Stretching is an important part of any athlete’s life. Heck, it’s important in everyday regular life. I know that all of you never get on your horse without first limbering up and stretching out any tension and tightness in your body, knowing full well that that would automatically be translated to the horse, just as I know that all of you never begin working your horse without fully stretching him/her out as well. *wink* But, on the off chance…here’s a review of some basic equine stretches.
I believe this is the single most important and effective stretch for horses. It simulates what you want to happen under saddle with engagement and takes only a few seconds. I do it on horses whether they are in work or not, and I do it several times a day; feedings, before exercise, after exercise, when turning out or bringing in.
The stretch can be down with your fingertips, but is easier with a hoof pick, end of a pen (NOT ink end), pen cap or needle casing. Find the mid-line of your horse (there’s a natural indent along your horse’s midline) just in front of where a girth would sit.
With the tips of your fingers – use both hands – (or with your apparatus – one hand) gently press up. The horse should immediately react by lifting the wither slightly. If the horse does not, then a) you’re not pressing upwards firmly enough, so press harder until he/she does react, and/or b) you’re pressing plenty hard enough, but your horse is so tight through the wither that he/she is locked down – do some wither massage to loosen, then try again.
Now slowly drag your fingers (or apparatus) along the midline maintaining the upward pressure. As you do so you should see your horse’s back rise. When you’re about ¾’s of the way down the midline, stop and hold the upward pressure for a count of 10-15 seconds.
What you have done is trigger the abdominal muscles as would happen with a horse that has engaged to a high degree, and stretched the topline. Here’s a snapshot of this horse’s back before the lift and after the lift:
The horse will hold this stretch for a few seconds after you stop, but as you repeat this stretch over several weeks you’ll notice that the horse holds it for longer periods of time and eventually the horse’s posture will change permanently. If your groundwork and riding are complementary, as in they are correct and also encouraging engagement, then you can quite quickly change the horse’s posture using this stretch in conjunction with exercise.
When checking saddle fit, you should also do a ‘soft’ belly lift and make sure that the back of the saddle doesn’t lift off the horse, if the saddle lifts off the horse’s back, then your saddle does not fit because it does not provide room for your horse to lift its back into it while being ridden. What you’ve got is a saddle that fits a hollow-backed horse and will press down, triggering the back muscles to stay in a contracted state when ridden. A horse cannot engage its haunch if its back muscles are triggered in perpetual contraction.
If a horse is tight anywhere through the length of its back, you can expect reactions from ear pinning to tail swishing to teeth gnashing. These reactions should lessen as your horse’s back loosens. More violent reactions such as swinging the head around to try and bite you or cow kicking are a sure sign your horse is in significant pain that requires immediate further investigation.
Once the horse is supple in its back to easily do this stretch, and its posture improves, you’ll start to notice that when you begin in front of the girth that not only does the wither easily lift, but you’ll also start getting lift in the base of the neck. Bringing the stretch more between the front legs will encourage the base of neck.
This is another topline stretch, only deeper and more complete. Make sure that your horse can freely walk forward a step or two. If you have a holder make sure the holder is standing to the side of the horse, and if the horse is crosstied, that there is plenty of length to the crossties.
Again you can use the tips of your fingers or one of the objects I listed earlier. Place your fingertips or instrument about two inches on either side of the sacrum and press moderately firmly down and then begin to drag down the line of the horse’s haunch and down the hamstrings, while continuing to press.
Some horses are particularly sensitive to this stretch and will literally ‘sit down’ on their haunches; others will tuck their pelvis and walk forward.
Note: Horses that are very sore through their pelvis have been known to double barrel kick when this stretch is applied. *raises hand* Been there, done that. Fortunately, this stretch puts the horse’s momentum forward and the stretcher’s momentum backward. If your horse was particularly cranky and cowkicking during the belly lift, I highly recommend NOT doing the butt scrunch, until you’ve found out and addressed the issue that your horse possesses.
Hind Leg Forward
For this stretch you need to cup your hands and then scoop up your horse’s hind leg at the back of the pastern, lift the leg and then gently ‘guide’ the foot forward toward the outside of the horse’s knee. Most horses should be able to stretch to a point where the hind foot is directly beside the knee. Over angulated horses can often get beyond the knee, while post-legged horses typically can only get to the back of the knee.
The lower you hold the foot to the ground, the easier the stretch for the horse. This is where I suggest you start. As the horse gets more stretched through the tendenosis muscles and hamstrings, you can then raise the foot a bit. Massaging the back of the haunch and hamstrings prior to the stretch will help increase the stretch.
Note: DO NOT PULL! Guide the foot forward, SLOWLY. Do not ‘bounce’ the stretch. Keep the leg straight, as in on the same angle as the stifle angle. This angle generally has the hind foot just to the outside of the corresponding knee, but some horses have a little less stifle angle and some have a bit more.
Using a towel is easier if you have a bad back, but you don’t get the same ‘feel’ as if you use your hands.
Hind Leg Back
With your outside hand, grab the front of the horse’s pastern and place your inside hand gently on the top of the horse’s hock. The hand holding the horse’s pastern ‘guides’ the horse’s leg back. The hand on the hock is only there to prevent you from getting smacked in the mouth or face by the hock if the horse jerks its leg.
Again, the lower the foot is to the ground, the easier the stretch is for the horse, so start low. Also, make sure to bring the leg back straight from the hip, not pulling it to the side. Once you’ve stretched the leg to a certain point, some horses will finish the stretch for you and fully extend the leg out. If that happens, awesome!
Note: DO NOT PULL! DO NOT PUSH DOWN ON THE HOCK! Gently and slowly guide the foot back. Do not ‘bounce’ the stretch.
Part 2 of this series with cover front leg stretches.
Great pictures! Now this is something I can use. I have stretched a horses legs before but I did not know about doing the back and the rump. Thanks for this post!
Part of my routine on the advice of the chiro and massage therapist.
Just want to add that I have followed the blog from the beginning and have learned a great deal and enjoy reading every post and comment. Thank you for taking the huge amount of time it must take to write and management this blog.
Thank you for your support and kind words. But mostly, it’s good to hear that the blog has been helpful.
My trainer was just showing me some of this stuff today. Very timely!
Here is where my ignorance really shows. I am of the mindset that allowing my horse a good roll will keep him aligned and limber. When I started seeing people doing these stretches I thought they were nuts. I’ve tried a few of these, and have not noticed any changes in my horse, but he’s a pretty old guy. I will try some more and report. Thanks!
When a horse rolls they can indeed adjust themselves, in OR out. Just like people who move and suddenly there’s a pinched nerve. That happens to horses too. Just a few weeks ago I got up from the couch, stretched my arms and put my whole upper back out. Within a few minutes I could barely move as the muscles curled up into a nice, tight ball.
OK, with the hoof pick I actually got a slight lift! I’ve always thought that you had to use your fingers. Will continue this gradually. Thanks again.
You should be able to do it with your fingers, but a lot of horses are too tight through their backs for your fingers to be able to force the abdominal contraction that will force the topline release.
Once a horse is loose in their back, as they should be, you’ll be able to do the stretch with the fingers.
My long-backed boy lifted extensively with fingertip pressure at the girth area and stayed lifted for a short time. This after a long day in the saddle yesterday so it’s comforting to know his back is loose after hard work. I want to make this part of the daily feeding routine. I get zero reaction to the butt scrunch…he just keeps munching hay. I may need to arm myself with tools and try it again.
Ideally, at the end of a ride the horse’s back should be ‘up’ – from having been ridden with engagement. Now, if it’s been a long day of riding then there may be some muscle exhaustion. That he could easily lift it suggests that at least he was supple. Perhaps, though, he doesn’t yet have the abdominal (and other muscle) strength.
I did the lifts the day after. The horse seems perfectly fine…the owner, not so much.
Belly stretches are usually part of grooming, the rest after. I do however do some active type ground exercises before mounting asking the horse to soften, lower head and back which stretches the top line and engages croup, walk forward step up and under to stretch both for length of stride and adductor/abductor. Plus as most of mine get to stay on pasture 24/7, they stay more limber than horses that are stalled several hours.
The exception is Fire who has developed some pasture related allergy issues and has more limited time out. Nevertheless, Saturday I put him out in a paddock with the younger horse (20 vs 5 year old), Fire can still out sprint Rascal. He clearly has benefited from both the massage and dressage as you see him really use himself, gathers up, sits back on haunches and launches himself into a dead run in a way the younger untrained horse can’t match. In a longer race, the young guy would win, but a sprint down the paddock, he’s left too far behind at the start.
Tried it today after my ride. Got an even better lift.
It should get better as they learn what’s expected and become accustomed to doing it, and of course become more flexible. The stretch is then a baseline guide for you and you’ll know if your horse is getting a bit tight in their back, if one day out of the blue the stretch irritates them (tail swish, ear pin, head swings around) or they don’t stretch as well. Or conversely, if the horse normally reacts negatively and then they begin not to, then you know that whatever was causing irritation is diminishing.
This is another point of reference for knowing your horse and paying attention to subtle nuances with the possibility of improving their health or heading off unsoundness.
J – I can so relate on the handiness factor. It’s pretty funny to see an oldster basically run circles around a gangly youngster…I can almost see them saying…’where’d they gooooo?’. I love seeing the change in some of them as they learn something new under saddle and then use it on their own – especially rollbacks. The bouncing front stop is replaced by that deep-hocked about face and off the go.
I think adding stretches to the before and after is a great idea. I see so many people get on their horses and go right to trotting and cantering after just yanking the horse out of a stall. Bad idea. The stall life and the lack of warmup. I like to move every body part before I break out of a walk – stretch the neck, head, move the shoulders, hips…just a few steps, release, repeat in both directions. To me, it’s just common sense to start slowly and build as we go.
Rascal is showing improvement, the step back, then turn around is there, but the total engagement as he does it, not there. I did watch one day as Fire put him in his place by cutting him on the short side of the arena, kept him pinned until he turned around put his foot on the gate and begged me to come save him. However, when I put him back out to pasture, he went over to one of the geldings he plays with and proceeded to cut him along the pasture fence. Rascal learns, he just doesn’t like to do things because he was told to.
Stretching and massage both release endorphins – the happy hormone that makes us go ahhh. Horses can lock up just like we do – I’m the queen of carrying stress in my shoulders and it can certainly ruin a day or week with muscles like rocks. Stretching always helps me feel a bit better.
I use these stretches on a regular basis (though it’s nice to see I’m doing them right ;)), but I usually stretch after a workout as I have always been taught that stretching cold muscles can cause micro tears and create soreness. Thoughts?
Does an athlete stretch after they exercise? Yes, of course, but they also stretch prior to exercise. An athlete would never perform without first stretching. Yes, you can cause tears and such if you’re not careful with stretching before or after a workout. Prudence always.
“An athlete would never perform without stretching” – not accurate. The conventional wisdom on stretching with human athletes keeps changing. Static stretching before exercise is more or less out of favour now for human athletes. Athletes always warm up, of course, but the recommendation is now to limit stretching prior to exercise and do it after. I have no idea how the research into human atheletes translates to horses, though.
Keywords – more or less out of favor. Meaning, wait for yet another study and it’ll be back in favor.
I’ve never seen an ‘athlete’ not stretch before exercise. You’ll see it if you arrive at the hockey game early. You’ll see it if you arrive early at the football game. You’ll see it if you arrive early at the baseball game. You’ll see it prior to a runner running a race. You’ll see it before the gun goes off for a swimming race. You’ll do it in yoga class, in step class, before your weight lifting circuit, etc., etc., etc…
If you take the time to do some gentle stretching before you get on your horse, you’ll not be able to help but notice how that helps you as a rider.
What do you think warm up rings at horse shows are for? They are for stretching. Manually stretching the horse is a way to target specific muscles. It’s also a way to gauge development, unevenness and range of motion.
Stretch after exercise as well? Of course! That’s called cooling down.
I’m disapointed, Mercedes, you are the last person I expected would use “everyone is doing it” as evidence that something is right. “Stretch before exercise” was conventional wisdom for years, so it is widespread, but there is growing evidence that this conventional wisdom was wrong, and many serious athletes no longer stretch before exercise, but only after (as Stephanie posted that she had been taught). I truly do not know how research into humans translates to horses, but I do not find “I see lots of people doing it” a satisfactory answer.
Not just everyone, more accurately the most knowledgeable, most talented trainers on the planet. People who have spent their life preparing athletes and maintaining athletes. You want me to believe that those in the NFL, NBA, NHL, Olympic athletes et al… are full of crap having their athletes stretch before workouts and performances?
Try and keep things in perspective. Warm up is incredibly important before exercise and stretching can be a valuable part of that warm up. That’s common sense and common knowledge. Don’t need a study to prove that.
A person should warm up before they get on a horse to loosen up and release tension that, not might, but will interfere with the ride. A rider who stretches out their calves, does a few lunges, torso twists, shoulder and head rolls, jumping jacks, blah, blah, blah isn’t going to do themselves any damage and WILL start the ride off better. Never mind the fact it’s an excellent time to assess one’s body.
Why you’d think it might be different for a horse, I don’t know. Their muscles are made just like ours and behave in the same way. Horses need to be warmed up before exercise and cooled down after exercise and when that’s not done, there’s a price the horse pays. A horse that is groomed to stimulate blood flow, stretched, and walked a bit is then ready to be ridden. And again, it’s a perfect time to access the horse’s body and identify issues before they become more serious.
Whether you stretch the horse before or after exercise (or both) care must be taken, but it’s patently false to say that it should only be done after exercise.
jrga’s post and links are in keeping with what I’m talking about. I actually found the NY Times article interesting because I’ve never been told to hold stretches for extended periods of time, ever. Nor have I ever suggested that. And she brings up other points of stalled horses versus pasture-kept horses, and talked about ‘weekend warriors’. Those are all valid points and will affect (should affect) the horse’s management system.
I am saying that many Olympic athletes do not stretch before training anymore as this is no longer considered best practice. They warm up, yes, but not stretching, not until after hard training. I attended a university that is a training centre for Olympic athletes. Still go there to get chiro and massage from sports professionals. Have lots of opportunities to see the training. I do not dispute that warm up is essential, for horses or humans. I dispute whether warm up should include static stretching. It is very possible that you and I are including different things within the term “stretching” and are in more agreement than it appears.
Well for sure it’s a controversial matter.
The general concensus of research is that stretching before or after exercising does not protect from muscle soreness or injury at all.
And there’s quite a bit of research done (albeit on people) that suggests it could well be detrimental
I actually adopt the principle of “light warm up”… for me and my equine athletes.
the research was about a specific kind of stretching, and specific kinds of performances. Scientific research studies translated into news don’t always portray the researchers’ work as accurately and with the limitations on the conclusions that the researchers used. Facts matter, the generalization of all the details out of the equation to a one size fits all conclusion destroys the hard work of the researchers.
I love to do stretches with my horses. Some of these I have always done but a few are new ones to me. Stretching is one more way to spend some crucial bonding time with your horse.
Keep ’em coming!
P.S. Love your piebald. Looks like a real sweetheart … and clean! Wow!
A little bit of knowledge is a dangerous thing. So is using one word that can describe a number of different things that aren’t actually all that similar.
Stretching research recently indicated that static stretches, where a muscle is taken to the edge of failure (ie, hurts and may be doing some microtearing) and then held for extended periods of time, may be counterproductive, especially if you are about to do strength work or any other ‘explosive muscle work’. So stretching before a brisk but otherwise undemanding walk isn’t going to matter. Don’t do it before a power lifting session or a soccer game, sprint, etc. as you will lose strength.
The major reason not to hold static stretches is something we’ve actually talked about here, to keep a muscle contracted is to deprive it of blood, new energy doesn’t arrive in the blood and removal of wastes doesn’t happen, which will deteriorate not improve the muscle. We’ve talked about that in not locking down the back, not drilling at the same rein length or in one direction but that frequent changes are needed, both in direction, collection, speed, etc. Note, not good to hold for 20, 30 ,60 seconds, 8 minutes in dressage with rollkur, you’re killing muscles, etc.
Active islolated stretches where you increase range of normal motion, but don’t try to hold it, is still recommended at some point on a regular basis, and won’t hurt before performance. The belly lift and hamstring scrunch aren’t meant to be held, and they are active. The leg stretches are very similar to these runner’s stretches. Never hold any stretch long enough to cut off blood flow and provoke problems with natural muscle reactions aimed at stemming off muscle failure and tearing.
Stretching also doesn’t prevent injury, ie, on a particular day. The tests were not between athletes who never stretched and those who did on a regular basis. I bet there’d be a difference, especially for weekend warrior types, if you looked at muscle tears, time to failure from fatique between competitors that never stretched and those that did. I also think with horses, stall kept horses probably need stretches more than pasture horses with enough room and companions to keep them moving, varying terrain to cross etc.
The bottom line of the research was that holding a passive stretch for long periods, doesn’t help and may hurt, especially in disciplines with strength requirements in the competition. Stretching still should be part of the routine. Even if you choose not to use stretches before a ride, then remember the rules for muscles in general, contracting and not releasing the muscle will break it down, not build it up. Frequent changes of body position, relaxing contraction, for the mental and physical health of your horse are necessary in any discipline.
To me it’s just common sense to allow a muscle time to create blood flow before asking it to maximize itself. In static conditions, even for people sitting at desks and starting at monitors all day, blood is not flowing well in the body. This also means the lymphatic system is not working efficiently either. Just read an interesting piece on the use of cryo to treat inflamation and how this could actually postpone healing. Muscles swell for a reason – to increase blood flow. I personally don’t ice my own injuries though I will hose a horse if swelling is causing too much pain. (abscesses) But to expect any living thing to go from stop to rull out without easing into the activity is just inviting trouble.
Could you email me? I went hunting for yours but couldn’t find it! I’d like to talk to you about maybe doing a guest post about horses helping people heal from emotional and mental disorders. You can have a look at my blog for an idea of what I do: http://svetc.webs.com/apps/blog/.
My email address is also on the website 🙂
You can e-mail your article to: firstname.lastname@example.org
Wow, love the before and after shot of the horse’s back!
I’ve done butt scrunches on my gelding and he’s great about it. Last night before riding I tried the belly lift, but his response was to get cranky (pin his ears and half-hearted threat to bite). It’s weird because he’s really good under saddle–he loves his stretchy trot–and I can’t think of why he’d have an issue…tack fits (he hadn’t been ridden in almost a week though), no soreness in his back/wither, etc. When you say wither massage, do you have any guidelines for best results?
Something about that stretch irritates him that the other stretch or riding doesn’t. A stretchy trot wouldn’t be triggering the abdominal or back muscles in the same way and the butt scrutch doesn’t either.
It’s possible the protest is about the abdominals rather than the back. It could also be something going on with the intercostal muscles of the ribcage.
It’s always best if someone can show you the massage techniques, but for the withers, since there is bone close to the surface you don’t use as much pressure and you’d use the heel of your palm. Starting at the top of the wither you’d press lightly with the heel of your palm and stroke down the wither toward the heart. You’d increase pressure to deepen the massage as you went along and you’d finish with some effleurage.
I have used all of these stretches in my gelding when we were still training. I hadn’t heard about utilizing the belly lift for judging saddle fit so thank you for adding to my knowledge base.
You’re most welcome!
Awesome blog! I tried it on my horse before using the hoof pick I got from https://ropingsupply.com/store/tack/grooming-supplies/hoof-picks/ and the horse was just relaxed!
Thank you for explanations and tips. My horse had a hind foot ‘carpal tunnel release’ which then got infected. Hospitalized for 1 wk. Now stands with leg tucked high under tummy. Trying to stretch and relax tight muscles in attempt to get him to stand and walk has been a challenge. Stretching has helped. Difficult to determine if resisting my efforts, tight/contracted muscles, pain. But we are trying daily with a little improvement every week. Such a challenge, such work. I’m just hoping he’ll someday walk again without a limp, maybe even be able to ride again. Thanks again for great stretching exercises.
Hi Lyna; sorry to hear about your horse’s trials. In addition to the stretching, you might want to look into having some acupuncture done. It can be really helpful relaxing all the muscles and surrounding tissue, allowing gentle, deeper stretching. Lots of turn out so he can self-exercise according to how he’s feeling on a day to basis and perhaps some targeted supplementation. Best of luck! I’ve got my fingers crossed for you guys. Merc