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.