Wondering about the best stretching exercises for your horse? Stretching is the process of extending a muscle to its maximum extension to release muscle tightness, improve flexibility and reduce pain. [1]

Many veterinarians recommend stretching for horses, particularly prior to a training session, to reduce the risk of muscle injury. [1] Stretching can also be a component of rehabilitation after surgery or other injuries.

Stretching has few reported side effects, and is considered safe for healthy horses under the guidance of a trained professional. [2]

Several stretching techniques are available, each targeting a different part of the body. Common stretches include “carrot stretches” of the neck, wither and back lifting, and limb stretching.

Stretching in Horses

During exercise, the horse’s muscles undergo contraction and relaxation cycles to facilitate movement. However, sometimes a horse’s muscles can be overused if the horse’s exercise program does not match their level of conditioning.

Muscles often respond to overuse through tightening or stiffening of the muscle fibers, resulting in a shorter muscle length. [1] Shortened and stiff muscles have a higher risk of injury and restrict the normal range of motion of their associated joints. [1]

Stretching counteracts the tightening or stiffening that results from overuse of a muscle. [1] By restoring the muscle’s normal length and flexibility, stretching may reduce discomfort, restore normal range of motion, and improve your horse’s performance. [1]

Stretching is also recommended as part of warm-up and cool-down routines for exercising horses. As a warm-up, stretching prepares the muscle tissues for exertion and may reduce the risk of injury. [1] Stretching after exercise can also reduce the risk of injury and promotes recovery by counteracting stiffness and over-contraction after training. [1]

Effect on Tissues

There are few studies on the effect of stretching in horses, so most of the evidence for use of stretching comes from human medicine. [1] Reported benefits of stretching from human medical literature include: [1]

  • Increased range of motion in joints
  • Reduced stiffness
  • Improved elasticity of the muscle fibers
  • Increase in muscle size
  • Improved flexibility

There is some evidence that stretching can reduce pain in affected muscles. [1] Stretching may increase the pain threshold in a muscle, reducing the overall perception of pain signaling coming from that muscle. [1]

This may allow muscles to stretch further and exert more force after an initial stretching period, improving performance as the muscle continues to exercise. [1]

Athletic Performance

One of the main applications of stretching is preventing injury during performance or exercise. [1] Human research studies show variable results regarding the efficacy of stretching in preventing muscle injury. [3]

Some researchers suggest that stretching may be most beneficial for activities that require increased range of motion in joints, such as gymnastics or swimming. [3] The most immediate effect of stretching is increased muscle elasticity and reduced stiffness, allowing increased range of motion and more efficient energy utilization in the muscle. [4]

For sports requiring more muscle strength, stretching and the resulting increase in muscle flexibility may actually compromise muscle performance for up to one hour. [3]

One analysis from the human literature found no studies indicating a single stretching session improved muscle force or torque. [4] Most studies showed a negative impact on force and torque after a stretching session. [4]

However, regular stretching over a long period improves muscle performance metrics, including maximum force and speed of muscle contraction. [4]

Although there are variable results regarding the effect of stretching on athletic performance, most studies show few to no side effects from regular stretching. [4] For this reason, stretching is considered a safe practice that may improve performance and prevent injury in some cases.

Muscle Health

One study in horses examined the effects of a 12-week stretching program involving dynamic mobilization exercises of the neck. Results shows that performing stretches five days a week for three months increased the diameter of muscles near the spine. [9] Additionally, the exercise program improved the symmetry of the horses’ muscle diameters. [9]

Another study comparing the effect of dynamic mobilization exercises and gymnastic training showed a similar result. [8]

A study involving Mangalarga Marchador horses in Brazil found that stretching protocols improved heart rate recovery after performance, with a faster return to a normal heart rate. [10] Stretched horses also exhibited reduced lactate levels, a compound released by working muscle. [10]

This suggests that the muscles of horses engaged in a stretching routine prior to exercise had improved muscle metabolism during the performance event. [10]

Gaits and Stride Length

One study showed that stretching routines in horses did not improve stride length. [11] Horses performing stretching routines six days a week showed reduced range of motion in the shoulder, stifle, and hock joints. [11]

From these findings, the researchers suggested that daily stretching routines may be too intensive for most horses, and that routines completed three days per week are preferred. [11]

Postoperative Recovery

A retrospective study examining postoperative treatment protocols of 62 horses that received colic surgery showed that a 4-week program involving core strengthening and stretching exercises improved postoperative recovery times. [12]

The horses performing core strengthening exercise were more likely to return to sport compared to their untreated peers. [12]

Preparing to Stretch with your Horse

Before starting a stretching routine with your horse, it’s important to ensure that stretches are safe for both the horse and handler.

Begin by choosing an appropriate environment that has sufficient room to move around and has non-slip footing. [5] Locations such as an arena, stall, or paddock are suitable for stretching exercises. [5]

Some stretching exercises may require treats or other forms of positive reinforcement to encourage the horse to reach full extension in the stretch. Long treats such as carrots are ideal to reduce the risk of nipping at the fingers and hands. [5] Treats should be easily accessible during the stretching session. [5]

Horses should be in a neutral position before performing a stretch, standing squarely on all four feet on level ground. [5] Horses may become uncomfortable during stretching exercises and suddenly pull their limbs away, so handlers should take precautions to avoid kick zones or being stepped on. [5]

It is best to repeat each stretch three to five times, with a few seconds between each repetition to allow relaxation of the muscles. [5] For side to side stretches, the same number of stretches should be performed on each side of the horse. [5]

Do not push your horse to stretch further than is comfortable, or injury can occur. Pay attention to body language to ensure stretching is a positive experience for your horse.

Stretching Techniques

Several different stretching techniques can be used depending on your goals for your horse and their typical work. Consult with your veterinarian, trainer or another qualified professional to determine the best stretching routine for your horse.

Dynamic Mobilization Exercises

Dynamic mobilization exercises (“carrot stretches“) involve luring the horse to stretch their own body as they try and reach for a treat. [5] These techniques allow the horse to move through their range of motion without force, reducing the risk of overstretching or injury. [5]

Lateral Bending

Handlers stand to the side of the horse and use a treat to encourage the horse to bend their neck to the side, towards their girth area. [5] The stretch should be held for 10 – 15 seconds before the horse returns to a neutral position. [5]

As horses become more flexible, the difficulty of the stretch can be increased by guiding the nose towards the hip, flank, or hock. [5][6] More advanced stretches engage muscles of the neck, muscles along the spine, and the abdominal and pelvic stabilizing muscles. [2]

Rounding Stretch

The handler stands near the horse’s girth area, facing the head. [5] Using a treat, the handler encourages the horse to lower its head towards its knees or chest and hold the position for 10 – 15 seconds. [5] Increasing difficulty may include bringing the head between the knees or fetlocks. [5]

Extension Stretch

The handler faces the horse’s head and uses a treat to encourage the horse to stretch their head upwards for 10 – 15 seconds. [5] This stretch extends the neck muscles and stretches the opposite muscle groups from lateral and bowing stretches. [5]

Some horses may need a stall guard or other barrier to prevent forward movement during this stretch. [6]

Core Strengthening Exercises

These exercises specifically target the core muscles that maintain the horse’s posture, balance, and self-carriage. [6] Handlers trigger these stretches by applying pressure to specific points on the horse resulting in flexion of the muscles to move away from the pressure. [6]

Typically, handlers use their fingers to apply pressure and create a stretching response. [2] Some horses may require a stronger stimulus, such as the point of a hoof pick, in order to produce a stretch. [6]

Wither Lifts

The handler faces the horse’s shoulder and reaches down between the forelimbs to the horse’s sternum. [6] Apply upward pressure for around five seconds to encourage the horse to flex the muscles of their lower body to evade the pressure. [6]

Lateral Wither Lifts

The handler reaches under the horse, across to the opposite girth area, and applies gentle pressure moving towards the midline of the horse. [6] Horses respond by raising their withers in the opposite direction, towards the handler. [6]

Lumbosacral Lifts

These lifts focus on the lumbosacral area, the part of the horse’s spine in front of the pelvis and running through the pelvis. To perform a lumbosacral lift, the handler applies pressure on the midline above the tail head, or in the groove between the muscles of the hindquarters near the point of the buttock. [6]

These stretches stimulate the abdominal muscles to contract, lifting the lower back of the horse and tilting the pelvis downward. [6]

Pressure should be applied cautiously, as the goal is a smooth and slow flexion response rather than an abrupt response. [6]

Lateral Lumbosacral Lifts

The handler reaches across the top of the hindquarters and applies pressure to a point halfway between the point of the hip and the tail head. [6] By gradually increasing pressure at this point, the horse lifts the spine and bends the hindquarters away from the pressure. [6]

Handlers should ensure both sides of the horse are stretched equally. [6]

Limb Stretches

Limb stretches strengthen the muscles used for retraction (moving the limb backwards) and protraction (moving the limb forwards). [7]

These are active stretches, meaning that the horse leans into the stretch by actively engaging their muscles. [7]

Forelimb Retraction Stretch

To perform this stretch, the handler picks up a front leg and gently guides the knee backwards, so that the forearm is perpendicular to the ground. [7] Some horses benefit from holding the hoof close to the ground to encourage more muscle activation. [7] These stretches promote forelimb flexibility and muscle control. [7]

Hindlimb Retraction Stretch

The handler picks up a hind leg and guides the leg backwards, to encourage extension of the stifle and hock. [7] Moving the leg gently from a neutral position to maximum extension can help build muscle strength and improve coordination. [7]

Forelimb Protraction Stretch

To perform this stretch, the handler faces the horse’s chest and picks up one front leg. They gently bring the knee forwards, encouraging the horse to reach forward at the elbow. [7] The handler can then adjust their grip to lower on the limb, encouraging reaching forward in the knee and fetlock. [7]

As the horse becomes more flexible over time, the handler can increase difficulty by raising the hoof in three-inch increments to encourage even greater stretching. [7]

Hindlimb Protraction Stretch

For this stretch, the handler stands at the horse’s side, facing the same direction as the tail (looking away from the horse). Pick up the closest hind leg and gently bring the limb forwards, towards the horse’s head. [7]

Holding the toe of the hoof and applying gentle upwards pressure increases the difficulty of the stretch. [7] Over time, increasing the level of the hoof in three-inch increments can further challenge the horse. [7]

Clinical Use

Veterinarians and rehabilitation practitioners often recommend stretching exercises as part of a horse’s overall maintenance routine. [1] Stretching can counteract stiffness associated with overuse or prolonged exercise. [1]

Stretching exercises can also be included as part of a horse’s warm-up or cool-down routine to reduce the risk of muscle strain and injury during exercise. [1]

Other reasons veterinarians may recommend stretching include: [1]

  • Easing joint stress
  • Increasing joint range of motion
  • Correcting imbalances in the size or strength of muscles
  • Improving the horse’s natural posture
  • Promoting circulation
  • Improving balance and stability
  • Rehabilitating damaged muscle

Side Effects

There are few reported side effects of stretching in horses. [1] Appropriate stretching routines that encourage gradual, slow, and progressive stretching are considered safe for healthy horses under the guidance of a trained professional. [2]

Stretching should not be used in horses that have: [5]

  • Difficulty balancing
  • Uncoordinated movement
  • Consistent pain in an area or difficulty performing a specific stretch
  • A recent injury to the area

All horses should be evaluated by a veterinarian before incorporating stretching exercises into their routine. [5]

Summary

Stretching is a safe practice that you can incorporate into your horse’s training program to help improve flexibility, promote recovery, and reduce risk of injury.

  • Stretching may also improve performance and speed healing after injury in horses
  • Several stretching techniques are available for horses, primarily focusing on the neck, back, and limbs
  • Stretching is safe to perform on healthy horses under the guidance of a trained professional
  • Stretching routines should be slow and progress gradually over time

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References

  1. Frick. A., Stretching Exercises for Horses: Are They Effective?. Journal of Equine Veterinary Science. 2010. doi: 10.1016/j.jevs.2009.12.001.
  2. Clayton. H. M., Stretches for Healthy Horses. theHorse.com, 2012. Accessed: Feb. 19, 2024. [Online].
  3. Thacker. S. B. et al., The Impact of Stretching on Sports Injury Risk: A Systematic Review of the Literature:. Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise. 2004. doi: 10.1249/01.MSS.0000117134.83018.F7.
  4. Shrier. I., Does Stretching Improve Performance?: A Systematic and Critical Review of the Literature. Clinical Journal of Sport Medicine. 2004. doi: 10.1097/00042752-200409000-00004.
  5. Equine Carrot Stretches. University of Tennessee College of Veterinary Medicine, Jul. 30, 2021. Accessed: Feb. 19, 2024. [Online].
  6. Clayton. H. M., Core Training and Rehabilitation in Horses. Veterinary Clinics of North America: Equine Practice. 2016. doi: 10.1016/j.cveq.2015.12.009.
  7. Haussler. K. K., Equine Manual Therapies in Sport Horse Practice. Veterinary Clinics of North America: Equine Practice. 2018. doi: 10.1016/j.cveq.2018.04.005.
  8. Atalaia. T. et al., Equine Rehabilitation: A Scoping Review of the Literature. Animals. 2021. doi: 10.3390/ani11061508.
  9. Stubbs. N. C. et al., Dynamic Mobilisation Exercises Increase Cross Sectional Area of Musculus Multifidus. Equine Veterinary Journal. 2011. doi: 10.1111/j.2042-3306.2010.00322.x.
  10. Farinelli. F. et al., Influence of Stretching Exercises, Warm-Up, or Cool-Down on the Physical Performance of Mangalarga Marchador Horses. Journal of Equine Veterinary Science. 2021. doi: 10.1016/j.jevs.2021.103714.
  11. Rose. N. S. et al., Effects of a Stretching Regime on Stride Length and Range of Motion in Equine Trot. The Veterinary Journal. 2009. doi: 10.1016/j.tvjl.2009.03.010.
  12. Holcombe. S. J. et al., The Effect of Core Abdominal Muscle Rehabilitation Exercises on Return to Training and Performance in Horses After Colic Surgery. Journal of Equine Veterinary Science. 2019. doi: 10.1016/j.jevs.2019.01.001.