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Stretching Exercises for Aging Horse & Rider

Stretich Exercises for Aging: Training site section Logo, horses grazing in tall grass.

By Bonnie J. Hilton  ( Horse Training article copyrighted by Saddle & Bridle Magazine.)

Our horses were not designed to be cooped up in a stall. As humans, we are not designed to be sitting at desks for hours at a time either. For those readers who have horses roaming out on acres of fields, you don t have to be as concerned as those owners that only have a small paddock. For those readers who are fortunate enough to be working with a personal trainer or be members of some workout studio, this article will not be of much interest.

We have constrained our animals (dogs and cats as well) and ourselves to the point that body weight is a major problem and strain occurs with bodies that are not stretched and fit for the exertion we undertake with them. Even those of us who think, albeit incorrectly, that we are somewhat fit, we don t stop and think what we are fit for.

The first day I attempted to perform a stretch, that had always been easy, I was shocked that my range of motion had left me and I could not do the stretch, that just six months prior I was doing with ease. I thought that I still had a body in motion, but the motion was not the same quality that it used to be. Then I started to look at a couple of the older horses I work with. How should I stretch and tone them, outside of the warm-up program we use?

With our equines, just like ourselves, you have to start, somewhere. As I have stated before, the first place you need to go is to your doctor or clinic and have yourself checked out, just to find out what is really going on if you are in pain.  . I don t want to give up riding and working with horses. I also want to pay more attention to the older equines who can t be coasting along either.

For me, the place to start was on the floor.  That is where the professional put me over a decade ago when I was taught how to take care of myself. Actually, the floor is a safe place to be, for support of your back. When was the last time you were on the floor, on your back, alone with no distractions, thinking about the length of your spine from the top of your head to the bottom of your feet? For those readers who have delved into body awareness and even some teaching of Tai Chi, you already know the importance of the supine or semi-supine position. Once you get down there, and that can be a major project just in itself, lay on your back. Have the legs of the bed, a sturdy chair, table or something that can aid you getting up close by.  Try to put your arms over you head, palms facing the ears and stretch up, as you also stretch down into the bottom of your feet. Don t crank yourself into this stretch to perform it, just feel your body for a few minutes. Your lower back will probably not make contact with the floor and don t try to make it have contact.  Be careful with how you put your arms over your head if you have shoulder problems. You may be more comfortable and safe just keeping your arms by your side or just resting your hands on your stomach. I have problems.   Slow is the mode for stretching.

 This stretch is often called the whole body stretch and is a wonderful stretch to start off with in the morning. Once you get good at this stretch on the floor, then you can do it standing with modifications, by pushing up from the balls of your feet. It helps if you can reach the top of a door frame. Finally, you use it as the modified full body stretch, on a SAFE horse at halt, as part of your pre-ride warm-up routine.

Since you are already on your back you can go from the full body stretch into something that will press your lower back into the floor and start stretching the muscles of the spine further. Bring one or both of your legs, by bending the knee, up to your chest in alignment with the shoulder, the best you can do. Keep your shoulders and head on the floor, no straining your neck. If you can, use your hands to gently pull your leg or legs in. If you have really good room, you can wrap your arms around your legs and hold the stretch longer. These are known as knee to shoulder stretches and lower back releasers. If you get a copy of The Total Rider the knees to chest is called the dorsal flex and the one leg movement is called the hip stretch. You can hold the position for 15 seconds and switch legs or hold both for 15, stretch out and repeat and do several reps. Don t get into end gaining, with number of reps, how much, etc., etc., just do something!

The pelvic lift has been called different things by Yoga enthusiasts and other exercise programs. In Yoga for Equestrians it is called the bridge. You are just trying to lift your butt off the floor without arching your back. Many of us have way too much arch in our backs,  just like our horses, that gets worse with stress and then we end up with low back pain. How to engage the hindquarters!  You perform this movement with your arms by your side, palms down on the floor, with your knees bent and your feet on the floor. I want the angle of your lower leg to almost be straight to the floor, so that your heel is almost under your knee. I start this movement with my legs close together and then I place my legs further and further apart, like I am straddling a horse. Pay attention to your feet placement and the pressure you have on your foot. Try to stay even in your foot, just like in your stirrup. If you don t have the room for this movement, do the best you can, but you don t want to stress your knee, you only want to use it like a hinge. If you can flatten your back against the floor, that is a great starting point. You may have to work at it. Once you have that feeling and can repeat the motion of tucking the pelvis, you push down into your feet as you lift your bottom up off the floor. Don t strain your jaw, neck or shoulders. Breathe! You can lift a little and go back to the floor. Do a few reps, do what is easy for you. This doesn t seem like much, but you will feel it tomorrow.

As you work with this movement, you attempt to bring your bottom up higher and higher until you have a straight plane, on the angle, from along your topside from your chest up to your knee. I like the thought of the strong half halt position of buttress, bringing a horse that is trying to bore through the bit, off the forehand. It is a strength position and we need good back muscles, as well as deep thighs. For isometric toning, all you need to do is work at tightening all the muscles  in your abdomen as well as thighs, butt and lower leg as you do the pelvic lifts. You can modify this movement in days to come by putting in a slow twist toward the left and to the right. You can also do the pelvic lift with one leg raised if you have the fitness. One result of this work will be that you may notice that when you drive, you will want to shift seat position and find a more upright supportive position, once you have discovered your lower back again.

From the pelvic lifts you can stretch back out straight on the floor again. You may feel a difference in the quality of your body awareness. I take this little workout program a little further by doing some crunches. I am not going to spend the time explaining crunches when so much has been written and anyone who has done any workout program has had to do crunches. Why should we do crunches as riders? I like the words of Tom Holmes in The Total Rider, Your abdominals are engaged in nearly every movement you make. They enable you to flex forward at the waist, to twist at the waist, to stabilize your trunk and to use your arms and legs in independent and coordinated movements. Weak abdominal muscles contribute to poor balance and agility and to the development of chronic lower back problems.

I like to work a set of three classics in rotation. The opposite elbow to knee and center. That means left elbow to right knee, center crunch straight forward elbows to knees and then right elbow to left knee. Find what you can do, work at it and expand upon it. You can start with your feet on the ground knees bent, to raised legs, to pulling the legs in as you rise in the crunch. It doesn t take long before the breeches get looser around the middle!

After crunches I stretch out flat again and evaluate how my body feels. If time allows, I will work some further tone work on my back, turn over and get on my hands and knees and work the classic cat stretches, roaching and arching my back. Any time during the day, when I think of it, I can do standing leg work. For me, mounting has become a problem with the left hip. I prefer not to use a mounting block yet so I am doing the rom exercises I have been taught. I stand straight, legs not locked at the knee, and I bring one leg up at a time to a point on the wall. (You can do this in the shower if you have a good non slip floor or mat.) Stand as close as you can and flex up from the hip joint. You don t bring the leg up straight. You bend the knee. Make believe you are trying to reach the stirrup correctly and not just for the size of a Shetland pony! I will bring the leg up to the top of my desk, to the top of the washer, anything I can reach and do some reps. To make it more aerobic, put your arms over your head with the palms facing your ears and just keep them there as you do the high leg lifts. To make it even harder and more of a toning for the upper torso, hold some sort of straight bar between your hands (couple of feet apart) and work the arms up and down with either the up or down rhythm of your leg work. A sawed off broom stick or a thick section of dowel works great.  Know what your limits are. Total cost to my schedule is between 15 and 30 minutes. Just about what I have been told the girls are doing at the new gym downtown, but I didn t have to take the hour to drive there and back.

For weight work I am attempting to think before I lift, pull or shove things around during the day. Something we all need to do. As I looked at the aged gelding in cross ties, I tried to compare how he felt with how I felt and what I could do for him to start his program. This horse lives a solitary life in that although he lives where there are other horses, he has no contact with them. There is no play time with pasture mates. He walks from his stall to his paddock to his stall. Once in a while he hears the call of the wild and acts like it, but most often he can be found napping. He is a willing partner under saddle, but how can the owner help him more?

 I would like to follow the work of Froissard in flexions, but few of my students have the time for that study. Yet how can we mirror image the same work, for as Froissard states in Classical Horsemanship for Our Time, The system of flexions is the only surefire one not only to supple but relax a horse; only in that state can he move in perfect balance, so to become a truly good ride. It also allows for more effective utilization of animals of poor or mediocre conformation. He continues with, A horse will obviously relax more readily at slow paces, and what could be slower than the halt?

I thought, why not carrot stretches. This would be a good place to start and to continue. Carrot stretches are pleasing to the equine, make the owners feel good and will get the job done eventually if they are done consistently. I can hear the complaints already. How some horses will get nippy, how some horses will get too excited. Yes, some horses get trained to the routine and on occasion, as I have had happen, will be doing their stretches without being asked. I don t think it is a dangerous behavior, just a little obsessive compulsive behavior to be found in some hot bloods. Keep it a routine and don t play with it, use it as a tool.

I like the following stretches with most horses I work with, but you may work with more or less. It depends on conformation and present development. Nothing is going to work quickly. You don t need to drill this work, just two or three reps of each stretch, trying to get the horse to hold the move for several seconds if they can. Just a quick note of caution here. When you first start some of these stretches be careful as to where you are standing and what is going on around you. I had the old gelding doing an upward flexion and I was standing right in front of him when someone came in the back door of the barn and startled him. He could have gone right over me, but thankfully, he didn t. It is always safer to stand to the side, doing any of this work. I start this work in halter and lead, nothing else on. In later stages, when working in hand, you could be in full equipment. It is interesting to note that equipment problems will show up if a horse can flex without equipment on and then can t with it on. Most notably, saddle fit problems will surface.

1. Head high, the giraffe or trying to get them to stretch the neck up from the chest and out from the withers. You may have to get up on a small step stool if you have a really tall horse. I want them to stretch up as if they were trying to get the leaves off a tree limb over their heads. Go up and then out with the stretch if you can. It will all depend on the neck you are working with. I remember my late Caliph doing this out in the field and then amazing me as he reared in balanced levade and grabbed the higher leaves. Another equine, named Genesis, aged but still with us, could do the same. Both these equines had wonderful neck range of motion from birth, as well as control over their body, but neither were stall kept. Body in motion, stays in motion.

For the aged gelding who I had standing in the barn alley, this was a next to impossible stretch for him the first time we tried it. He loves carrots, but it must have hurt to try to lift his head up high and then stretch his neck out to reach for it, because he gave up. I gave him the carrot and coaxed again and he kept trying. He cocked his head a lot as well, so I kept shifting from one side to the other so that he didn t just flex one way. It has taken a few weeks but he is coming up high and straight forward with this stretch now and I may be imagining it, but his neck seems longer and finer. Maybe we should rename this work equine yoga !

2. After going up high and out with the neck and head, I want to do just the opposite by bringing the head and neck down as far as I can, the downward flexion. The horse may just touch the ground in front of the front feet or take the head between the legs, into the bow position. I have some horses that can do this standing square, others will bring the inside leg (on your side) or outside leg forward and still others, most notably one, scared me when he went to his knee the first time. Be careful when you first start this stretch because you really can t predict what is going to happen. You just want the horse to lower its neck and head as much as they are comfortable. I try to imagine how I want the horse to learn the classic forward and down exercise, eventually under saddle.

3. The term poll flexion in itself is a myth. How can it exist without the relaxation of the jaw as well as the support of the correct structure of the neck? I don t want to try to figure it out, I just want my horses to be able to give with this freedom of range of motion. With the neck raised you carrot bribe the horse to bring their chin in toward their upper chest. Some horses with a lovely free arched neck don t need to do this stretch. The old gelding, with his thick throat latch, made some funny faces trying to somehow open his mouth wide enough to get the carrot, until finally he was able to arch through the correct muscles from his topline, that have taken several years to develop from an upside down neck.

 Long before the modern day modalities came into vogue, I was taught a similar stretch to do for my riding because I have a long neck. Sitting as straight as possible, with no arch in my back, with my shoulders back, I allow my chin to fall in toward my chest. Not an easy move and you may notice you want to open your jaw. Done correctly, you will feel the stretch between your shoulder blades, sometimes one side more than the other, which will note your unilateral development. Funny, the equine can have the same problem!

4. Side or lateral flexions of the head and neck can be achieved by the classic carrot to hip stretch with you standing off the same side or reaching over from the opposite side if you can. The horse should not move and you need to be realistic in the early stages of this stretch. Some horses will have a difficult time. Give them a chance to work into it slowly. I like to put my hand against the horses neck, at the shoulder crease and ask the horse to flex into a bend toward me, without shifting on to the inside shoulder. This is more like a true lateral flexion exercise as you would ask for under saddle. Work it from both sides of the horse.

The carrot stretches can accomplish a lot for the head and neck but what about the shoulder, forearm and the hindquarters?

If your back is getting stronger and you can safely manipulate your horses four legs without risk of being kicked, then range of motion exercises from a lifted position would help them. Used therapeutically after injury, these stretches can also help pre-work out. It would really help if you had an assistant to hold the horse. Some horses will stand in cross ties for this. Most of my horses have learned just to stand ground tied in the alley or it gets done in the stall. Just don t rush through the pictures you saw in some magazine article or found  in a book. (Deborah M. Britt s book Horse Training Basics has good pictures under the human touch section of training.)

Take some time with these moves. The horse who has never done any of this is going to need time to develop trust and accept the moves. There may be a tug of war at first and it may just be too physical for you to accomplish. I work all the positions that a blacksmith puts the horse in except that I attempt to keep the leg in alignment with the body. I do the front leg lift with bent knee as well as straight out and then bring the leg back under the body, working the shoulder. Hind leg work, the same, flexing the hock and bring the leg bent up and under the body and then bent up and back out behind the body. Be careful, go slow and try to keep the leg in the stretch for several seconds.

There are two methods of touch that can be used with some horses to lift their backs. Both methods can be dangerous and you need to be cautious. One way is to reach under the equine, facing forward and palpate the midline with a stiff finger tip and see if the horse will lift the back. Some horses will actually get trained to do this move, especially if you treat them. The other method is the more difficult and can be the one that causes a horse to react more violently if they are in pain. By applying point pressure above and to each side of the dock, on the rump, midway to the sacral joint, you will find, eventually, a place where your horse will goose their rump down and lift their backs. It is an amazing movement of range of motion. Here again, once a horse has been worked through the movement, given praise for good behavior, they accept what is going on with their response. (I have had horses kick out at me and really get quite upset at the first attempts at this. Why not, they had sore back syndrome).

If time allows before you ride, lead your horse around and try working some close bends in toward you and some turns away from you and even some lateral work, all done at a walk. In an upcoming article I have in the works, I will be teaching about lateral in hand. Anything that you can do to get your horse stretched out and more relaxed before you ride is worth a few extra minutes of your time.


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