To promote healthy muscles, cartilage, and bones in a horse’s back, there are many suppling and stretching exercises out there that can help. Well-fitting gear, an appropriate diet, a well-balanced and fit rider, and a well-managed exercise routine are also needed to really give your horse the best possible options, but the following are a series of techniques that can be done with relatively little investment.
First: “Carrot” Stretches
Horses love treats enough to even do exercise for them. Carrot stretches are longitudinal and latitudinal stretches of the neck and back, inspired by a carrot. Unlike lopsided side-reins being used to “stretch” a horse’s neck, the horse has nothing to brace against, and reaches for the stretch (carrot) voluntarily.
The equipment needs are simple: carrots, and a horse restrained by a halter and leadrope. Ideally the horse will keep his or her feet still, and will reach out for the carrot (and be rewarded with small chunks of it), as the handler moves the carrot to different parts of the body. If they do move their feet, use the halter to ask the horse to return to the original position, and ask again. Each stretch should ideally be held for between 10-15 seconds. If the horse struggles with one side, or one stretch more than others, this can be an indication of a need for a chiropractic session and potentially a tack and riding readjustment.
The following pictures are great examples of four primary stretches that you can ask the horse to assume. The full series can be found here and includes some great chiropractic advice as well: http://depaoloequineconcepts.wordpress.com/2012/04/10/the-basics-of-carrot-stretches/
Second: Pole Work.
Trotting poles placed on the ground are a great way to teach a horse to lift their feet, stretch or restrain their stride length, and also to relax around unfamiliar activities. A horse who has never jumped before, or who tends to rush when confronted by jumps, can be encouraged to relax and think more clearly by stretching with poles on a semi-regular basis. In addition, the horse is encouraged to become more responsive to the handler on the ground, and develop their problem-solving skills, while learning to stretch long and low across a grid of poles.
There is a massive variety of pole exercises that you can build out there, but you don’t always need a lot of poles to build these. When setting poles up though, consider the following measurements as starting points for the speed of the proposed exercise:
Walk: Up to 90cm apart.
Trot: Up to 1.25m apart.
Canter: Up to 3m apart.
These measurements reflect the average length of a horse’s stride at these speeds, but can be adjusted to suit your horse’s normal, shortened, and lengthened steps.
This first picture from Jim Wofford’s book shows a good introductory pole exercise, using the entirety of a riding arena.
This set-up is intended to be ridden at a trot, and encourages the horse to focus on lifting their feet and shifting their stride length as the rider requests. However, this same grid can also be lunged, provided that the handler is able to control the horse’s direction accurately. If a horse is prone to diving out and wobbling around on the lunge line, then a much smaller grid, that can be walked or trotted alongside the handler, is a better starting point.
By watching or feeling how the horse moves over the poles, you can identify their stronger and weaker sides, as well as their reluctance or enthusiasm to lift and stretch certain parts of their body.
If you are looking for a higher step, then you can prop poles up and guide the horse (under saddle or on the lunge) over a grid like this. Once again, the horse’s willingness to lift and stretch, or decision to rush and hollow their back/hit the poles, gives a good indication of their fitness and calmness.
If you want to test a horse’s thinking capabilities, you can use poles to build mazes, requiring small steps, big stretches, turns-on-the-haunches or forehand, and side pass. You can also alternate the distances between just a line of normal poles, requiring spontaneous adjustments of stride. All of these moves demonstrate and build fitness and suppleness, as well as requiring a certain amount of brain power! Some examples are below: