Written by: Donna Marie West
As long as your horse doesn’t have any kind of illness or injury, chances are he can benefit from stretching.
Stretching is believed to increase blood circulation, and improve coordination and muscle tone. It relaxes muscles and makes ligaments, tendons and joints more supple, and, depending on the studies you read, improves your horse’s movement and reduces risk of injury.*
On the ground:
Before you begin, warm your horse (and yourself) up by walking him in hand for a few minutes. Wear sturdy shoes and gloves. Work in a calm, secure area. Have a knowledgeable person hold your horse on a lead rope. Never put yourself in a dangerous position (for example, between your horse and the wall). Lastly, take your time – this is a learning experience for you as well as your horse.
1) Front leg stretches:
Standing in front of your horse, grasp his left pastern with both hands. Gently pull the leg forward and downward. Hold for five seconds, and slowly release. Next, bend the leg at the knee as you move to your horse’s side. Extend the lower leg down and gently press on the knee to stretch the leg back and down toward the hind foot. Hold for five seconds and slowly release. Repeat with the right leg.
2) Hind leg stretches:
Pick up your horse’s left hind leg as if you’re going to pick out his hoof. Grasp his pastern with both hands. Gently stretch the leg forward and downward toward the heel of the front foot. Hold for five seconds and slowly release. Keeping your horse’s leg close to his body, move to his rear, facing his hindquarters. Hold his pastern in both hands, and gently stretch the leg out behind him. (Be careful to stay slightly to the side of your horse’s foot, and don’t do this movement if he tends to kick. Remember, safety first!) Repeat with the right leg.
3) Tail stretches:
Standing to one side of your horse’s hindquarters, place your hand (left hand if you’re on his left side) on his croup. With your other hand, grasp his tail about 15 cm from the top. Lift and flex it slowly to the left and the right. Next, move behind your horse. Hold his tail with both hands about 15 cm from the top and gradually pull straight out, increasing the weight of your pull and encouraging your horse to lean forward against you. Hold for five seconds, then slowly release the pressure until your horse balances himself again.
4) Stretching the neck:
Encourage your horse to stretch his neck forward and downward by showing him a treat and having him follow your hand until his nose is in front of his knees. Once he understands, do this without the treat by placing one hand on his chin and the other on his poll. Gently press down on the poll while lifting the chin toward you, bending your knees to follow his head down.
5) Bending the neck:
Stand just behind your horse’s left elbow. Encourage him to bring his head around by showing him a treat, or by pulling gently on his halter. Keep him in this position for five seconds, then allow him to straighten up. Repeat on the right side. (Don’t forget to give him his treat when you’re done!)
1) Stretching long and low:
At the halt, encourage your horse to reach for the bit by squeezing the reins with your fingers and applying light pressure with your legs. Allow your hands to move forward, maintaining a light contact on his mouth as you follow his head down. If your horse doesn’t respond, try squeezing the reins alternately (left – right – left). Once he gets it, you can do this for a few strides at the walk, trot / jog, and canter / lope, too.
2) Bending the neck:
At the halt, do an opening left rein. Bend your elbow and slowly bring your hand back toward your thigh, encouraging your horse to follow by bending his neck. If he’s reluctant, try a little give-and-take on the left rein. Repeat with the right rein / right bend.
3) Spiralling on the circle:
At the walk, ride a 20-metre circle, bending your horse as you normally would. Gradually make the circle smaller, increasing the bend through your horse’s neck and body with an opening inside rein, your inside leg at the girth and your outside leg behind the girth. After 3 or 4 decreasing circles, gradually make the circle larger again by applying more inside leg and decreasing the bend through your horse’s neck and body. Depending on your horse’s abilities and training, you can do this exercise at the trot / jog and canter / lope as well.
4) Leg yielding:
Ask your horse to move diagonally sideways on two tracks, with his inside legs passing and crossing in front of his outside legs. He should bend slightly at the poll away from the direction he is moving. Teach your horse to leg yield by leaving the short side of the arena 1 – 2 metres before the corner, straightening him up on the quarter line, and pushing him out toward the track while remaining parallel to the wall. Use your inside leg at or just behind the girth, your outside leg at the girth, your inside opening rein, and your outside direct rein. In all exercises, pay attention to your horse! Extreme stiffness or resistance could indicate an underlying problem such as arthritis or an undetected injury. In such a case, speak to your veterinarian.
* Recent research has found that daily stretching exercises may actually be detrimental to your horse’s range of movement. Stretching therefore should not be done more than once or twice a week, and only when the muscles are warm. At the very least, it can be a pleasant way to bond with your horse, make him more supple under saddle, and get him (especially if he is a youngster) accustomed to all kinds of handling, such as standing for the farrier.