Humans have long understood the benefits of stretching for improving performance and athletic ability. These benefits also apply to horses when performed correctly on a regular and consistent basis to help restore and maintain flexibility. Vets and physical therapists are becoming increasingly aware of the benefits of active and passive stretching and mobilisations and I incorporate various exercises into my treatment. As part of a horse’s specific aftercare, I will discuss and demonstrate how to safely perform certain stretching exercises that clients could use to help their animal maintain the mobility and freedom of movement gained from the treatment such as active exercises and Carrot Stretches (the benefits of which are further described below).
Physiology of Stretching
Muscles work in pairs and therefore, to allow for efficient contraction, the opposing muscle must have the ability to stretch enabling smooth, controlled movement. This means that performance is not only dependant on the strength of the muscle but also the flexibility.
Stretching exercises should be performed by a suitably qualified physical therapist and can be used to gently elongate the muscle. These slow stretches have the additional benefit of increasing metabolism in the muscle and elevating its oxygen level, allowing relaxation and the release of small stress points, trigger points and muscle spasms.
Stretching muscle fibres begins with the sarcomeres (the basic unit of contraction in a muscle fibre). As a sarcomere contracts, the area of overlap between the thick and thin myofilaments increases; during stretching this area of overlap decreases allowing the thick and thin myofibrils to elongate. Once the muscle fibre has reached its maximum resting length where all of the sarcomeres are fully stretched, taking the stretch a little bit further allows the collagen fibres in the connective tissue to stretch and realign themselves in the same direction as the tension. It is this realignment as a result of stretching that improves flexibility, suppleness and extends the length of the muscle.
Muscle spindles are located in the belly of the muscle and run parallel to the muscle fibres. When a muscle is stretched, so is the spindle and it reacts by sending information about the change in length and speed of change to the Central Nervous System. This triggers the “stretch reflex” which attempts to resist the stretch by causing the muscle to contract to prevent overstretching and muscle fibre damage and therefore protecting the body from injury.The more sudden the change in muscle length, the stronger the muscle will contract. The reason your physical therapist holds the stretch for a considerable length of time is that this allows the muscle spindle to become accustomed to the new length and reduce its signalling to the Central Nervous System, allowing the spindle to accept greater lengthening of the muscles.
Stretching can have many benefits including:
Passive stretches should be performed by your therapist who knows the normal range and plane of movement of joints and knows how to safely and effectively perform the stretch. Also the tissue must be warmed thoroughly, either through exercise or massage, prior to stretching.
There are two main types of stretching:
Passive mobilisations are the movement of a joint through its normal range of motion. This helps to identify differences between the left and right side of the body and reduce developing stiffness through the neck, back and limbs.
Passive stretching is where the therapist moves the horse’s body and limbs to carry out a particular stretch. The stretches facilitate the reduction of tension which often builds as a result of exercise and muscle fatigue. The horse needs be relaxed and confident to gain the greatest benefit from these exercises.
These stretches require active muscle contraction from the horse to create the stretch with the guidance of a therapist/rider. These can be achieved through groundwork, ridden exercises or by encouraging the horse to move in a certain way through the use of carrot stretches. During active stretches much more than one group of muscles will be influenced, not just the target muscles. Active stretches can form an integral part of the daily routine including the warm up and at the end of a ridden session to elongate the muscles and relax the horse.
Examples include: polework, hill work, jumping, carrot stretches, leg yield, half pass, flexion to the left and right and collected gaits. There are many more!
As mentioned, I can discuss and demonstrate how to safely perform specific carrot stretching exercises tailored to your horse’s needs that can be used to maintain the range of motion and flexibility that has been gained from the treatment. Research has shown that performing Carrot Stretches regularly over a three month period can activate and stimulate the Multifidus muscles, also known as the core strength muscles, which support and stabilise the horse’s back and mobilise the joints between the vertebrae. This research supports the use of dynamic exercises in horses with back pain and helping to restore musculoskeletal function.
Equine Physical Therapist
MSc (Animal Manipulation)
BSc (Biological Sciences)
Pg Dip (ESM)