This is the final installment of this series and involves mostly the neck, but also the shoulders, back and ribcage. The key to this set of stretches is that the horse plants its feet fairly square, and that there be minimal head tilting. The ultimate goal is for equal ease and depth of stretch to both sides.
In this first stretch I place my body between the horse’s shoulder and its head, causing the horse to bend its neck around me. From this position I can better control head tilting, as well it adds depth to the stretch. I use treats to encourage this whole set of stretches, though, it’s not necessary.
The candidate horse has a neck on the shorter end of the equine scale, and yet as is evidenced in the pictures, there’s plenty of flexibility. Short doesn’t instantly mean a lack of flexibility, and in fact if you do neck stretches on horses with various neck lengths, you’re likely to discover that the longer necks tend to be stiffer. This is due to the ease at which a horse can evade through that additional length, creating uneven soft tissue. The shorter neck allows for pure strength of bracing against a poor set of rider hands, but it’s less likely to ‘snake’ between poll and shoulder. It’s an upcoming discussion for our conformation series.
This second stretch is a version of ‘long and low’. You’re looking for some base of neck lift, as well an even bend through the entire length of the neck with minimal head tilt at the poll. Be sure the horse keeps its throat open (for all the stretches!).
I’ll often play around with this stretch, sometimes making it higher, sometimes lower. Start with a straight forward tradition ‘long and low’ stretch, and then go from there. I’ll also often have the horse touch the front of its knee, or the outside of the knee, or its fetlock, or toe, or heel bulb etc… Whenever I find resistance or an inability for an equal stretch, I’ll play around to try and unlock it.
Note the *crinkling* of the skin through the ribcage, while the side the stretch is to is compressed, the other side is being elongated.
The next stretch is the hardest to execute without having the horse move its feet. The natural tendency is for the horse to spin around because the stretch can be tough for an individual with any sort of tightness in the neck, shoulders or ribcage. Take your time deepening this stretch to encourage the horse to stand still in squareness. The other big cheat in this stretch is head tilting, so beware. One way to encourage straightness is to start the stretch away from the body, then slowly ask the horse to ‘close’ the stretch by bringing the muzzle to the hip. The ultimate goal is that the horse can easily touch nose to point of hip.
You may have noticed that this horse has taken on a rather wide stance front and back. Part of that is the fact he’s a wide-bodied horse, but the other part is that he’s done these stretches hundreds of times and knows that a wider stance gives him more stability and balance to do the depth of stretching. Try to set your horse on the right path by encouraging a good strong stance of balance before starting.
The final stretch is the prelude to a full-fledged bow. Start with a ‘long and low’ stretch and then slowly bring it in. Head tilting or stretching off to the side that the person is standing on are common errors. Sometimes switching to standing on the off side of the horse will correct the tendency to stretch crooked.
How deep you go is entirely up to you and your horse. You can see this horse has reached the point where he’s had to bend his knee and lift his heel off the ground to go deeper. Obviously, if you’re going to take the horse down to a full bow, do so on a soft surface of grass, sand or deep bedding.
And that concludes basic horse stretching.