Stretching: Why it may not be such a good idea
For the past couple of years, it seems that more and more horse magazines are publishing articles about the benefits of passive stretching (stretching that the human does to the horse) as well as the benefits of using treats to encourage their horses to stretch on their own. People are encouraged to take hold of their horse’s front legs one at a time and pull them forward; they are encouraged to pull on their horse’s tail. People are encouraged to hold a treat behind their horse’s pecs (the muscles on the chest) to get the horse to stretch its head down and back; they are encouraged to use treats to coax their horses to flex their necks from side to side. I recently read this suggestion on the Internet: Hold a treat by the horse’s nose, then bring the treat down to the horse’s fetlocks; the nose will follow. Then take a few steps backwards, keeping the treat and the horse’s nose as low as possible; the horse will take a few steps backwards as well. A few steps will stretch the whole top line, all the way through the rump, like “horsey yoga.”
On the surface, these exercises seem harmless enough. You are most often cautioned to do them gently and slowly. Conventional wisdom says that stretching is a good idea before physical activity; runners stretch, don’t they? But consider that runners are stretching their own muscles; someone else doesn’t do it for them or give them an incentive to possibly go beyond their comfort zone. And, in fact, runners and other athletes are being cautioned that stretching cold muscles can lead to micro tears, that walking may be a better method of muscle warm-up.
Still, that “horsey yoga” move seems like it would feel wonderful. What possible problem could result from a horse stretching its top line before a rider gets on? We want the top line to be strong and supple. Strong, supple back muscles support the rider more effectively and protect the horse’s spine. Let’s suppose that the horse is in excellent condition, has never suffered any back problems, has never suffered any stiffness or soreness in other parts of the body that might indicate a physical imbalance. Let’s also assume that the horse has just come out of the pasture or, if he’s come out of a stall, that he has been hand-walked for five or ten minutes before being asked to stretch. If an experienced equine body worker were to very, very gently induce stretching, it’s quite possible that no harm would be done.
But what if the horse was just a little bit stiff or sore in one area of the back, say for example the lower back. You’ve probably been stiff in your lower back at one time or another, so you know how that feels. The horse might not be stiff enough that you’d even notice. Or maybe he’s just a little stiff in one of his shoulders, or maybe his neck doesn’t move as freely as it did when he was a couple of years younger.
I’d like you to try something. Get down on all fours. Now imagine someone is holding a piece of chocolate fudge next to your left wrist. It’s your favorite fudge, you haven’t had any in years, and you haven’t had lunch. Arch your neck to get to the chunk of delight, and as you do so, imagine that it is being pulled back a few feet. Step back to follow it. If you are fairly limber, you may not have any problems with this.
Now I would like you to try something else. Still on all fours, I’d like you to tighten your lower back. Now try the exercise again. How does it feel to arch your neck and spine when your back is restricted? Now release your back, tighten one shoulder, and try the stretch again. Now try it after tightening your neck.
Of course, no one is actually coaxing you on with a sugary treat, and you can stop whenever you like, but if your horse is like most horses, she or he is going to go after that treat no matter what. And while we might like to believe that the stretch is doing our companion good, there is a good chance that it isn’t.
You might say, “Well, I never do this exercise. My horse has stiff shoulders, so I gently pull on his front legs before I ride.” My response to this would be twofold: (1) I can’t imagine that it feels good to have a stiff shoulder pulled on; I imagine that the body would resist this stretch, even if only very slightly; (2) A stiff shoulder may very well be caused by an imbalance somewhere else in the body, and if this is the case, then pulling on the leg, no matter how gently, will not solve the problem.
So what to do?
Lifting and Holding: One Alternative to Stretching
In looking at alternatives to stretching, it’s useful to first consider what our intention is; in other words, why are we doing these stretches to begin with? I suspect that most people do them because they want their horses to be limber and relaxed, balanced and ready to carry the rider’s weight.
But we have to be careful not to cause our horses physical discomfort, even slight discomfort. If we ask our horse to move even a little bit beyond his comfort zone-and we really have no way of knowing if we have done this-we risk creating resistance in his body. Even the tiniest bit of resistance in a muscle can cause problems later on. A little bit of tension in one area of the body can cause a slight imbalance that may not even be noticeable right away. But over time, the imbalance can cause more tension, which can cause more imbalance, and well, you get the idea. Obviously, we want to do our best to avoid this scenario.
So I would like you to offer you an alternative. Rather than stretching the muscles, I would like you to lift them or hold them. Lifting involves holding one end of a muscle group and gently lifting it. Holding involves placing your hands on two sections of a muscle group and gently supporting and shortening it.
(LEFT: Soften your hands, wrists, and arms by gently “pulling taffy.”)
But before trying either of these methods, you first need to soften your hands. To do this, I’d like you to pretend you are gently pulling taffy. Do this softly and slowly. Don’t do it so long that your hands or arms get tense. The idea is to relax and soften your hands, wrists, and arms.
Now, crouch next to one of your horse’s front legs. Be safe. If your horse is unpredictable, you might want a friend to hold your horse for you. Gently place your hands around your horse’s leg. You can work with the lower leg (where there are tendons but no muscles) or you can work further up the leg. Be sure you are not gripping the leg. Now gently lift the muscles (or tendons). Be sure you are not just lifting skin. You don’t want to tickle your horse. You want to provide temporary support to the muscles, briefly taking over their work. Lift the muscles for five or six seconds and then gently and slowly release. Do not just let go! Release in small increments, gently allowing your hands to return to the position they started in.
| (Lifting the tendons of the lower leg)
(Lifting the muscles of the upper leg)
Be sure to breathe while you are working with your horse. People tend to hold their breath when they are learning something new. But holding your breath creates tension, which is something you don’t want to pass on to your horse. So breathe deeply and slowly while you work.
You can lift any muscle or group of muscles on your horse’s body. Try gently lifting the muscles around the shoulder. You can lift towards the poll, towards, the neck, or towards the back. You can gently move from one position to the next. The key word is gently. The old adage “No pain, no gain” simply isn’t true. Pain creates resistance. But gently supporting a muscle group releases tension and allows the muscles to lengthen.
Try gently lifting the muscle that runs just beneath the spine. Work with one small area at a time. Be sure you are not digging your fingers into your horse’s back. Soften your hands, gently place your fingers on her back and gently lift the muscle.
Holding a muscle or muscle group is similar to lifting; the difference is that your hands are touching two different portions of the muscle at once. So, for example, you can hold the muscles of the shoulder by placing one hand below the shoulder and one above, gently supporting the muscles by applying gentle pressure towards the center. In effect, you are slightly shortening the muscles (the opposite of what you are trying to do when you use stretching exercises). You can also hold small portions of the muscle along the spine. When you are comfortable with this, you can hold and lift a small area of this muscle at the same time. This is a much more pleasurable to your horse than pulling on her tail (which is a part of her spine), and it is much safer.
| (Holding the muscles
around the shoulder)
|(Holding and lifting the
muscles beneath the spine)
When you hold and support the muscle, you take over its work, you help it to relax and lengthen-with no risk of tearing or otherwise stressing the area.
If you’re having trouble believing the benefit of these gentle exercises (or even if you’re not!), ask a friend to lift the muscles of your leg or arm, to hold the muscles of your shoulder or neck. Be sure your friend has soft hands before beginning; be sure your friend doesn’t hold his or her breath while working.
Of course, these exercises are not intended to replace veterinary care. If your horse has acute or chronic pain, contact your veterinarian.
But as a way of helping to release tension, helping to allow your horse’s muscles to lengthen on their own, and-as an added bonus-strengthening the human/equine bond, I invite you to put aside the stretching and try gently lifting and holding instead.
*This article first appeared in the August/September 2006 issue of The Sentinel.
© 2006 by Pamela Sourelis