You’re no doubt familiar with the old adage, “dangle a carrot” which means to tease or tempt someone into doing something they might not necessary want to do. Yes, we mean a bribe! And when it comes to our equine partners, a little food bribe can go a long way.
But have you considered using your horse’s favorite snack to help increase her or his range of motion (ROM)? ‘Carrot stretches’ can improve ROM and suppleness through the neck and back (which can reduce potential for injury) by stretching tight muscles. Dr. Ali Miletic, a Canadian who attended veterinary school at University College Dublin in Dublin, is currently with Orillia and District Veterinary Services. Dr. Miletic tells me that these simple exercises can improve balance and proprioception (sense of self-movement and body position) and be used for rehabilitation of musculoskeletal injury when directed by a veterinarian.
“Carrot stretches target muscles involved in stabilization of cervical vertebra, parts of the trapezius muscle, and depending on the range of motion the horse has, it can activate the abdominal and back muscles as the barrel bends,” explains Dr. Miletic. “All of these are helpful when riding because it allows the horse to become more supple and more comfortable (therefore more willing) under saddle. Improving proprioception is beneficial in so many ways, including more awareness over fences, improving hoof-eye coordination and improvement in flatwork exercise performance.”
She also cautions that similar to when we stretch, equine stretches should be done when muscles are warm, so after exercise is better than before. “If you are unable to exercise your horse a five- to ten-minute hand walk should warm muscles up enough to complete these exercises without risking injury,” she adds.
If you’re starting out with carrot stretches, Dr. Miletic also recommends performing each stretch 1-2 times, just holding for 5 or so seconds if possible. As the horse’s ROM improves and he becomes more accustomed to the exercises, number and duration of stretch holds can increase gradually. “You can also tell when the horse is getting tired if you start to notice that poll tip, rather than the head staying vertical,” Dr. Miletic explains. “This is a good indication that you should stop and do the exercises again next time.”