Passive Stretching in the Horse

Horse actively stretching in a pasture.
Horse actively stretching in a pasture.

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Passive stretching has come into vogue for many horse people, but there are some cautions to consider before you jump into it.

When your horse reaches out for a carrot, he is doing an "active stretch." The same is true of those big leg stretches some horses do after a long trailer ride or when getting up from lying down. In an active stretch, your horse controls just how far muscles, ligaments, tendons, and joints get pulled. The odds of your horse hurting himself doing an active stretch are very low.

In contrast, a passive stretch means that someone else (in this case, you) is controlling the stretch. On a normal horse you aren't likely to cause any injury, though it is possible. Many of these stretches are not natural for a horse and he may tighten up against you or resent the unusual posture.

Preliminaries before passive stretching

Annemarie Bright, a Soft Tissue Specialist and Therapist at Musclebound points out, "I have quite strong views about passive stretching and do not recommend anyone carry these out unless they are fully trained and understand the physiology of the horse."

"The benefits are great, if carried out correctly, but it only works if the relevant soft tissues have been released prior to any stretch taking place. Just as with any athlete, you don't want to jump into some stretches without properly warming up the muscles and other tissues. Brisk hand walking may be adequate."

"I cannot stress enough that passive stretching must not be carried out prior to an evaluation of the soft tissue groups involved in the stretch. They should not be done unless the tissue is mobilized, elastic and supple. If stretches are undertaken under any other circumstance, it is highly likely that small tears and bleeding will ensue with the tissue. Ligaments can be over stretched and tendons can be damaged. All of this can have a major impact on the respective joint," emphasizes AnneMarie.

If your horse is coming back from an injury or being rehabbed, it is possible you could do some damage. Before you attempt any stretches on a horse in this condition, you should get an OK from your veterinarian.

In addition, simply looking at photos may not give you an accurate picture of how to do these stretches correctly. A video is better, and having a certified equine physical therapist show you in a "hands on" way is best of all.

Other concerns before you attempt passive stretches are to be sure you have good footing and to have a partner to help control your horse. You don't want your horse to slip while you have one leg up in the air. A partner can help keep both you and your horse safe, especially if your horse has never had these stretches done before.

Five basic stretches

  1. The Forelimb Retractor requires you to pull your horse's front leg out straight. This can increase range of motion in the forelimb, increase stride length, and help give the tendons a workout.
  2. In Hindlimb Retraction, you are pulling that powerful hind limb forward. This can help with jumping and engagement of the rear for other work.
  3. The Hindlimb Abductor pulls many of these same muscles forward and in. This can help with flexibility and lateral work. Both of these are fairly unnatural stretches for a horse and care must be taken when introducing these.
  4. The Hindlimb Protractor counteracts the flexing tendency of the hip muscles and can help with back strains.
  5. The Back Stretch - using the tail - helps with the lower spine and can lead to a longer stride.

Passive limb stretches that are useful

Hilary M. Clayton, professor at the College of Veterinary Medicine at Michigan State University and a well-known biomechanics researcher and dressage trainer, says, "I mostly use dynamic stretches these days (carrot stretches) rather than passive stretches because I think they get better results, especially for strengthening the core muscles. They are safer for the horse because they largely remove the risk of over-stretching."

"That said, there are some passive limb stretches that are useful. I've always focused my efforts on the proximal limbs but I do know others use gentle passive motion of the distal joints and I have no objection to those - it's more a limitation of the amount of time available."

More specifically, Dr. Clayton states, "The passive stretching exercises I use most involve moving the hip joint into flexion, extension, abduction, and adduction. I also like the same type of exercises for the shoulder. These exercises and stretches have a place in maintaining ROM both in maintenance and rehab, but you need to be careful when to start doing exercises that stretch an injured area."

A study from 2009 in England suggested that doing too many of these passive stretches (some horses were done six days a week) can actually decrease ROM in some horses. Also, not all horses were comfortable with the procedures. Stretching up to three times a week may be helpful.

The bottom line is that passive stretching is not something to be undertaken lightly. Be sure to educate yourself. It would be worthwhile to pay for a tutorial from a trained equine physical therapist or your veterinarian.

Dig deeperTM

N. S. Rose, A. J. Northrop, C. V. Brigden, J. H. Martin. Effects of stretching regime on stride length and range of motion in equine trot. The Veterinary Journal (2009) 181, 53-55.

About the Author

Deb M. Eldredge, DVM

Deb M. Eldredge, DVM is a Cornell graduate and horse lover from early childhood. She was active in 4-H and Pony Club, riding mostly huntseat but also Western. She has competed in various horse show venues as well as competitive trail rides and small three day events. At Cornell she was a member of the Women's Polo team.

Dr. Eldredge is a national award winning writer from both the Cat Writers Association and the Dog Writers Association of America. She lives in upstate NY on a small farm with 3 elderly horses, 1 miniature horse and 2 donkeys as well as various other animals.

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