PhysioTherapy: Stretches and Exercises for Your Horse
Neck stretches are a terrific way to help your horse limber up and stay limber. Most people know these stretches as "carrot stretches." These stretches not only help the neck, but they also help to stretch out the poll, shoulder, oblique, thoracic, and lumbar muscles, so the whole body!
Using a carrot or other favorite treat, gradually build up your horse's ability to stretch his neck and hold the stretch:
1. Start at the shoulder: hold the treat at your horse's shoulder and encourage your horse to curl around to get the treat from you.
2. Move to your horse's stomach and hold the treat to encourage your horse to stretch to get the treat. As your horse increases the range of his stretch, you can start moving further back his body to encourage a deeper stretch.
3. Standing back to the side of your horse's neck and head, use the treat to stretch your horse's neck "high and tight." Bring the treat under his chin and lift as high as your horse can go.
4. Standing back at the side of your horse's neck and shoulder, bring the treat to your horse's nose and slowly lower to get your horse to stretch down to the ground. Build up this stretch to get your horse to bring his nose between his front legs.
As your horse builds up his/her ability to stretch, start to encourage him to hold the stretch for longer periods of time. These are stretches you can do anytime, anywhere!
Leg stretches can be done before or after a workout; however, they are more static, and I prefer to do these stretches after I ride.
If you like to do these stretches before you ride, I recommend that you wait to do this after you've tacked up your horse and have walked him/her around a bit before you get on. By doing this, your horse's muscles are warmed up a bit, which helps to prevent injury with a static stretch.
Front leg stretches help to stretch the chest, shoulder, serratus, and trapezius muscles. Back leg stretches help to stretch the hamstrings, glutes, stifle, and bicep femoris muscles.
1. Front Leg Stretches: Pick up your horse's front leg as if you are going to clean the hoof. Then pull the leg straight out (holding around the fetlock area) in front of the horse. Hold it there for a few seconds and then, holding the leg still, move the horse's leg over his center line. Hold for a few seconds.
2. Front Leg Stretches: Pick up your horse's front leg as if you are going to clean his hoof. Holding the fetlock with one hand, reach up and grasp your horse's knee with the other hand and gently pull the horse's knee back, up, and under the belly. Hold for a few seconds.
3. Back Leg Stretch: Pick up your horse's foot as if you are going to clean his hoof. Allow your horse to relax and slowly rest his leg on your knee (much like a farrier) and move straight forward so that you slowly stretch the horse's leg further behind him to stretch his stifle.
4. Back Leg Stretch: Pick up your horse's foot and then grasp the fetlock with both hands. Move your body backwards to pull your horse's hind leg up and under his belly. Hold for a few seconds. You can also start to stretch the hind leg across his centerline as your horse gets stronger and more flexible.
Take care with these stretches, especially if your horse doesn't have strength to balance. As your horse gets stronger and grows more limber, you can deepen the stretches and increase how long you hold them.
Reflexive Massage: The Thoracic and Lumbar Muscles
Reflexive massage is a technique you can use anytime, anywhere. This is a great way to help your horse internally stretch his/her muscles.
You can use your fingers for this massage or you can use a pickle jar lid! I love to use the pickle jar lid because of the leverage it affords me, and it saves my joints.
I often do this type of massage with my own horse before I put the saddle on. I have found it to be a great way for him to just stretch and prep his lumbar muscles, and these are some of the hardest working muscles in our horses!
Watch the video on reflexive massage here!
Under Saddle Work
I often recommend different activities to my clients because, in addition to stretching, we also need to make sure we are working to help our horse strengthen his/her muscular system.
The back muscles are often the hardest working - and most vulnerable - muscles in the horse's body. While we may assume that a horse is built to carry a rider, the fact is, they aren't! They can carry us, but we have to take care of the back to help our horses have long and happy careers in whatever discipline suits the horse.
To help strengthen and lengthen the muscles in the back, we have to engage and work the hind end. The stronger and more engaged the dorsal chain is (lumbar, glutes, hamstrings, stifles, and pelvic muscles), the stronger the topline is and the more able the horse is able to engage in his/her work.
Pole work is a terrific way of getting your horse to engage his dorsal chain. Set up poles in a variety of patterns and go for it! I often just do walk and trot sets over ground poles and incorporate them into a regular training session so that there is variety.
Hill work is also a great way of incorporating cardio and strength training into your horse's workout routine. Like pole work, hills make your horse engage his/her hind end to help build strength. I usually just walk my horse up and down hills because it forces him to slow down and engage.
Stretchy walks and trots are another way to help build your horse's topline. By allowing your horse to lower his neck and stretch, this lifts up his abdomen, open up his lumbar, and free up his hindquarters.
Back up! Seriously, back up your horse with purpose. Start with 3-5 straight steps and build your horse up to backing up 12-15 straight steps at a time. This exercise strengths stifles and the bicep femoris. As your horse builds up strength, start backing him/her up hills.
Like a human workout regimen, variety is key! I often rotate these different exercises so that my horse is doing something a little different in addition to his regular training. You don't have to do all of the things all of the time. Incorporate these different exercises into your training regiment and build up your horse's strength and stamina.
Rocking is a way to help limber up tendons and ligaments lower in the legs; activate muscle groups; and stimulate joints. It's a great way to warm up and cool down your horse and can be done anytime, anywhere!
Position yourself facing your horse's withers, and place both hands on his/her withers. Gently rock your horse from side to side so that he/she changes loadbearing from one leg to the other. This should be a gentle movement, and it should not be something that shoves your horse off balance. Instead, it is a gentle rocking motion, and by shifting your horse's loadbearing weight from one leg to the other, you are helping to gently stretch and warm up the tendons and ligaments in his lower legs. It also helps to stimulate the thoracic muscles in his back as well as the deep trapezius muscles.
To do this for the hind legs, put one hand on top of your horse's tail and the other on top of his hindquarters in the are of his lower lumbar and hips. Like the front end, you will start to rock your horse from side to side asking him to shift his weight. Like his front legs, this helps to stimulate, activate, and limber up the ligaments and tendons in his lower legs. It also helps with lateral flexion in his back and mobilize the joints in his hindquarters. Finally, it helps to support the health in his lateral stabilizing muscles in the hind legs.
Finally, move the horse back and forth to help activate the thoracic sling muscles. Place one tail at the dock of your horse's tail and gently push and release so that the horse rocks back and forth in a rhythm. This is a whole body mobilization that stimulates joints and muscles throughout his body.
This is a generally relaxing exercise for your horse; it should be gentle and done in a rhythmic pattern. I will often rock my horse for about 10-15 seconds at each position or for however long he seems to be enjoying it.
Watch the video here.
Tail stretches are very easy, and they do wonders for your horse. It's amazing how these stretches can help the spine, thoracic and lumbar muscles, and the bicep femoris.
Gently grasp your horse's tail a couple of inches below the tail bone and stand to the side of his/her hindquarters. Shake the tail a little to help your horse relax the tail; sometimes the horse wants to clamp the tail until he/she realizes what this stretch is all about.
Standing to the side, bring the tail over to the same side you are standing. Place your other hand on your horse's hindquarters and gently pull your horse's tail. Release. Repeat six times.
Move to stand behind your horse (as long as you are in safe conditions where the horse will not kick) and repeat the pull/release six times.
Move to the other side of the horse and repeat.
The tail pulls that are performed on the side of the horse helps to stretch the bicep femoris. This is a hard working area that helps to extend and contract the hip, hock, and stifle.
The tail pull stretch that is done behind the horse helps to stretch the lumbar, hips, and glutes.
Watch the stretch here.
I am a Certified Equine Sports Massage Therapist. Please consult with your horse's vet, farrier, or dentist if you are unsure of incorporating any of these techniques into your horse's regimen.
Products I Love
Four Oaks Farm Natural Release Muscle and Joint Spray
I will spray this on my horse's back whenever I feel tension in between massages. I love the ingredients plus there is no scent. I just spray it on my horse and use the massage curry to penetrate through his hair. I've personally seen/felt it help to release knots in muscles. It's awesome, and I recommend it to my clients with horses who have chronically tight muscles. It also comes in gel form if you prefer that.
Bioveta Quad Wash System
This is a complete hair care line for horses with a human approach. It's a four-step process that is simple and effective. My horse GLOWED after I used the wash system; I had never seen so many colors in my horse's coat, mane, and tail. I never received as many compliments on Brady's coat as I did after using this system. It is worth it and the horse world's best kept secret.
Top Notch Tails
The owner of Top Notch Tails provides a specialty product for our performance horse friends who wear harnesses - or some version of it - in and out of their stalls. She wants to ensure that horses are comfortable and clean while the owner and trainer know that the Top Notch Tails products are built to last. While I personally do not own a horse that would be in need of these products, I know prominent trainers who depend on these products to keep their horses at their most comfortable.