Preparing your horse for dressage takes a lot of dedication. Dressage is both a physically and mentally demanding sport, and one of the best things you can to do prepare is to incorporate stretching as part of your grooming routine. Also regular, gentle stretching can help maintain the health and mobility of any horse throughout its life, so keep reading even if your horse is not a competitor.
Stretching helps prevent injuries, builds strength, alleviates pain, reduces stress, and increases energy flow. It’s a great idea to add stretching to your regular grooming routine to help condition your horse’s mind and body. For a competition horse this may mean stretching every day or after each workout, while for a regular, healthy horse a few times a week is sufficient.
Dressage is probably the fastest growing equestrian sport in the United States. It requires tremendous mental discipline and optimum overall balance and coordination for both horse and rider. Equestrian mounts demonstrate peak athletic and mental capacity, and, just as you seldom see human athletes train without some sort of stretching exercise, the same applies to horse athletes, for all the same reasons.
I cannot tell you how often I am asked to work with a horse that appears to be a bit “off”, is lacking energy, or is under performing at dressage shows, and how often some simple stretching exercises make a huge difference immediately!
Tips before you get started
Before you incorporate a stretching routine, here are a couple of important things to keep in mind:
- Stretch the same muscles on both sides of the horse
- Stretching should stop at the point of resistance
- Don’t stretch a muscle group that you know is injured without professional advice
- A horse should not need to move their body to achieve the stretch
- A horse show is not the place to “start” stretching. Practice at home way before the show
- Use Cool Muscle Wash as a massage oil before each stretch to help relax the muscles – if you do this regularly the smell and sensation will become a signal to the horse of what movement is next, helping it to prepare mentally and emotionally
How to stretch
Stretching can be a pleasant experience, if you are relaxed and careful not to over extend. Here are the recommend stretches I use:
Stand on the side of your horse and hold a carrot down between the front feet. Allow the horse to stretch their neck down to retrieve the carrot. Do not let the horse step backwards to reach the carrot, instead move the carrot forward for an easier reach. This stretch stretches the entire spine.
Front leg stretches
Horses are often nervous about their legs being touched, so it’s best to start with a gentle massage until they are ready to let you lift their leg. Pick up a leg with one hand supporting the knee and the other supporting the front of the hoof. Slowly lower the hoof toward the ground and then gently lift up the leg till you are able to grasp your hands behind the elbow and step back a pace.
Work your hands down towards the knee and step back a small pace again. Then in one fluid gentle movement step back again supporting the leg and stretch until you feel resistance and gently lower the leg. Do not pull of force this stretch. Repeat on the other leg.
Back leg stretches
Using the same massage method as before, when the horse is ready, grasp the leg behind the fetlock with the near hand side, gently life the leg forward till you feel slight resistance and hold for a count of three. Gently lower the leg and repeat on the other side.
Tail stretching can also be tricky. Start by petting and stroking the horse over the flanks and hips until they relax, then carefully stroke under the dock of the tail until they raise it in response. From there, gently grasp the tail under the dock, supporting it with your hand. Carefully rotate, slowly in each direction, then move the tail from side to side. Finally, slowly and very gently pull the tail away from the body with your hand under the dock with very little tension. Do not pull hard or for more than a few seconds.
A simple stretching routine as part of your regular grooming cycle can benefit every horse. When introducing stretching start slowly and watch the horse’s body language. If they show any signs of discomfort or aggressive reaction to your efforts, stop immediately. As you and your horse get used to the routine, get to know the limits of your horse. If you notice that they suddenly can’t achieve a stretch quite as well as they could before, this could be taken as a sign of an injury or imbalance that needs further attention. You may be able to catch something before it progresses into a more serious condition, which is another motivator to stretch regularly.
While this guide gives you an idea of what a stretching routine involves, if possible, I would highly recommend working with a professional while learning to stretch your horse as stretching the wrong way or with too much tension can hinder the results you are striving to create. Horse shows and competitions in your area are a great place to meet fellow owners and to share knowledge, don’t be afraid to ask. If you are unable to get out to a show then online communities such as forums, and Facebook groups are another invaluable resource.
Do you have any questions or tips about stretching? Please share them in the comments below.