Most therapeutic riding horses are older and their work does not typically involve balance and bend work. The horses are asked to walk in straight lines or wide turns or listen to a beginner rider just turning their head. Outside of therapeutic riding, horses would usually have a warm-up and cool down period, do neck stretches and back stretches, and bend to a centered, balanced rider. We need to give our therapy horses a little extra care to make sure they stay healthy and happy.
First, stretch your horses! Therapeutic work is extremely stressful for the horse. The high stress levels can lead to a hollowed back, short strides, and a tight neck. Stretching can help alleviate the stress and some of the aches and pains that go along with it. As I mentioned, therapeutic horses are usually a bit older so, just like people, stretching is important before and after exercise.
Don’t stretch a cold horse. Make sure the horse is warmed up with a little walking or turnout before starting stretches. I like to do a short stretch routine with my horses. Starting with the neck and back, I do carrot stretches. There are several variations of carrot stretches, but I like the ones linked. The important part of carrot stretches is to get the horse to bend the entire neck. Don’t let the horse break at the poll and twist their head to reach the carrot. After the horse’s top line is stretched out, I like to stretch their legs. There are some great tips for stretching here.
In addition to stretches, there are mounted and unmounted exercises to help your horses. Poles help strengthen the horse’s back and engage their hind end. Walk or trot the horse over poles at different heights and lengths. Lifted poles will encourage the horse to lift their shoulders and haunches. Changing the distance of the poles gets the horse to stretch, lengthen, and shorten their strides.
Another exercise to do is any type of bending or lateral movement. A proper circle, serpentine, or figure eight can make the horse more supple. Again, make sure the horse bends through the entire topline and doesn’t break at the poll. Lateral movements like leg yields, haunches-in, and shoulder-in help create balance in the horse’s movement. This makes for a stronger, more centered horse that is better able to handle an off-centered rider.
Do you do any more stretches or exercises with your horses? I’d love to hear more ideas down below! Let me know if you try this with your horses.