If you think of your horse as an athlete, then the idea of a good stretching routine makes sense. Stretching a horse is helpful for you and the animal on a couple of levels regardless of the amount or intensity of activity.
"Stretching can maintain and improve the horse’s range of motion and flexibility," said Dr. Michelle Krusing, an equine veterinarian in Madison.
And it helps you as a horse owner or rider to be aware of changes in your horse.
Think about safety before doing anything, however. Not every horse likes being handled especially if they’re not used to it. Be aware of your animal and your body position to avoid being kicked or bitten and to not strain yourself when performing the stretches, she said. It’s best to work with a trained veterinarian before trying equine stretches on your own.
"Usually I teach people how to do some of these stretch exercises as part of a therapy program for the horse," she said. "But routinely handling a horse this way can often help you find something that’s not right early so you can address the problem before it becomes a big issue."
Krusing said each person will develop individual twists to the process but she bases her techniques on knowledge of the structural features of the horse and how the animal is used. There are some breed differences and differences between what race horses may need, compared to what older pasture horses may require.
Some of the basic equine stretches include stretches to the forelegs and rear legs, side-to-side and between the front legs neck stretches known as "carrot stretches," a "belly lift" to stretch the back and finally a tail pull also for the back.. There are more stretches but you may not use all of them anyway.
The neck stretches involve encouraging the horse to reach its head around and touch its withers on each side. Krusing said. It’s good to have the animal try to reach toward lower and higher points each time to for improved range of motion. Stretches having the horse reach down between its front legs rounds out the neck stretch set. A treat is used to make the horse reach and stretch its neck hence the term "carrot stretches."
“These stretches are based on motions a horse should do naturally," Krusing said. "But not all horses have the same opportunities for stretching motions if they’re kept in a stall or used in certain ways."
Leg stretches involve gentle lifts and pulls of the front and rear legs. "The leg stretches may not look like much," Krusing said. "But that’s not to say the stretches aren’t beneficial. It stretches the shoulders and all the soft muscle tissues in the rear."
A "belly lift" is really a stretch for the back. You reach under the horse’s belly and rub or scratch so the animal humps up. The humping up motion stretches all the top line muscles. Another stretch for the back is pulling the horse’s tail. You hold the tail and gently pull back until you feel the horse rock forward.
"You better know your horse and know what you’re doing before you go pulling its tail," Krusing cautions.
The benefits of stretches are numerous and include: improved suppleness, better flexibility, enhanced length of stride, stimulates circulation, help improve muscle tone, and can help develop trust between horse and human.
"Before you start doing anything like this I encourage people to get some training and help. You should know your horse well and make sure it’s warmed up before doing any stretches," Krusing said.