Before we start with neck stretch exercises, you can read Dr Lena Clifford’s introduction here.
Let’s start with the first stretches.
If you practice these exercises on a regular basis you will get to know your horse’s body better, improve his/her core strength and spinal health, and help keep your four legged friend happy.
And, to safely teach your horse to stretch, Hayley Chambers from Outback Equines is going to show you in detail how to gradually shape each stretch using targeting, and we’ll discuss what to look out for in the process. To read the entire article with pictures see the download link below.
For each stretch I include a short section explaining which muscle groups are being activated and what the stretch will help with. Make sure you always warm your horse up before stretching. Walking for 5-10 min is enough to warm the muscles up.
To ensure the stretches are beneficial, your horse needs to stretch from a square halt. You may want to spend a bit of time training that part correctly – check out Hayley’s handy training hints over the next pages.
Hayley’s Hints: Why target training?
Some people like to do these stretches by bribing the horse with a carrot – but ‘carrot stretches’ go against the golden rule of clicker training using food, which is to take the treat to the horse’ not let the horse’s mouth come to the treat.
With target training, you can achieve and practice the same beneficial stretches whilst teaching your horse great manners around treats.
Target training is simply teaching any animal to touch an object with his/her nose or a body part repetitively to a signal or cue. In dog training, zoos and marine parks, targeting is a very common skill to teach to all different kinds of animals. When teaching horses to target, I make a point of teaching them to use their nose only – to simply ‘touch’ the item on cue without biting, licking or chewing it.
Whether you use a food treat or a scratch to reward your horse will depend on what he or she finds motivating. Most horses are very motivated and, therefore, easily trained using food treats but some horses are just as motivated by a scratch on a favourite spot!
Pairing the Clicker
To begin Target Training you need to first ensure your horse is correctly conditioned to a marker word or a clicker (so he knows that ‘click’ = ‘treat’). This is called ‘pairing’ the clicker.
A clicker is ideal because it gives a clear and audible sound that is consistent and never changes, but you can also use a distinct voice signal. The aim is to associate the clicker/sound to your horse’s chosen reward – either a food treat or a scratch on a favourite spot – using this sequence: click, treat, repeat.
In a very short period of time (as little as 5-15 mins) the horse will start to understand that the click sound equals something awesome!
Introduce the target (put it near his nose) and click-treat when he touches it. Repeat and soon he’ll understand that touching the target with his nose gets the reward. You can then start moving the target around. Make it easier if he loses interest or becomes confused.
Neck stretch #1
Head at wither height, stretched forward for a duration from a couple of seconds to 20 seconds, with practice.
Improves: Flexibility in the poll, jaw and hyoid (tongue bone), anterior-posterior stability and core strength.
Muscle groups that benefit: jaw, poll, neck, core muscles, top line and abdominal muscles.
Repetitions: 5x before work or 1x day.
Dos: Make sure your horse is warmed up. Make sure your horse is standing square before starting the stretch, always be mindful of your horse’s strength and weakness. Only increase duration as the horse gets stronger.
Be sure to prioritise (reward) a square stance and straightness (keeping the ears level, without a head tilt), and increase the stretch gradually over time.
Don’ts: Not for horses in the first three months after any surgery! Make sure the head does not twist as he stretches (check the ears are level).
Don’t push your horse past it’s comfort zone, Don’t stretch when the horses muscles are not warmed up.
Hayley’s Hints: The target
The target can be any object that is distinctive and your horse can learn to recognise easily. After trialling several devices, from home made to store bought, we found an extendable flag pole, removed the flag and fitted a tennis ball to the end. Having an extendable pole proves super handy, allowing you to gradually shape the stretch further and further without having to change your position.
Training pre-requisites: Teach your horse to ‘park’ square, so he follows the target by stretching the head and neck, rather than stepping forward. You might need to refresh ‘park’ before you stretch.
Variation: Using a stool or a long target stick aim to stretch the neck upwards as if the horse was eating leaves of a high branch. Remember to prioritise straightness (level ears) above the amount of stretch achieved.
This variation will stretch the muscles in the lower neck as well as help with your horse’s core strength.
Hayley’s Hints: Teaching ‘park’ using combined reinforcement
The term ‘park’ refers to teaching the horse to ‘stay’ or ‘plant his feet’.
First, your horse should know how to ‘Back up’ – using either halter pressure or chest pressure, but preferably from a verbal or hand signal, or a light whip-tap/cue on the front legs/chest or on the ground in front of them. (Backing up helps you to correct the horse if they try to walk forwards during the park exercise.)
I use a dressage/driving whip so I can extend my signals when I’m ready to get further away from the horse.
With your horse in a halter and lead, and initially staying close to him, use your clicker/marker whenever his feet are still. Repeat at a close distance several times at a very short duration of ‘park’ i.e., 1-2 seconds. At this stage we are looking for duration rather than HOW the horse is standing. We can change our park criteria once the horse understands.
If your horse tries to move the feet forward, back them up using one of the signals he knows, and then wait for a very short moment (for his feet to stand still again) and then reward your horse with a release of pressure AND your marker (click-treat) immediately.
Remember when releasing the pressure that your timing is VERY important – use the lowest pressure needed (the LIMA approach of Least Invasive Minimally Aversive) and release that pressure AND click the very moment the horse adheres to that signal. This is combination reinforcement.
We then start SHAPING the behaviour in small increments i.e., park still for one second – click–treat. Park still for 1-2 seconds – click–treat. Park still for 2-3 seconds – click–treat.
Once the duration of the park has been established, we can look at changing the criteria to the quality of the park, e.g., standing the front and back feet square then park for 1 second, 2 seconds, etc. The horse will already understand duration and the foundations of the ‘park’ but can then extend the information to the HOW he is standing in the park. Clever pony!
Neck stretch #2
Stretch the head and neck between the knees (carpal joints) – the horse’s muzzle at knee height.
Improves: neck flexion, upper thoracic stability and flexibility, shoulder strength and flexibility of the shoulder blade.
Muscle groups that benefit: neck muscles, poll, shoulders, withers.
Repetitions: 5x, before work or 1x day.
Dos: Make sure your horse is warmed up. Make sure your horse is standing square before starting the stretch, make sure the neck is straight with ears level, always be mindful of your horse’s strength and weakness and shape the degree of stretch gradually.
Don’ts: Not for horses in the first three month after any surgery. Don’t stretch beyond the knees or higher up towards elbows or chest as this puts too much pressure on the upper cervical vertebrae and the lumbar sacral transition. Don’t push your horse past its comfort zone, Don’t stretch when the horses muscles are not warmed up.
Neck stretch #3
Stretch head and neck towards the girth area at elbow height, making sure the ears stay level.
This is a difficult stretch for the horse to do with level ears and they will try and tilt their head to make things easier, so make sure you shape it gradually, that is, increasing the reach over time and rewarding for maintaining the square halt and bending with level ears, gradually increasing the degree of bend.
If your horse can only go to 90 degrees or less without a head tilt that’s fine! Take things slow as many horses are stiff in the upper cervicals.
Improves: lateral neck flexion, especially the upper neck, thoracic stability and flexibility, shoulder strength and flexibility of the shoulder blade, core strength.
Muscle groups that benefit: neck muscles, poll, shoulders, withers and back muscles.
Repetitions: 5x, before work or 1x day.
Dos: make sure your horse is standing square before starting the stretch. Always be mindful of your horses strength and weakness, and keep training positive by noticing when he has stretched enough, or done enough repetitions.
Don’ts: Not for horses in the first three months after any surgery. Never push your horse past it’s comfort zone, don’t stretch when the horse’s muscles are not warmed up.
Hayley’s Hints: It’s all about shaping!
Shaping means we gradually encourage the horse to engage further and further with the target until they are touching it repetitively over and over. For example, you may have to start rewarding your horse for simply looking towards the target item – click and treat. Many horses will, at least, sniff the item out of curiosity. When they realise that engaging with it earns a click-treat, they will very quickly repeat the behaviour.
Targeting is something I often teach in a very short period of time at clinics, lessons and demonstrations. Within 5 to 15 minutes, most horses will be offering a ‘touch’ to the item with much enthusiasm and positivity.
If your horse tries to mouth, lick or bite the item don’t click and treat – remember we are teaching touch – not pick up! (We can always teach them ‘tricky stuff’ later, if we want to go down that path.) Once your horse is reliably touching the item over and over (about 98% reliability), we can add in a voice cue or physical signal. I generally use the word ‘touch’ or ‘target’. In a short period of time, your horse will pair the verbal signal to the actual action. Soon you will have your horse reliably ‘touching’ the target item on cue.
Now we need to test the targeting by moving the target item to different spots. Don’t go too far to begin with. Try just slightly to the left. Slightly to the right. Slightly up. Slightly down. Doing this will test if your horse really understands the ‘touch the item to earn a reward’ lesson correctly. If he gets stuck – go back a step. If he continues to follow the target item, start shaping one of the stretches described in this article. Choose the one you think will be easiest for your own horse.
Always start from a square halt and prioritise the correct posture over the amount of stretch your horse achieves. Focus on maintaining the square halt and level ears, for example. Be very slow to increase the degree of stretch, and then also shape the duration of the stretch by delaying the click-treat a little bit, over time. If he moves or starts to tilt the head you will know you are asking too much. Go back a step or two and make it easier for him to get it right.
Shaping is all about timing, so keep practicing and don’t worry if you make a mistake every now and then, such as click the wrong behaviour! Just notice and try to be more accurate next time.
Next time we will introduce more beneficial stretches you can incorporate into your horse’s daily routine.
This content is not intended to be a substitute for veterinary advice, diagnosis, or treatment. 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 in this magazine!
This article was published in Horses and People March-April 2020 magazine.