Whinny’s Wisdoms

Springhill Equine Veterinary Clinic

Hey everyone, Whinny here! You probably know that stretching is a great idea to keep your body healthy, right? Same goes for your horse! Just like human athletes get ready for exercise with a warm-up, our equine athletes need to be prepared as well. Stretching can help to increase your horse’s flexibility, promote strength and balance, and reduce the risk of injury. It can help to loosen up joints, increase circulation through muscles, and enhance suppleness through the spine in his neck and back. If your horse is recovering from a musculoskeletal injury or neurologic disorder, your vet may also recommend specific stretching exercises as part of his rehab plan.

Stretches are great as part of your horse’s warm-up and cool down from exercise. They are most effective when your horse has been warmed up a little because his muscles will be more elastic and less prone to damage. The best times to stretch will be when your horse has done a short warm-up (about 10 minutes) or after he has finished exercising.

Plan on spending about 10 minutes on your stretching routine. Find a clear area on level ground that will give you and your horse a little room to move. Ideally, it’s great if you have someone else to hold your horse for you. Cross ties don’t work great for stretching, and you’ll need to be cautious if you choose to use them.

Begin with your horse standing square and balanced. Start slowly to get him used to the routine. Some of these positions may take some practice for your horse to understand how to hold them. You want him to enjoy the stretches and not be anxious, so asking for partial stretches in the beginning is just fine. Slow, gentle stretches are the most effective. It’s better to start with a small easy stretch and work on increasing the time and depth of the stretch as he becomes more comfortable. Pulling hard against a horse that is resisting you can cause injuries and make your horse nervous, so don’t fight with him. Just stop, give it a moment, and then ask for a lighter version of the stretch again. His flexibility and balance should increase over time, making it easier for him to perform the exercises. Repeat each stretch 3-5 times, allowing him a few seconds between stretches for his muscles to relax.

Here is a list of some basic stretches. You can do these stretches every day or perform different ones on different days. If your horse has any known musculoskeletal injuries, sites of pain, or difficulty balancing, be sure to talk to one of my docs before starting to make sure they are appropriate for him. Also, if you don’t feel safe doing some of these stretches for whatever reason, use your judgement to take care of your own safety and give them a skip if you aren’t comfortable.

Forelimb Stretches

  • Stretching the limb forward
    • This is great for stretching the muscles, tendons, and ligaments on the back of the limb, as well as muscles on the side of the trunk. Pick up the forelimb as you would to pick the hoof, then bring the lower limb forward and down until it is extended out in front. Keep the hoof low to the ground and if the horse strongly resists, do not pull against him to avoid damaging the soft tissues.

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  • Stretching the forelimb backwards
    • This stretch focuses on the muscles in front of the shoulder and is great for horses with tense shoulder and chest muscles. Pick up the foot and place one hand in front of the knee. Your other hand supports the fetlock. Keeping the knee slightly bent and the hoof low to the ground but not touching, push the knee so the front hoof stretches towards the hind leg.

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Hindlimb Stretches

  • Stretching the limb backwards
    • This stretch should only be performed on a horse that is well behaved for handling his hind limbs. Stand close to your horse (not behind him) and pick up the hind leg as if you were going to pick out the hoof. Slowly extend the leg back and downwards by pushing the fetlock out behind the horse. Don’t force this stretch or place any downward force on the hock.

  • Stretching the limb forward
    • Hold the back leg with one hand by the fetlock and the other hand on the foot or supporting the leg above the hock. Pull the leg forward until it is extended. Keep the foot low to the ground to avoid soft tissue injury, and don’t jerk back on him if he resists. A more advanced version of this stretch is the diagonal hindlimb stretch. Pick up the right hind leg from the left side of the horse, under his belly. Stretch the right hind leg down and forward toward the left front foot. Repeat with the left hind leg from the right side. Be careful to let go if your horse strongly resists and never force him.

Neck Stretches

  • Lateral stretches
    • Ask the horse to bend his neck to the left and the right. He may follow a treat to encourage this. The horse should bend his neck fluidly and evenly and your horse should bend his neck without tipping his head. Check that his ears stay even (see pictures). This may be difficult for some horses, especially if they have neck pain. If your horse tries to pivot his head to reach around, start with a smaller stretch, since the stretch is not as effective if he tips his head. Hold for 10-15 seconds if possible.

This next video is a demonstration of how NOT to do it! Notice the angle of the ears and head as he reaches for the treat. With his head nearly sideways, the stretch is not doing him any good.

  • Flexion (bowing stretch)
    • Stand near your horse’s girth, facing his head. Use a treat to ask him to stretch his head down to the level of his knees. The horse should bend evenly through the neck and round his back. Hold for 10-15 seconds. As he gets used to the stretch, you can ask him to reach between his knees or extend down between his fetlocks. He should round his back even more and may bend his knees a bit as the stretch gets deeper.

Back Stretches

  • Lower back flexion (hind end tucks)
    • Stand on the side of your horse’s hindquarters (not directly behind) and face forward. Use your fingers to scratch the muscle on either side of his hindquarters. He should round and lift his back, flexing the lower back and pelvis. Each horse will need a different amount of pressure to make him flex. Start with a light motion as some horses can be sensitive to this and you want gradual flexion.

  • Upper back lift (abdominal tucks)
    • Stand near your horse’s elbow, facing him. With your fingertips, apply firm pressure under the belly, a little behind where the girth would sit on midline. This will ask the horse to lift his sternum, contract his abdominals, and arch his upper back. You may need a little “tickle” with your fingertips or to press in your nails to get him to respond. Go slow and be cautious the first time you do this stretch. Watch the hind legs to be sure he doesn’t think you are a fly and kick forward at you.

  • Tail pull
    • Perform this one only if your horse is used to having his tail handled and you feel safe in the position. Hold your horse’s tail near the end. Standing behind him, steadily pull backwards at a slightly downward angle. You can lean backwards a bit and use some of your body weight for the pull. Hold for 30 seconds and repeat 3 times. Since the tail is connected to the spine and the muscles that stabilize it, this stretch can help to relieve pain and tension in the deep core back muscles. Many horses really enjoy the feeling of this stretch and will lean slightly forward to increase the traction to where they like it. Tail pull stretches have been shown in studies to decrease back pain in horses.

Lower Limb Stretches

  • Coffin joint
    • Holding the leg up by the cannon bone or pastern, let the hoof hang freely. Grasp the bottom of the hoof and gently twist back and forth like opening and closing the lid of a jar. The hoof should move an equal amount in both directions. This stretch encourages movement around the coffin joint and soft tissues surrounding it. It’s great to encourage free movement of synovial fluid inside the joint as well as flexibility of the joint capsule, tendons, and ligaments that stabilize the coffin joint and keep it functioning.

Until next week,

P.S. Our YouTube Channel is packed with great veterinary videos! There’s something for every horse owner, no matter what kind of horse you have! Make sure you like and subscribe so you don’t miss future videos 😊

Whinny’s Wisdoms is the official blog of Whinny the Clinic Mouse at Springhill Equine Veterinary Clinic in Newberry, Florida. If you liked this blog, please subscribe below, and share it with your friends on social media! For more information, please call us at (352) 472-1620, visit our website at SpringhillEquine.com, or follow us on Facebook!

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