exercises will be appropriate for your horse with your vet or body worker.
This content is not intended to substitute the advice of a qualified equine health practitioner or veterinarian. Always seek professional advice with any questions you may have regarding the health condition of your horse. Never disregard professional advice or delay in seeking it because of something you have read on any website!