How many of you use carrot stretches with your horse?
I used to do them a lot with Otis, but I`m afraid I don’t do them as much as I should now. He`s still nice and flexible though – at least judging by the way he balances on three legs to scratch his poll with his hind leg!
Anyway, why do we make our horses contort their bodies just to reach a carrot?
Well, in the same way that we stretch our muscles before exercise, stretching a horse can help release any tension, strengthen muscle fibres, and increase the flexibility of muscles. I also find it really interesting to see how symmetrical a horse is. Sometimes it`s very enlightening to perform carrot stretches, as you will find that one side is far more restrictive than the other. Carrot stretches are dynamic or active, in the sense that the horse is the one doing the stretching as opposed to a human creating a stretch by pulling on a limb. They are useful because they can be done when a horse is cold, so you can do it when you bring your horse into his stable for the night, in the field, before riding, and it will still be beneficial, and not cause them to strain anything.
Carrot stretches are useful tools in conditioning horses as you can teach them to stretch and strengthen more specific muscles than when riding or lunging, and you can also trigger the release of some tighter, bad muscles (like the brachiocephalic muscles on either side of the underneath of the neck – yeah, you know the ones!)
Quite often physiotherapists or vets will recommend particular carrot stretches to help the rehabilitation of a horse, or to help prevent re-injury.
Below are a couple of carrot stretches that you may want to get your teeth into. Remember, it make take a few attempts for your horse to understand so be patient and don`t expect them to be able to do the full stretch.
Stretch to point of hip
With the horse standing square, or as close to square as he naturally goes, slowly use the carrot to guide his nose around towards his point of hip. When he reaches his furthest point, hold it for a few seconds before rewarding him with the treat. Make sure you perform this on both sides. This stretch stretches the shoulder, neck and intercostal muscles on the opposite side of the body and strengthens those muscles on the side he is turning towards.
Stretch to the side of the forefoot
Again, with the horse standing square-ish, get him to follow the treat down to the outside of his front hoof, without bending his knee. This slight abduction stretches the muscles in front of and behind the scapula on the opposite side and strengthens those muscles on the near side.
Stretch to the girthline
Now it is important that this stretch is brief, and a stretch as opposed to Rolkur. G get the horse to follow the treat down between his front knees towards his girth. Otis loves this stretch, and has been known to take his nose so far between his legs he somehow touches his tummy! This stretch causes the abdominal muscles to engage and is very good for stretching the nuchal ligament and the entire topline. The horse should not lift, or bend a leg in order to perform the stretch. The longissimus dorsi muscle, lumbar muscles, gluteals and nuchal ligament are all stretched, whilst the abdominal and chest muscles are strengthened.
Let me know how you get on; if your horse is more flexible than you thought, asymmetric, or just greedy!