During my equine bodywork practice I work mostly with horses who are suffering from performance limitations due to restrictions in their musculature, which were developed due to biomechanical habits or compensation for other underlying issues.
While some owners or trainers are interested in learning the basic techniques of the Masterson Method™ after seeing real-time improvements in their horse’s range of motion during the bodywork, others would like to do something a little more ‘low tech’ to help their horse stay supple in between.
Active stretching with a bait – also called ‘Carrot Stretches’ – are a great way of enabling your horse to loosen up and gain or retain range of motions, even into old age!
Furthermore, it increases your popularity with your horse!
An Important Difference: Active vs. Passive Stretching with Horses
What are active stretches?
Active Stretches are exercises where the horse is encouraged – via bait, such as a carrot – to stretch as far as his abilities allow. He may increase the stretch or go beyond of what he thought he could do, but will never overstretch beyond the abilities of his soft tissue, such as muscles and ligaments. Therefore, active stretching – where the horse determines the amount of stretch – is a ‘no harm’, riskless and fun way to get your horse into that nimble state we so much desire.
What are passive stretches?
Passive Stretches are exercises where the horse’s handler determines the amount of stretch and the horse passively goes along. We have all seen publications where horses’ limbs are stretched out at a 90˚ angle to the front… The temptation to see our horse perform these types of exercises is great. We need to remember, however, that these passive types of stretches can easily be overdone and cause damage to soft tissue such as muscle fibers or ligaments, if performed on cold muscles or on an overly compliant horse, who will not express his discomfort. These types of stretches are best performed persons who have received hands-on training and have obtained the necessary background knowledge (contraindications, anatomy, etc.) in order to do no harm.
How to Perform Basic Carrot Stretches
The principle is easy: You hold out the bait and the horse reaches for it. A carrot is the preferred bait, since it’s long and will save you a finger or two, if a misunderstanding arises regarding the exact measurement of the bait… To be completely on the safe side, you may want to wear gloves and use a disposable cup cover to protect your hand, if needed. (You know, the type you get at the fast food place, simply stick carrot through straw hole…)
What is the purpose: The purpose of the bait stretches is to encourage your horse to move through his full range of motion in the direction that you are setting in the respective exercise. This means, that your horse experiences his full range of motion, how far he actually can move his neck around, for example, without exerting force or creating resistance, which is often the case when we use tack to encourage the horse to bend. Horses, just as humans, often never use their full range of motion for anything. Doing so re-educates the body and mind, lets muscles relax and releases long-standing tension. And, just as in humans (we are all made of the same stuff…), the more frequently you perform these stretches, the more nimble your horse will be.
Basic Carrot Stretch Exercises
1. To the shoulder/elbow
Benefits: Loosens up head/neck and neck/shoulder junctions, increases flexibility in vertebrae of the neck by loosening up surrounding muscles
2. To the hip around you
Benefits: Loosens up neck/shoulder junction, increases flexibility in vertebrae of the neck by loosening up surrounding muscles, stretches the bracchiocephalicus muscle and thus aids in developing range of motion in the front limb, good stretch for rib cage and shoulder
3. To the girth line
Benefits: Opens/releases head neck junction, nice stretch for ligaments of the top line
4. To the front down
Benefites: Stretches/releases tension in ligaments of the top line
5. To the outside of the front hoof
Benefits: nice stretch for shoulder and neck
There are quite a few more you may incorporate into your daily routine.
When Should You Perform Carrot Stretches with Your Horse?
Personally, I like to perform carrot stretches as a routine right after grooming. I feel that this is an added ‘quality time’ that adds value to our rewarding and happy grooming routine. You can do these stretches on cold or warm muscles, no harm will be done, as the horse determines the amount of stretch.
Stall-bound horses in rehab can also benefit. Check with your vet to be sure your horse is ready for these types of exercises!
What if I don’t like to feed my horses ‘treats’?
It is understandable, that some of us may prefer not to feed our horse treats for training reasons. On the other hand, a ‘food reward’ has been proven to be a highly motivating factor in horse behavior. If you manage to set the rules straight (e. g. : You only get the carrot after the correct stretch, no treats outside of exercises!) your horse will be intelligent enough to understand it. Consistency is the key.
I’d be interested to hear about your experiences with carrot stretches. Please do drop me a line to firstname.lastname@example.org or comment below.
Enjoy your horse!