Stable fitness… (January 2016)

Well, it seems that writing about dealing with colder conditions in my last article has well and truly jinxed the UK as the wet, windy and wild weather continues. For those struggling with the effects of flooding, I feel the utmost sympathy. However in recent days I have read more and more social media postings from horse owners worrying about getting their horses fit and ready for the first competitions of the spring, as the weather conditions have prevented them from riding, either for safety reasons or flooded facilities.

With this in mind, it seemed appropriate to direct this feature towards ways of maintaining your horse’s muscular development and physical mobility as best can be achieved, when actual work is out of the question. In fact, any horse out of work due to injury or unavailability of a rider for a period of time, can be helped as well, (in cases of injury, check with your vet before applying any stretching regime).

Recent research has identified the use of specific active stretching exercises which can produce increased development of the back musculature even in horses not undertaking any ridden or in hand exercise. Two groups of Arabian horses were compared, and after eight weeks there was a significant difference in muscle tone between those horses who were using the active stretches every day, and those horses who were not. Interestingly, those horses in the stretching group were also found to have increased symmetry of muscle development left to right side, compared to those in the control group. Another recent study looked at the development of the multifidous muscles of the back lying close the spine in Tb racehorses, and identified an improvement after just six weeks of targeted active stretching.

Active stretches are more commonly known as “carrot stretches” and actually involve a controlled activation of the muscles involved, hence the training effect of these exercises. Research into passive stretches, such as those performed to mobilise limb movement, has found that there is less effect or even detrimental effects when passive stretching is applied every day, so it is important to know the difference between these two types of stretches.

Horses vary in their natural flexibility and strength, and age-related changes can also influence just how much mobility your horse is able to develop. As an example, my 20 year old Arab mare finds stretching to each side quite challenging these days, whereas her 17 year old sister still has the comparative mobility of a snake! It would be unfair to expect the older mare to achieve the level of stretch that the 17 year old can do.

So how do you get the most out of your horse’s stretches, and build up this valuable back musculature? Use them every day, (post exercise if you can get out and ride), using several stretches to each side aiming to reach the girth area, flanks and then down between the fetlocks as a basic stretching routine. You can also ask your horse to stretch to the outside of each front fetlock, towards the points of shoulder, between the front legs towards the girth and up to the points of hip on each side but these are more challenging and not appropriate for every horse. If in doubt, ask your back specialist what stretches they would suggest are appropriate for your horse.

If your horse struggles to reach round to his or her side, then stand by the girth and encourage them to bring their head around your body so they are making a wider stretch round to each side than would be required if they were to touch the girth or flank area. This variation of the stretch is also useful for horses who are carrying too much weight to be flexible, (and it goes without saying that a strict diet should be in place for these horses as well), or for horses with low set necks or very large neck vertebrae, both conformational effects which dictate the range of motion for the horse and cannot be altered by any amount of active stretching!

Finally, once the weather has improved enough to get some proper exercise in, remember to build work up again slowly, allowing time for joints, tendons and ligaments to adapt, and keep up your carrot stretching routine for at least six weeks to see the benefits.