Overuse of muscles in your horse can lead to long term muscle shortening and stiffness, leading to loss of performance and potential injury. Regular stretching can overcome this to help prevent the gradual shortening and tightening of muscles, helping to maintain muscular suppleness, enhancing performance (Frick, 2010).
Stretching has been widely researched in horses to effectively:
Reduce muscle tension by increasing the extensibility of tight muscles, restoring the muscle’s normal functional length.
Correct muscle imbalances by promoting circulation. Frick (2010) illustrated the importance of stretching once the muscles are warm, after exercise, to help prevent exercise induced muscle fatigue and associated soreness, by decreasing lactic acid accumulation. Stretches are advised to be held for 10-15 seconds.
Reduce muscle pain, as stretching increases pain thresholds. This is achieved via increases in stretch tolerance; which means that the same force produces less pain due to increases in muscle strength and an associated analgesic effect .
Research has provided evidence that performance can be enhanced via stretching due to increases in muscle flexibility, which decreases the risk of injury. Stretching therefore increases joint range of motion which eases stress on joints, improving functional movement and flexibility (Frick, 2010; Malliaropoulos et al., 2004; Thacker et al., 2004).
Here are some examples of carrot stretches that I may advise my clients to do on a daily basis......
The rotational, lateral and neck flexion stretch:
Rotation: (Left) Using a treat such as a carrot, guide the horse’s head to the shoulder and hold for approx. 10 seconds; letting the horse nibble the carrot to hold the position.
Lateral: (Middle) Guide the horse’s head to the stifle to achieve a lateral stretch, hold for approx.10 seconds.
Flexion: (Right) Using a carrot guide the horse’s head between the fetlocks/knee to achieve neck flexion, hold for approx.10 seconds.
Top tip: To overcome the horse snatching at the treat, a horse lick can be used.
The full lateral neck flexion stretch:
To achieve the full lateral stretch to open out the neck joints; stand against the shoulder, and guide the horse’s head around you with the treat. Hold the stretch by letting the horse nibble at the carrot, hold for approx.10 seconds.
N.B: All stretches should be performed slowly, gradually, and the time the stretch is held for should be adjusted to capability, approx. between 5-15 seconds.
[There are instances where stretching may be contraindicated for your horse, and therefore it is important that stretching exercises are only performed under the specific guidance of your therapist.]
and the clinical evidence and research behind it......
Dynamic mobilisation exercises such as baited stretches, have been proven to actively strengthen deeper stabilising musculature of the back and abdominal musculature (Oliveria et al., 2015) .
Clayton has been at the forefront of research into the effectiveness of these exercises, publishing papers in 2010 and 2012, which documents that neck flexion exercises mobilise the joints in between the vertebrae (intervertebral) of the back and in the neck, showing clinical application in rehabilitation. In 2012, Clayton went on to discuss that different regions of the neck are affected dependent on the dynamic mobilisation exercise, with increased bending in the lower neck and regions of the back as the horse’s chin moved towards the hip. This is suggestive that chin to hip/stifle are particularly effective for activating, stabilising and strengthening core musculature which in effect stabilises the horse’s back.
Stubbs has built on this, with work published in 2011, investigating the effects of these dynamic exercises on the deeper thoracolumbar (back) musculature, and found that hypertrophy (increased cross sectional area of the muscle) occurred in the deeper stabilising musculature of the back (Multifidus m.). This shows clinical relevance, as these exercises prove useful for horses suffering back pain/disorders; as these horses have reduced muscular stabilisation of the back in response to back pain. This literature provides evidence that by conducting these exercises, spinal stabilisation and core stability can be improved leading to improved performance, whilst reducing associated back pain.
Clayton, H.M., Kaiser, L.J., Lavagnino, M. and Stubbs, N.C. 2010. Dynamic mobilisations in cervical flexion: Effects on intervertebral angulations. Equine Veterinary Journal, 42 (s38), pp.688-694.
Clayton, H.M., Kaiser, L.J., Lavagnino, M. and Stubbs, N.C. 2012. Evaluation of intersegmental vertebral motion during performance of dynamic mobilization exercises in cervical lateral bending in horses. American journal of veterinary research, 73 (8), pp.1153-1159.
Frick, A. 2010. Stretching exercises for horses: are they effective?. Journal of equine veterinary science, 30 (1), pp.50-59.
Malliaropoulos, N., Papalexandris, S., Papalada, A. and Papacostas, E. 2004. The role of stretching in rehabilitation of hamstring injuries: 80 athletes follow-up. Medicine and science in sports and exercise, 36 (5), pp.756-759.
Oliveira, K., Soutello, R.V., da Fonseca, R., Costa, C., Paulo, R.D.L., Fachiolli, D.F. and Clayton, H.M. 2015. Gymnastic training and dynamic mobilization exercises improve stride quality and increase epaxial muscle size in therapy horses. Journal of Equine Veterinary Science, 35 (11), pp.888-893.
Stubbs, N.C., Kaiser, L.J., Hauptman, J. and Clayton, H.M. 2011. Dynamic mobilisation exercises increase cross sectional area of musculus multifidus. Equine veterinary journal, 43 (5), pp.522-529.
Thacker, S.B., Gilchrist, J., Stroup, D.F. and Kimsey Jr, C.D. 2004. The impact of stretching on sports injury risk: a systematic review of the literature. Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise, 36 (3), pp.371-378.