Every good athlete knows the benefits of an effective regular stretching routine.  But what about your performance horse?  Horses are athletes, too, and according to new research, they need that stretching just as much as their human counterparts do.

According to Ava Frick, DVM, CAC, veterinary medical director at the Animal Fitness Center in Uion, Mo., proper stretching can increase flexibility and range of motion (ROM), relieve certain kinds of joint and muscle pain, improve performance, and help prevent injuries.  Muscles and connective tissue naturally tend to stiffen if they are overused or underused, Frick said. "Stiffness can result in injury, lead to inactivity, and eventually speed up the aging process of the musculoskeletal system. To remain supple, the connective tissue and muscles need regular stretching."  Stretching also provides a pain-relieving effect, which might be due to an increased pain threshold or simply because the muscle becomes stronger. Through a regular stretching program, muscles become stronger and thus able to absorb more energy, which also reduces injury. "The more energy muscle can absorb, the more resistant the muscle is to injury," Frick said.

Despite the benefits of a regular stretching routine, unfortunately our horses will not stretch on command, so it is up to us, the handlers, to help out.   According to Mary Schreiber, founder of Equissage, the ideal time to perform stretching exercises is after a workout, or after a massage when the muscles have been thoroughly warmed.  Schreiber warns that cold muscles should never be stretched.

Before you venture into the barn and start yanking on your horse's limps, be aware that overstretching can cause injury.  If the horse reacts as if there is pain, you may be stretching that muscle a bit too far.  Hamstrings in particular are very prone to injury through overstretching.  So, before  the few stretching exercises are described,  it is important to review a few points.

  1. Never stretch beyond the normal range of motion.
  2. Never wear rings, especially if the horse is shod.  Put on those gloves before going to work.
  3. Never stretch on slippery footing.
  4. Yes, it is okay to do a partial or modified stretch
  5. Only stretch if you feel safe and comfortable, and
  6. Be very careful especially when stretching the hind legs as this can be somewhat resistant for the horse.

The Stretching Sequence:

Pull the foreleg backward.  When the horse resists, release the tension.  This exercise should be done three times with each time increasing the range of motion.

Elevate the shoulder by rotating up and back and up and forward.

For the girth stretch, pull the leg forward for a total of three times.  Again, when the horse resists, release the tension each time and then increase the range of motion.

The full extension may be a bit difficult so, when the horse resists, release and return the hoof to the ground.

One common stretching exercise is the Forward Pull-Hind Limb Protraction or the Hind Leg Stretch, in which the handler holds the hind leg just above the pastern and gently pulls forward. This flexes the hip and extends the hamstring while engaging the lower back.

The Quadriceps Extension-Hind Limb Retraction exercise also results in an extension of the hip area by working the quadriceps group of muscles. The handler holds the back leg at the pastern and just above the hock, pulling directly backwards. This also causes the lower back to flex.

Regardless of the exercise, handlers need to remember that the goal is not to stretch as far as you can but to lengthen out the tissues and "put just a little healthy tension on them."  Never ever force the issue and never stretch a cold muscle.  By reading the techniques and/or obtaining some training, any owner can help their equine athletes benefit from the many advantages of stretching.

If you would like to read more on the study, " Stretching Exercises for Horses: Are They Effective?" it can be found in the January 2010 edition of the Journal of Equine Veterinary Science (abstract) and provides the scientific background for Frick's book, Fitness in Motion (2008, The Lyons Press).  As well, there are many good books available to you describing the stretching sequences for your horse.

Good luck and happy stretching  🙂

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