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. Most successful high level competitors understand and utilize some simple yet highly effective methods to bolster their mounts athletic ability and mental capacity for a superior performance. STRETCHING !
I cannot tell you how often I am asked to work with a horse that appears to be a bit “off” or lacking energy or under performing at dressage shows, and how often some simple stretching exercises make a huge difference immediately!
Stretching is an action to offer release from physical restriction or emotional tension. It helps prevent injuries, builds strength, alleviates pain, reduces stress and naturally restores balance. It promotes muscle flexibility, elasticity and suppleness for proper function. It also promotes mental and emotional relaxation and improves energy flow. Energy or “CHI” which is stagnant or blocked can lead to other health problems.
You seldom see human athletes run or train with out some sort of stretching exercise…the same applies to horse athletes…for all the same reasons.
A couple of points to remember:
- stretch the same muscles on both sides
- stretch should only be to the point of resistance
- the horse should not have to move his body to achieve the stretch
- A horse show is not the place to “start” stretching if you are not a professional. Practice at home way before the show.
1. Neck Stretch: hold a carrot down between the front feet. Your body should be on the side of the horse not under or in front. allow the horse to stretch his neck down to retrieve the carrot. This stretches the whole spine. Do not allow the horse to step backwards to reach the carrot…in stead ….move the carrot forward for an easier reach. repeat on each side
2. Leg stretches: Some horses are nervous about being touched around the legs, the most vulnerable part of a prey animal. gently massage the legs standing safely on the side until the horse is comfortable with you working on his legs.
- Pick up the front leg as if you were going to clean the hoof, one hand supporting the knee one supporting the front of the hoof
- slowly lower the hoof toward the ground and than 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.
- in one fluid gentle movement step back again supporting the leg and stretch till you feel resistance than gently lower the leg. DO NOT PULL OR FORCE THIS STRETCH.
- repeat on the other side
- back leg stretches
- grasp the leg behind the fetlock with the near side hand, gently lift the leg forward till you feel resistance and hold for the count of 3 than gently lower the leg.
- repeat on the other side
I often will finish with a tail stretch. This can be tricky as most horses are really not comfortable with anyone handling their tail. I will pet and stroke the horse over the flanks and hips to the top of the tail head till I feel him relax. I than will carefully stroke the skin under the dock of the tail. This usually will cause the horse to raise the tail on his own as it is very soothing. Once the horse relaxes, standing to the side, gently grasp the tail under the dock supporting it with your hand and carefully rotate it , slowly in each direction. Using very little tension move the tail from side to side. slowly. Than slowly and carefully pull the tail to away from the body with your hand supporting under the dock with very little tension. Do not pull hard or for long. A small stretch can help release tension in the lower spine of the horse. Watch the horses body language and stop if the horse shows any discomfort or agressive reaction to your efforts. 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.
Finish with an all over body brushing before tacking up. I recommend using Equispa Cool muscle wash with your stretching exercise. spray on the large muscle groups before stretching , such as shoulders and hips. Cool Muscle Wash is a body brace and has essential oils that also promote relaxation of muscles.