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Stretching Exercises & Why it can Help & Improve Performance

Updated: Apr 8, 2022

  • Why?

  • When?

  • How?

As humans before running or going to the gym or doing a class of yoga or Zumba we generally start with a body, muscle warm up so that we can perform better and not end up with an injury or a pulled muscle.

‘So why not our Horses?’

Stretching is Free!

We do not warm our horses up enough before and after we ride.

They might have been in the stable or stood in a field shelter overnight & we get them out in the morning and off we go for a hack or a lesson or a schooling session without a warmup stretch first, it only takes 5 minutes to do a simple stretching routine.

It can be incorporated with the grooming routine that can benefit your horse and improve its ability to perform to a better standard.

Horses can become tight, stiff, sore and strained and even develop tears in fascia and muscle, therefore Stretching the muscles is an important part of maintaining muscle health and can help stop injuries from occurring due to lack of warm up.

By putting our horses through some stretches we can increase range of movement and therefore enable the horse to perform in a more fluid manner to the best of its ability.

The benefits obtained by safely and effectively stretching a horse' s muscles are:

  • Improves flexibility and range of motion (ROM) thereby enabling the horse to perform to the best of their ability.

  • Helps prevent injury by strengthening supportive tissue and helping to guard against muscle tightness and tendon shortening.

  • Reduces post-exercise soreness, stiffness and muscle fatigue.

  • Improves disposition/behaviour by relaxing the horse.

  • Helps provide early warning signs of a potential injury and can aid in injury rehabilitation.

  • Enhances body awareness (proprioception)

  • Helps Increase Circulation.

  • Improves Co- ordination.

  • Building Core Stability and Strength.

Why Does Stretching Help

Skeletal muscles are made up of several muscle bundles, which in turn are made up of muscle fibres. Muscle fibre have bundles of myofibrils, which are rod-like structures that run parallel to one another.

Muscle is covered by fascia, a fibrous tissue, to which other muscles can attach. Muscles attach to bone via tendons. When a muscle is overused or underused, it responds by shrinking or tightening which can cause stiffness.

Stiffness can result in injury, leading to inactivity, and eventually speed up the aging of the musculoskeletal system.

To remain supple, the connective tissue and muscles need regular stretching. Stretching helps resist the gradual shortening and tightening of tissue that otherwise sets in from both under use and overuse, reducing discomfort and slowing the progressive loss of capacity that accompanies tightening.

Tendons are less elastic than muscles and therefore are dependent on the elasticity of the body of the muscle itself which is another good reason for keeping muscles in good condition.

Proprioception (the body’s spatial awareness), co-ordination and balance are all vital to good performance.

If improvements are made to flexibility, suppleness & range of movement, response & reflex time - the speed of movement is increased resulting in better coordination.

Stretching also improves the circulation of the blood and lymphatic fluids allowing more oxygen and nutrients to the muscles and for the toxin by products to be removed more efficiently which is important in preventing fatigue and reducing recovery times.

As awareness increases of how the horse moves and responds, notice of other benefits of stretching will become clear. Example - Is he short striding, does he seem particularly stiff or resistant on one side? Early detection of issues like these can help prevent bigger problems in the future.

A regular stretching routine is the best preventive advantage you can give your horse. By increasing his suppleness and elasticity, you can greatly reduce the risk of pulled muscles or tendons. Improvement in circulation and relieve pain, inflammation, and muscle spasms.

If muscles aren't being used properly, they shorten and contract. If this continues for some time, the tendons and ligaments will start pulling on the bones of the joints. Stretching lengthens contracted muscles and extends them to their proper position, relieving pain by taking the stress off the joint.

When to stretch your horse.

  • Stretching benefits your horse the most when they are warm.

  • Stretching can be part of your pre-ride warm up, however it is better to stretch warmed-up muscle tissue.

  • Walking or lunging your horse lightly are great muscle-warmers. You can also massage the muscles using effleurage strokes, or friction maybe with a brush or a rubber curry comb as you are doing your grooming routine to warm up the muscles.

  • Stretching after a ride as part of your cool-down is probably the most beneficial because your horse's entire body is already warm.

  • Stretching after a ride will increase circulation, promote relaxation, and cut down on muscle contracture from intense work.

  • Importantly, making sure that the muscles you're stretching are warm helps to limit the risk of injury from over-stretching.

Before Stretching your

  • All stretches should be performed on warm muscles.

  • Stretching cold muscles can cause tears, strains and other injuries and issues.

  • Stretching should not be used if your horse is injured, or experiencing any degree of lameness, have him looked at by a veterinarian before attempting any stretches and ask the advice of a Body worker.

  • As well, certain stretches should be avoided depending on the severity of an injury. An example is during recovery from ligament damage. When a ligament is insulted, scar tissue is encouraged so the area can regain some strength. When you stretch that area, the scar tissue weakens, defeating its purpose. Conversely, when muscles or tendons tear, the range of motion in that area is often decreased, and stretching these tissues allows the fibres to realign and regain most if not all their initial range of motion.

What to do?

Passive Stretches performed by the handler – the horse needs to be relaxed and confident to perform these stretches.

Using something like a carrot baton or nuggets/hay cobs are easy to hold, and the horse will want to stretch to them.

It is very important that as the handler you are watching for any responses from the horse either positive + or negative - to a stretch and use this as a guide to what you can and cannot do and how far you can take each stretch.

Do not rush the stretches and they need to be done in a calm and controlled manner to prevent the horse becoming upset so take your time and take a deep breath with the horse.

If you are confident in what you are doing so will the horse. Make sure that the stretches are done properly, Not over stretching and Not under stretching, No cheating from the horse as Proper stretching is critical for the horse to gain the maximum benefit of the stretch.

Most stretches can be performed up to 5 days a week on a healthy horse. The frequency and type of stretches that are appropriate for a horse recovering from an injury can vary greatly.

It is good to talk with the Vet and Body worker about the routine of stretches.

The duration of the stretch will vary depending on many factors such as muscle tightness, prior injury, conformation, and nutrition level. Generally, start with a 5-10 second hold time and gradually increase to 30 seconds.

Make sure your hands are supporting the stretch but never push or pull on the joints or pressing on a joint.

Breathing deeply and relaxing your hands as much as possible and being confident in what you are doing will help the horse gain the maximum benefit of the stretch.

Never proceed with a stretch if discomfort or pain is noted.

For the horse, the obvious benefit of going for the stretch is the carrot, but as they work through the routine, they will start to feel better.

Stretching for the horse offers both visible and invisible benefits and if the routine is done in the same way each time the horse will get used to what to do and become better at doing the techniques and actually want to do them (for the carrots)

Some of the commonly used stretches are:

  • Neck stretches - lateral, flexion, extension

  • Foreleg stretches - shoulder extension, shoulder flexion, fetlock stretch, shoulder rotation

  • Hind leg stretches - hip extension, hip flexion, hamstring stretch

  • Back muscle stretches - back stretch, tail stretch

  • For all Stretch techniques please speak to your vet or body worker about what type of Stretches you should be attempting to do with your horse. Practice & Patience makes Perfect.

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