Everyone knows to stretch after going to the gym or working out, and pretty much most of us do. So why don’t we stretch after riding? And even more importantly why don’t we stretch our horses after a ride?
This is the way I see it. When we exercise this is additional training to make us fitter for how we want to live our life. We might be an office worker that is never required to run 10km to get to a meeting, yet we want to be able to for a fun run. We might serve drinks at a bar and deadlift 100kg for a competition. We might work in retail and cycle to work as we don’t have a car. Get my point?
Our horses mostly walk and graze, they might have a canter and hoon around most days but for the most part they stand at hay bags or graze in small paddocks until we get them out for a ride. The reason fitness and conditioning is so important for our horses is because of what we ask them to do when we ride. No horse in the paddock or wild spends ten minutes side passing to a better bit of grass or goes canter to halt multiple times in a row when having a gallop.
Inadequate conditioning or overuse is a leading cause of muscle soreness in horses. This can be true for riders also. Imagine you decide to do the HBF run for a reason and only manage to practice and train for 5km. You run the 12km on the day but your left feeling stiff and sore needing to rest, see a physio and probably ice an ankle!
I’m not talking about the elite athlete horses here, I’m talking about the everyday horse like mine Denny. He is competing 65cm working on moving up to 80cm, I work and juggle a baby so riding can be limited and he lives on only 7 acres being rotated every week to a new smaller paddock.
So when I ask him to travel at 400 meters a minute for 3km at an event, this isn’t something he is naturally conditioned to do unless I work on his fitness. In fact, it’s over 20 laps of a dressage arena at a fast canter, with 15-20 jumps in between. Honestly would you do this regularly in your training to condition your horse for that?
Do we have sore horses or muscle stiffness that is impacting on training and performance because we don’t realise or know how to build fitness? Yeh I 100% think that a great deal of soreness is because we ask too much physically without conditioning first. Equally we don’t factor routine stretching as part of our conditioning and often muscles can become contracted, tight and lead to stress on tendons and joints.
I thought Denny was ready to move up to 80cm at our last event, but when I rode in the morning he wasn’t his usual forward self and I made a decision to scratch him and keep at 65cm for a little longer. You see, pushing him physically could have led to a stop and a step backwards in our training or even a fall or injury to either one of us. The plan now is that we need to work on endurance, I’m going to incorporate building up the length of our rides and increasing the stretches of canter so that when we ride again he will have the strength to canter the distance and not risk losing steam coming into a solid jump. With any change or increases in training, soreness is inevitable so there will be plenty of stretching and body work. We add a new activity to our week and we feel it right? So do our horses.
So back to stretching. I don’t know why but generally we don’t stretch our horses after a ride, its not part of the riding culture like grooming or picking out feet. It should be. When I was out competing I didn’t see one other rider stretching their horse as part of the warm down from cross country when this is one of the best preventative advantages you can give your horse no matter your discipline.
Regular stretching can help support suppleness and elasticity which in turn can reduce the risk of a pulled muscle or tendon when your riding a new exercise or even their acrobatics in the paddock. Stretching lengthens contracted muscles, this ensures the tendons and ligaments can support the bones and joints but also improves circulation and reducing inflammation.
Equestricare has a great owner rider stretching course online, I did this one myself and it has been invaluable. The course was easy to understand and I have now applied a number of my favourite stretches to our warm down routine a few days a week. You can register and buy the course yourself here (Equine Stretching Course).
What needs to change for us as owners to stretch our horses like we groom them? Give learning a go and see for yourself the difference.