The Importance of Stretching for your Equine Athlete

The Importance of Stretching for your Equine Athlete

ARTICLE BY | Heather Leonard

Have you ever stopped to think about an athlete's regular workout routine?  Olympians and other professional competitors push their bodies to its maximum potential and continue to improve with each drill, but consider the most crucial component to their day:  stretching before and after workouts.  We ask the very same thing of our equine companions who are in regular work, and they even carry weight on their back while accomplishing these athletic tasks!  This article explains how stretching your horse regularly will produce not only performance gains, but health benefits as well.

Let us start by defining what a stretch actually is:  Stretching is when you take soft tissue past its resting point to its outer range without pain.  When a muscle or tendon is stretched, the fibers are able to align properly and conform to the new length.  Stretching and holding the tissues will reduce any tension present and also prevent any adhesions (sticky tissues that prevent fluid movements) from forming.  By lengthening the fibers every day, you are increasing your horse's range of motion – think bigger, more beautiful movements!  After a few short weeks of regular stretching you will begin to see your horse become more flexible, and because he or she is more supple, there is a much smaller chance that injuries will occur.  In addition, stretching your horse aids in circulation and range of motion in the joints, therefore promoting increased health benefits.

Stretching can also alleviate soreness after workouts, shows or events.  Have you ever had a great day in the show ring or worked hard at a clinic, and then the next day your horse just does not perform the same way?  If your horse's muscles are not used to certain strenuous movements, micro-tearing can occur and cause discomfort and swelling.  When you stretch your horse daily, their muscles will be more pliable and able to handle increased work loads.  With regular stretching your horse will feel much more comfortable after a long day of hard work.

One of my favorite perks of stretching your equine is the bonding aspect between the horse and rider.  Horses LOVE routine, especially when there is a treat involved!  I think the importance of time spent with your horse out of the saddle is frequently overlooked.  When a horse and rider truly enjoy each others' company and trust in each other, their performance together soars.  If you add ten minutes of stretching to your routine of grooming, tacking up and riding, you will not only gain health benefits for your horse, you will also find another way to work together and have a closer relationship.  I often hear my clients say “My horse really loves the stretches you showed us!  He looks forward to them as soon as I take the tack off, because he begins doing the movements before I ask.”  Stretches are something you can do together that you both enjoy, and you know you are gaining something from this act. 

Also consider that if you stretch regularly, you will begin to know your horse's normal range of motion, and therefore you will discover when something begins to feel different.  If you can catch an injury before it becomes detrimental, you may have saved yourself (and your horse!) a lot of stall rest.

Before explaining how and where to stretch your horse, let's discuss the risks and safety information.  If done incorrectly, stretching can have many adverse effects on your horse.  If the fibers are pulled too far or in the wrong direction, tearing can occur and this can lead to lameness or further injuries.  The joint and joint capsules can also be injured if they are not properly aligned when making the stretch.  Likewise, if the horse has a condition that would contraindicate stretching, such as an acute injury or systemic infection, the person performing the stretches could worsen the issue.  Along with risks to the horse if stretched incorrectly, there are also dangers to the person stretching a 1,000lb or more (many times unpredictable) animal.  Some of the stretches involve movements behind the horse and picking up heavy limbs, so taking extreme caution and horse safety rules are a must. 

Learning how to stretch your horse is equally as important as the safety information previously discussed.  Stretching is a hands on exercise, and is best learned in person by a veterinarian or another REMT (registered equine massage therapist).  If you are unable to locate an REMT, don't be afraid to ask for a therapist's credentials to determine whether or not they have sufficient training.  Your veterinarian or therapist will be able to assess your horse's needs and customize a routine specific to him or her.

You may now be asking yourself, “Where do I stretch my horse?”  Choosing a location for stretching a large animal is as valuable as the techniques used.  Be certain to choose a clean, dry area, free of clutter and large enough for the horse to stretch its legs.  Make sure there is enough room for you to completely move around your horse, and that the ground is level.  I find that the aisles in most larger barns are a sufficient size to stretch a horse, and many times they have cross ties to utilize if you do not have a handler.  If you are in a smaller barn, you may decide to stretch your horse in an arena or outside on flat ground.

Once you have received appropriate training on the individual stretches, you should always implement the fundamentals of stretching.  The golden rule of stretching is to never lengthen a cold muscle (some of my clients lunge their horses first, then stretch their horse, and then put on the tack and go)!  Another important technique to remember is to never squeeze or put pressure on the joints or tendons because you may damage the tissues.  Lastly, be aware of your body position at all times around the horse, and ask for a handler if your horse does not cross tie.

It is clear that a well instructed stretching routine in a safe environment has several benefits to you and your horse's lifestyle.  Hopefully, you will seek out an equine professional and add stretches into your regimen, and then you will begin to see the full potential of your horse and the relationship between the two of you becomes even stronger.

Sources of Reference: D'AL Equine Massage Therapy:  Theory and Techniques, Copyright 1995 The D'Arcy Lance Institute 3rd edition – November 15, 2000.

ABOUT | Heather

Heather Leonard graduated from D'AL School of Equine Massage Therapy at the D'Arcy Lane Institute in London, Ontario, Canada and is a Registered Equine Massage Therapist with the International Federation of Equine Massage Therapists, and a member of the International Association of Animal Massage and Bodywork, She has been a practicing member since 2004.