Building muscle strength and flexibility is an important part of developing a horse’s performance, and the principles of doing this are steeped in science and techniques based on results. In people, strength training has been reported to reduce sports injuries by half. Not only does muscle strength improve a horse’s performance, but strong muscles also protect against musculoskeletal injury by stabilizing joints and reducing strain on tendons and ligaments. Muscles and connective tissue naturally tend to stiffen if they are overused or underused. Stiffness can result in injury, lead to inactivity, and eventually speed up the aging process of the musculoskeletal system. To remain supple, the connective tissue and muscles need regular stretching.
By incorporating a variety of types of exercises in the training program the horse’s overall fitness and soundness will improve. Each program should be considered individual to each horse, depending on its history and needs. A health care professional with experience and specialized training in stretching techniques should evaluate the horse and design the program, which can then be taught to the handler. The goals of the program should be made clear from the beginning. Indicators that the program is working need to be defined, as well as signs such as lack of improvement or an unwillingness to do the exercises that the program should be stopped.
Pre-exercise stretching, 15 minutes routine before activity, seems most beneficial in preventing muscular injury. Post-exercise stretching supports cooling down and helps to reduce muscle fatigue and soreness. Each stretch should be done three to five times a day. A short stretch (regime) is not very effective. The horse is stronger than you, and when you’re stretching your own body, you can induce beneficial effects, but with the horse there is more result from the time (you spend on the stretching) than on your force. Stretching should be done softly in order to be accepted by horses. If you do a stretch too quickly, you are less likely to maintain cooperation of the horse. It is also important not to induce pain. If you’ve ever been on an athletic team or in an exercise class, you’ve probably heard a coach or instructor remind you to not “bounce” for a longer reach on a stretch, but to slowly exhale into a stretch. Stretching technique matters in the horse, too, even though their structures are larger, stronger, and sturdier than ours. With the horse, as with stretching your own body, you begin slowly, then progress to a greater flexibility. Specific stretches will enhance each specific movement that a horse makes as an athlete.
1. Fore limb protraction stretch (hold for 15-20 seconds, 3 repetitions)
A very popular sport stretch that many have included in their routines before riding includes a brief forward stretch of each foreleg. While some do this stretch for the purpose of “un-wrinkling” the skin that is under the girth or cinch, others consider it an athletic stretch.
Stand in front of and slightly to the right of your horse, facing toward him. Using one hand, gently pick up the horse’s left foot and place your other hand on the outside of the toe. Start backing slowly away from the horse and gently bring the leg forward, keeping it low. Then slowly lift upward until you feel some tension. This stretch is great for horses experiencing a shortened forelimb stride and tight shoulders.
2. Hind limb protraction stretch (hold for 15-20 seconds, 3 repetitions)
Lift your horse’s hind limb facing the tail, as though you were picking out his hoof. Grasp the fetlock with your inside hand, and hold his toe with your outside hand. Pull the limb forward, towards the middle of his front legs. Rest your elbows on your knees to support your back. If your horse is having difficulty attaining a full stretch, release the toe and hold the fetlock with both hands for a slightly lesser stretch. If your horse is experiencing a shortened stride with his hind legs, this stretch will help elongate and release the hamstring muscles, which will help him move more freely.
3. Hind limb retraction stretch(hold for 15-20 seconds, 3 repetitions)
Supporting the hoof with your outside hand (again as though you were picking out his hoof), gently place your inside hand on the hock. Bring your inside knee closest to the horse up to make contact with the front of his fetlock. Apply gently downward pressure with your hand on the hock to extend the limb behind the horse. This stretch is helpful for horses that need to improve their range of motion through the hips and pelvis.
4. Carrot stretches or rounding exercises – chin to chest/chin between knees/chin between fetlocks (hold for a few seconds, 3 repetitions)
Stand at the girth facing forward and pass the hand with the bait forward between the forelimbs/knees/fetlocks. Hold every position for a few seconds. Gradually increase the amount of rounding by drawing the bait furthers back between forelimbs/knees/fetlocks. It is preferable for the neck and legs to be straight. This stretches stimulate flexion of the upper, middle and lower neck.
5. Gluteal scratch (hold for a few seconds, 3 repetitions)
Stand on the side of the horse, facing his flank or if reliable, just behind the horse. Starting at the tailhead and working up the spine, apply pressure to successive vertebral spines until you find a “sweet spot” where the horse begins to round his haunches and lift the back and pelvis. Hold the pressure for a few seconds, then release and watch the horse return to a resting position. This stretch stimulates the abdominal and back muscles, which all play a role in allowing the hind feet to come under the horse while working.
6. Sternal, Wither, and Thoracic lift (hold for a few seconds, 3 repetitions)
Stand just behind the horse’s elbow, facing the animal. Apply upward pressure to the horse’s sternum (breastbone) and gradually slide the pressure back to just behind where the girth would sit. The horse will lift his sternum, withers, and thoracic (saddle) area. Each horse reacts to a different amount of pressure when performing this exercise, so start with mild pressure and increase it slowly until the horse responds. This lift can also be stimulated by scratching under the girth area.
Read more about the horse’s core activation training later. …