Just as it is beneficial for us as humans to stretch, the practice is also helpful for our horses. Stretches increase range of motion, they reduce tension and resistance in the muscles, and they can also help build up correct muscling. When done correctly and consistently, stretches yield improvement in approximately three months. It’s a great idea to develop a stretching routine with your horse that you can practice on a regular basis.
There are a variety of simple stretches that you can do with your horse. The first one is a “belly lift,” where you run your finger along the midline under the horse’s belly. This encourages them to lift their back, which engages their core muscles. It also helps to activate the muscles in a horse’s abs and topline.
“Carrot stretches” are another great suppling exercise. This stretch works on the horse’s neck and lateral flexion. It is most commonly done with a carrot, hence the name, but can be done with any sort of treat. You use the treat to gradually encourage the horse to stretch around with their neck towards their belly and their hip. This stretch should always be done on both sides of the neck.
Lastly, you can stretch out the horse’s front and hind limbs. These stretches in particular are great for loosening the horse and have the potential to lengthen their stride as well. With the front limbs, you ask the horse to pick up their leg as if you were going to pick out their feet, then slowly guide the leg out in front of them. You never want to pull hard, just gently hold until you feel the horse start to lean into the stretch. This is also a great way to teach your horse how to stand quietly with their foot on a stand for the farrier. You can also do a similar stretch with the back legs, by asking the horse to pick up their hind leg like you were going to pick out their feet, and then gently guiding the leg down and back. Again, these two stretches should be done on both sides of the horse and are great for stretching the muscles in the limbs, shoulders and hind end.
Similar to the belly lift, you can also encourage a horse to tilt their pelvis. This is done by either simultaneously running your fingers down either side of your horse’s backside, or up towards their tail. This encourages them to lift and tilt their pelvis which is also very beneficial for their back and hind end.
Stretching can be a fantastic tool, but remember to begin slowly and never push your horse past their point of comfort. Your horse may be stiff or nervous at first, so start gradually and slowly increase the range of motion as your horse gets stronger and more supple. It’s also a good idea to have someone hold your horse the first few times you work on stretching, to ensure everyone’s safety and comfort.
Stretching is not only beneficial for the horse, but can be something fun and different for horse and rider to practice together. We love to use stretching in combination with bodywork to help our horses look, feel, and perform the best they can.