Wondering about the best stretching exercises for your horse? Stretching is the process of extending a muscle to its maximum extension to release muscle tightness, improve flexibility and reduce pain. [1]

Many veterinarians recommend stretching for horses, particularly prior to a training session, to reduce the risk of muscle injury. [1] Stretching can also be a component of rehabilitation after surgery or other injuries.

Stretching has few reported side effects, and is considered safe for healthy horses under the guidance of a trained professional. [2]

Several stretching techniques are available, each targeting a different part of the body. Common stretches include “carrot stretches” of the neck, wither and back lifting, and limb stretching.

Stretching in Horses

During exercise, the horse’s muscles undergo contraction and relaxation cycles to facilitate movement. However, sometimes a horse’s muscles can be overused if the horse’s exercise program does not match their level of conditioning.

Muscles often respond to overuse through tightening or stiffening of the muscle fibers, resulting in a shorter muscle length. [1] Shortened and stiff muscles have a higher risk of injury and restrict the normal range of motion of their associated joints. [1]

Stretching counteracts the tightening or stiffening that results from overuse of a muscle. [1] By restoring the muscle’s normal length and flexibility, stretching may reduce discomfort, restore normal range of motion, and improve your horse’s performance. [1]

Stretching is also recommended as part of warm-up and cool-down routines for exercising horses. As a warm-up, stretching prepares the muscle tissues for exertion and may reduce the risk of injury. [1] Stretching after exercise can also reduce the risk of injury and promotes recovery by counteracting stiffness and over-contraction after training. [1]

Effect on Tissues

There are few studies on the effect of stretching in horses, so most of the evidence for use of stretching comes from human medicine. [1] Reported benefits of stretching from human medical literature include: [1]

  • Increased range of motion in joints
  • Reduced stiffness
  • Improved elasticity of the muscle fibers
  • Increase in muscle size
  • Improved flexibility

There is some evidence that stretching can reduce pain in affected muscles. [1] Stretching may increase the pain threshold in a muscle, reducing the overall perception of pain signaling coming from that muscle. [1]

This may allow muscles to stretch further and exert more force after an initial stretching period, improving performance as the muscle continues to exercise. [1]

Athletic Performance

One of the main applications of stretching is preventing injury during performance or exercise. [1] Human research studies show variable results regarding the efficacy of stretching in preventing muscle injury. [3]

Some researchers suggest that stretching may be most beneficial for activities that require increased range of motion in joints, such as gymnastics or swimming. [3] The most immediate effect of stretching is increased muscle elasticity and reduced stiffness, allowing increased range of motion and more efficient energy utilization in the muscle. [4]

For sports requiring more muscle strength, stretching and the resulting increase in muscle flexibility may actually compromise muscle performance for up to one hour. [3]

One analysis from the human literature found no studies indicating a single stretching session improved muscle force or torque. [4] Most studies showed a negative impact on force and torque after a stretching session. [4]

However, regular stretching over a long period improves muscle performance metrics, including maximum force and speed of muscle contraction. [4]

Although there are variable results regarding the effect of stretching on athletic performance, most studies show few to no side effects from regular stretching. [4] For this reason, stretching is considered a safe practice that may improve performance and prevent injury in some cases.

Muscle Health

One study in horses examined the effects of a 12-week stretching program involving dynamic mobilization exercises of the neck. Results shows that performing stretches five days a week for three months increased the diameter of muscles near the spine. [9] Additionally, the exercise program improved the symmetry of the horses’ muscle diameters. [9]

Another study comparing the effect of dynamic mobilization exercises and gymnastic training showed a similar result. [8]

A study involving Mangalarga Marchador horses in Brazil found that stretching protocols improved heart rate recovery after performance, with a faster return to a normal heart rate. [10] Stretched horses also exhibited reduced lactate levels, a compound released by working muscle. [10]

This suggests that the muscles of horses engaged in a stretching routine prior to exercise had improved muscle metabolism during the performance event. [10]

Gaits and Stride Length

One study showed that stretching routines in horses did not improve stride length. [11] Horses performing stretching routines six days a week showed reduced range of motion in the shoulder, stifle, and hock joints. [11]

From these findings, the researchers suggested that daily stretching routines may be too intensive for most horses, and that routines completed three days per week are preferred. [11]

Postoperative Recovery

A retrospective study examining postoperative treatment protocols of 62 horses that received colic surgery showed that a 4-week program involving core strengthening and stretching exercises improved postoperative recovery times. [12]

The horses performing core strengthening exercise were more likely to return to sport compared to their untreated peers. [12]

Preparing to Stretch with your Horse

Before starting a stretching routine with your horse, it’s important to ensure that stretches are safe for both the horse and handler.

Begin by choosing an appropriate environment that has sufficient room to move around and has non-slip footing.