Remember the last time you treated yourself to some good thorough pampering?
Maybe you went to a spa hotel and spent the day swimming, resting, being massaged and doing some yoga, pilates or meditation – or you ran yourself a nice hot bath at home, read a book and had a nice cup of tea with it.
Why do we do this?
Because it is important for body and mind to properly relax every now and then, it keeps us healthy and sane.
This gets even more important for sports people, and our horses definitely are sports people!
Sports horses get pampered regularly, of course, they have baths and solariums after, they have regular appointments with their physiotherapists and osteopaths and most importantly, they get gymnasticised well.
Of course, this is not really practical or financially doable for many pleasure riders.
If you are, however, interested in alleviating your buddy from tensions and supporting your training with treatments, there are many things you can do yourself without having to worry about harming your horse.
These practices are, of course, in no way a replacement for your vet and schooled osteopath if there’s severe physical problems or injuries.
I myself have been reading lots of books, articles and blogs about alternative treatments for horses such as massage, the Masterson Method, TTouch and stretching techniques and have developed my own little layman’s routine to release tensions and improve flexibility in my old horse as well as the ones’ I work with for my clients.
It’s a mixture of Jim Masterson’s Meridian technique to diagnose soreness and tension, Linda Tellington’s TTouch, several traditional massage methods as well as stretches and lifts I do with the horses.
(Since autumn 2016 I’ve been studying to become a physiotherapist and osteopath for horses myself, so watch this space. More tips to come…)
This in combination with specific ground training exercises to make the horses more limber and supple and dressage exercises according to the “Gymnasium of the Horse” – adapted to riding without a bit or spores, makes for well-rounded, relaxed and strong horses that are well balanced on their legs and have a strong neck, back and hindquarters in order to carry their riders even to a very old age.
First of all, you’ll want to have a good look at your horse:
- Does it stand square on all four legs or does it lean forward with its front legs tilted?
Hint: Your horse should stand balanced and square with all four legs perpendicular to the ground.
- Does it favour one leg frequently? (Compare some pics on your phone)
- Are its jaws relaxed or tight?
- Does it clench its lower lip or is it hanging relaxed?
- Is its neck relaxed and soft with strong muscles along the topline or is there unwanted muscle on the underside?
- Is its skin easy to move around when rubbing it or are there tense areas?
- Does it shy away or push against the light touch of your hand anywhere?
- Does your horse walk relaxed and with rhythm or is it rather stiff, does it take short steps?
- Does it step underneath its belly well and flex its hips and knee joints in its hind legs?
- Does it bend well in each direction? Which one is better?
- Does it fall onto its inside foreleg when you walk it into a tight circle line?
- How does it carry its tail? Is it tight and up or tight and down or relaxed?
- Check how it moves on the lunge, get someone else to lunge it and watch from the outside with some distance. This is what it should look like:
As a second step I use the Masterson Bladder Meridian technique to diagnose tensions, this way horses often release their tensions simply by concentrating on the sore spot and letting go themselves. This is clearly visible by chewing and licking, snorting, shifting weight from leg to leg, shuddering or even yawning. Because your horse has to work with you doing this, make sure its in a calm place without food or other distractions.
Here’s where you can find Jim Masterson’s video instructions on how to do this: https://www.mastersonmethod.com/training-videos.html
After going along the entire meridian from poll to hinlegs, leaving my hand at the spots where the horse shows it has a problem until it releases visibly, I continue going back to the sore spots from front to back and massaging them. The only important thing here is to start with soft rubbing and only increasing intensity if the horse doesn’t push back or evade, meaning its relaxed and letting you massage the knots out. Usually, after doing this a few times they get the hang of it and even direct you towards the soreness.
Its quite useful to start massaging a spot by using the TTouch method as it loosens up the tense area and prepares the horse for more invasive massaging.
Wesley is quite used to his spa days by now and relaxes quickly – in these pictures you can see his soft eyes, relaxed jaw and lower lip, the lazy ears and the fact that he lowers his neck so I don’t need a ladder…
… five seconds before taking these pictures he yawned 5 times in a row – wouldn’t let us catch him on camera though!
My stretch and release routine
Once he’s soft and relaxed I do some full-body stretches with him. These stretches I do every day while grooming before a ride or in the arena before I get on – a great way of establishing a connection and prepare for work together. And I see how he’s feeling today.
Neck stretches or carrot stretches:
- Vertical stretch
With this stretch you can mimic an intense forward downward movement. Best to use is a piece of carrot that you dangle in front of your horse nose to encourage it into a forward extension, then slowly move it down to the ground and inbetween its front hooves, hold it for a few seconds, then let it take it.
Lengthen time of holding each time until your horse can hold the position for 20 seconds.
- Lateral – left and right
This one requires the same procedure, but with you standing next to its shoulder, encouraging it to wrap its long extended neck around you. A healthy horse should be able to reach its flank without moving its body.
Go as far as it can, lengthening the stretches and hold times before it gets the piece of carrot each time, until it can hold for 20 seconds. Repeat on the other side.
Leg releases and stretches:
With the legs, I work diagonally – i.e. left front, right back, right front, left back. These help your horse to get a better sense of balance and it squares itself out. Take care that your head and toes are out of reach, there might be some resistance in the beginning.
- Front leg release (after Jim Masterson)
With this one you can release your horse’s shoulder – most horses hold a lot of tension there and you can encourage them to let go. Its important to hold the leg so that the toe hangs loose, the movement is backwards-downwards.
You should see the shoulder dropping.
- Front leg stretch
This stretches your horses leg, shoulder and back muscles and ligaments – all horses really enjoy this one once they’ve gotten the hang of it and cease resistance. It is important to have the leg joints stretched through. Do not to force it, you will clearly feel a little push and release when your horse lets go and lets the stretch happen. Should your horse move backwards, stop and have someone help him into a forward movement by gentle pulling the halter forward and down while you are stretching its leg.
- Back leg release (after Jim Masterson)
This release technique helps your horse to let go tension in the lumbar region, hip, knee and hock joints – when done correctly this greatly relaxes your horse.
Watch out to hold the hind leg so that the toe hangs loose, the movement is downward – some soft wriggling might help. You want your horse to show signs of relaxation, lower its hip and croup towards this side and loosely put the hoof on its toe.
- Back leg stretch backward
This way you can stretch your buddies belly, stifle, front muscles of the hind quarter and back. You pull the relaxed leg backwards, around the hight of its hocks until it gives and stretches back. Make sure not to stand directly behind when you pull, it can happen that a nerve makes the leg push back rapidly.
- Back leg stretch forward
After the hind leg is relaxed, you can gently pull the hoof underneath its belly. The movement is forward, close to the ground – towards the corresponding front leg. The toe should hang loose and the stretch is complete when the horse releases the heel to the ground. You might want to help by slightly lifting the toe up with a finger – just make sure to get your fingers out before it hits the ground!
- Hip opener – left and right
Stand behind your horses left back leg, gently push your right hand underneath its tail and feel with the base of your thumb (pointing up) until you find a good handhold – the Ischium (No 17 in the image below) joint between the pelvis and femur.
Then you start pushing gently, increasing up until you have your entire weight against it. The horse will push back. Hold it for 10 – 20 seconds, then release relatively suddenly. Not too suddenly if your horse is new to it, it might fall over! Repeat on the other side.
- These exercises can be complemented by belly and back lifts that strengthen your horse’s core muscles – if you aren’t familiar with those, there’s lots of instructions on how to properly do those on youtube.
I can only recommend to make this little stretch and release routine part of your grooming or exercise session every time – you will soon notice how your horse enjoys it and it improves flexibility and blood circulation in the muscles you are trying to build.
Have fun with your horse!