Stretching with the aid of a treat – usually carrots – is a great way to keep your horse flexible without causing any damage. So-called “Carrot Stretches” can be found all over YouTube and the internet. However, it is important to do it right to get a real benefit.
“Carrot Stretches” are active or dynamic stretches, meaning the horse needs to perform the stretch. In comparison, there are ‘passive’ stretches, where the handler effects the stretch, usually by applying a pulling force to the respective limb.
Please note this important difference:
Active or dynamic stretches – like the ones shown below – can be performed any time with a cold horse. The horse will never injure himself, you cannot overdo it!
Passive stretches can cause damage to soft tissues if performed on a cold horse and —if unintentionally overdone— even on a warm horse.
Therefore, I DO NOT RECOMMEND PASSIVE STRETCHING as it can result in injury.
Carrot Stretches – Safe, Fun, Effective!
Here my tips for safe & fun, basic carrot stretches that help keep your horse flexible and supple:
The Horse Situp
Your goal is to encourage the horse to raise the back by stimulating a reflex when stroking across the gluteal muscles.
Have a relaxed horse and stand sideways behind the horse or place a hay bale between you and the horse’s hind end.
Use your stiff thumbs or a safe tool like a quarter coin to apply some pressure to the left and right of the sacrum.
When you see a slight reaction from your horse – lifting the back or tensing muscles without showing a pain response – glide down the gluteals toward the ‘poverty groove’, attempting to elicit a response where the horse raises the back (see image 2).
Practice this with a safe horse. Once you experience the amount of pressure you need, it will come easier.
To the girth line
Hold the treat by the girth line. The horse should reach for it, stretching the muscles around the wither area.
Your horse may need some help in understanding what is asked. Patience is the key!
In image 3 you see Paladin ‘cheating’. He is a little club-footed in the left front and wanted to minimize the stretch. Ideally, the horse will keep the legs straight.
To the outside of the front foot
Images 4 and 7 show how this is done correctly.
The horse stretches the opposite side of the neck and shoulder and brings the back up.
Note: Paladin once again ‘cheated’ a little in image 4. Do not insist on correctness, rather work towards it slowly.
To the point of hip
Image 5 shows how nicely Paladin can reach for the point of hip.
I started by the shoulder and guided him toward the hip, rewarding him with the carrot once this position is reached.
Tip: If you can let your horse eat the carrot slowly, you will maximize the benefit.
On images 6 and 8 you see how different horses solve this challenge according to to their ability.
The paint horse made it easy for himself by stepping forward with the left front, even on several attempts.
Start easy with what the horse can do and build up over time.
To the elbow
Image No. 9 shows how the horse is reaching for the treat by the elbow or lower shoulder.
Schedule your carrot stretches twice weekly.
Cut the carrots into manageable pieces, not too long (‘snatchers’ like Paladin will munch the entire carrot at once…) and not too small (save your fingers!).
Always aim for what your horse can do, then take it up a notch next week.
We humans are amazing animals. With our consciousness, drive, intelligence and stamina, as well as our ability to conceptualize and plan, we accomplish great things and have thus made our mark on the planet (for better or worse…).
Yet, we still feel puzzled by our horses.
Why can we not achieve our training goal?
What is the reason for the ‘mystery lameness’ or
simple unwillingness of the horse to perform to the best of his abilities?
Being the true humans that we are, goal-oriented can-do attitude and all, we usually turn up the ‘chatter’, involve different or more specialists, various techniques or gadgets and DO, DO, DO, DO…
What is my point? I believe the answer to the above questions can—many times—lie in a different mode of operation. As retired Professor for Physics at the University of Oregon, Dr. Amit Goswami, puts it: “Don’t just DO, remember to BE! Change your mode from DO-DO-DO to DO-BE-DO!”
What does this have to do with our horses? The “BE” is time we simply spend with our horses. Togetherness in stress-free situations, meaning away from training/conditioning scenarios, vet visits and other activities with an agenda, can yield incredible results.
What kind of “BE”-activities are we talking about?
Going for walks (you walking with, not riding on the horse…)
Conscious grooming (without agenda, moving slowly, paying attention to the horse’s responses, letting him guide you through the process)
Taking your horse along when you want to chat with your barn buddy, simply stand there with him, relax and have your chat. He/she can ‘participate’. Same goes for watching someone else’s training (if environment is safe and appropriate).
Very slow and soft body exercises, such as lowering the head as described in “True Horsemanship through Feel” (Bill Dorrance 1998) or “Beyond Horse Massage” (Jim Masterson with Stefanie Reinhold 2011), followed by just sitting or standing together.
In short: Involve your horse in as many low-stress activities as possible. If you do it in a relaxed way, you can even get the mail together!
Caution: DO NOT INVOLVE FOOD OR SNACKS in any of those activities.
What are the benefits of such “BE”-time together?
By shutting out the chatter and the agenda that is usually attached to our every day activities, even with our horses, we become attuned to the horse. This can answer the question: “What does the horse think?” (In a very down-to-earth way, reading his responses.) This way we notice very subtle changes in his expression and learn to interpret our silent friend’s body language better. In turn, we can practice our own body language and level of relaxation and see how the horse responds to that.
We may become aware of physical areas of concern that the horse may have. Why so? As trust grows between you through simply doing what horses do together—hanging out—your horse may feel free to express unwellness or discomfort. One example would be a horse that suddenly stands on three legs, lifting the right front, for example, instead of putting weight on it.
Trust, as mentioned, is a big factor here. As you go for walks and engage in other simple ‘togetherness’ exercises, you get to know each other better and trust grows both ways. Trust is the basis for relaxation, which is the basis for wellness. In that alone, this type of “BE”-time can contribute to make the horse feel safe and relaxed around you, which may eliminate stress-related health problems like ulcers and muscular tension due to emotional stress.
Do you want you and your horse to be ‘attached at the hip’?
Do you want to learn how to read your horse’s slightest responses, body language and signs of unwellness?
Do you want to enjoy the benefits of ‘accidental meditation’ by quieting your mind in soft and stress-free activities with your horse?
>>>Then you are ready for “BE”-time!
To learn more about what kind of activities that can easily be incorporated in your every day interaction with your horse, drop me a line or visit my seminars page at. I’d love to meet you and share experiences in one of my 1-day seminars for horse owners.
Enjoy your horse and remember to DO-BE-DO-BE-DO!!!
If you read The Horse’s Back (part 1) “How to detect back problems in your horse”, you already know whether you suspect your horse to suffer from discomfort in the back. And you already know that symptoms may be anything from an unwillingness/inability to step under to bucking and rearing, in extreme cases.
So now that you know how to spot some back issues, you will want to know what to do about them. We could now get into gymnasticizing, horse massage, equine bodywork, liniments, supplements, Jägermeister or Guinness in horse feed (;-)… But whoa! First let’s look at possible causes. Only if we identify possible causes will we be able to address them effectively—not just tinker around with the symptoms.
According to my experience, the following are the three major root causes for back discomfort in horses:
Saddle fit is the number one concern when we look at a horse’s back health. Here, we need to consider two equally important aspects:
1) How does the saddle fit the horse?
2) How does the saddle fit the rider?
If the saddle fits your horse but not you, you will be unbalanced in the saddle, which is just as uncomfortable to the horse as an ill-fitting saddle. A saddle that is comfortable for you but doesn’t fit the horse is a torture instrument for the horse.
Tree size, length, ‘rock’, balance, rigging, all these are elements that need to be considered in Western and English saddles.
Too small – pinches around the area of upper edge of scapular cartilage (the soft cartilage around your horse’s shoulder blade) RESULT: restricted range of motion, ‘laziness’, stumbling, falling
Too large – saddle sits too low on the withers, saddle tilts forward, takes rider out of balance (pain in the withers) RESULT: ‘laziness’, reluctance to being saddled, doesn’t want to trot or canter, rushing, rearing
You say: “No problem, my horse’s saddle does not have a tree!” Please recheck the fit: Treeless saddles are the perfect solution for some breeds or horse/rider combinations, but NOT for all.
Too short – only if the saddle is too small for the rider RESULT: rider gets out of balance, uncomfortable for the horse, horse holds his back tight and doesn’t round
Too long – Hea ye, hear ye! This is THE main cause of saddle related back problems I see in my practice. The weight bearing area of the horse’s back ENDS with the last rib. Anything beyond that causes a myriad of problems RESULT: not stepping under, tightness in lumbar, not taking left/ride canter leads, hops during transitions, goes against the bit, grinds teeth, sweats quickly under the rider but not on the lunge line…. The list goes on.
Too much rock – pressure points due to unevenly distributed weight and rider’s imbalance in the seat RESULT: rushing, flighty and nervous behavior, hollows back, lifts head
Not enough rock – saddle is too straight and ‘bridges’. This is a problem often found in modern Western saddles. Not sure, who designs these saddles, but a horse’s back is NOT straight like a workbench. The result is pressure in the front of the saddle and in the back, with no or insufficient contact in the middle. RESULT: hollows back, lifts head, rushes, bucks or in more agreeable types: gets lazy or collapses. Main cause of ‘cold back’.
A very important, often overlooked element. Here, you will need to differentiate between English and Western saddles and the respective various types (dressage or jumping, reining or trail, for example). This discussion would go too far here, please see this article for resources.
If you feel this is an old hat and you got it all covered, please make sure that this is really the case. Regrettably, we sometimes get advice from ‘subject matter experts’ that steer us in the wrong direction, even those that are certified and especially those, who’d like to sell us a saddle. I would like to encourage you to do your own research. Here some resources:
Article: “How saddle fit contributes to your horse’s soundness”. This article contains a number of videos about English saddle fit, presented by Jochen Schleese. These contain good basic information about saddle fit and are not a sales pitch, worth watching. In this article, you will also find some links to recommended books and videos.
Here a word about “Mismatched” equipment: The horse does not care whether you ride in a brown bridle and a black saddle. But he does care whether you want to ride dressage in a jumping saddle, for instance, or do endurance in a dressage saddle. Your saddle has to fit the purpose. One example I encounter frequently: A rider has a multi-purpose saddle with focus on jumping, such as the good old Stubben Siegfried VSS I learned to ride on.
This is an excellent saddle if you… hack out a lot in the two-point seat, hunt, jump, if you post the trot and ride the canter in two-point. This saddle is NOT suitable for dressage or for any rider, who would like to actually sit in the saddle most of the time. It is not designed to distribute the weight accordingly and will make your horse’s back hurt, if you use it as it was not intended. Please take your time to research this further by means of the resources mentioned in my article above.
Yes, this is a touchy topic. Imbalance, heavy hands, hollowed backs, bracing, using stirrups incorrectly, using the dressage whip incorrectly (giving impulses at the wrong time), sitting heavy during the down-phase of the rising trot, imbalances in the rider’s anatomy, an unfit or overweight rider, all can contribute to a horse’s back discomfort. Rider fitness, confidence, riding technique and balance are important factors that all influence the horse’s back health. It is hard to take a good look at yourself. I know that from experience. However, you will reap the rewards if you do and so will your horse. Identify your goal, whether it’s getting in shape, overcoming some confidence challenges, losing a few pounds or brushing up on your riding skill and find a knowledgeable coach to take you to the next level.
THE HORSE’S MOVEMENT HABITS
We all have movement habits, and so do our horses. Your horse may have learned a certain inefficient self-carriage at some point in his life, either during early training or being ridden by a former owner, as a result of an old injury or a formerly ill-fitting saddle etc. This movement habit now needs to be identified and then actively ‘unlearned’ or rather replaced with a better, more efficient and more comfortable self-carriage. Recognizing a movement habit is a bit tricky. This involved a few steps from ruling out all other possible causes to seeing the horse is motion and under saddle. Postural re-education is a process that takes patience and knowledge and should be done with the help of a skilled equine professional or trainer.
And then there is also
Compensation – for pain/discomfort/restriction in other areas of the horse’
Conformation – not all horses are created equal!
And the ‘Fear Factors’ – pain, worry, anxiety manifest as back problems.
If you read to this point, you almost read a novel about ‘back problems’ and I thank you for your interest. There is a lot to consider and ponder, to learn and to evaluate. If you need help thinking things through or if you’d like someone to help you sort through some of these questions, please drop me a line firstname.lastname@example.org
Until next time, when we will take a look at “How to help your horse overcome back problems”.
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 email@example.com or comment below.
We all know as human beings and bipeds, that we are not completely symmetrical. One foot may be larger than another, one leg shorter, one body side stronger or one knee weaker. Our eye-glass prescription is different for each eye, we tend to have a leg that we prefer to jump on and tend to be left- or right-handed. We accept this as a given and work around it.
In horses, however, many of us don’t give symmetry a lot of thought. Yes, we know we should ‘straighten the crooked horse’ and that our horse has one ‘good side’ and a ‘bad side’, but are we really paying enough attention to the implications of asymmetry in horses in our everyday activities? Let’s take a closer look.
Asymmetry as a CAUSE for performance issues in horses: As the horse is a quadruped, we need to look at asymmetry in consideration of the nature of the biomechanics of a quadruped.
Generally speaking, this means that any irregularity I find, I will want to connect with anything I find in the diagonal.
Example: A horse has difficulty picking up the right lead. Due to the fact that the vet issues a clean bill of health, I suspect the horse has a biomechanical issue, an asymmetry or muscular tension that prevent him from using himself efficiently. During the course of several bodywork sessions, I discover that my horse’s spine seems bent slightly more to the left. The right shoulder is bigger and the right hind is restricted. Through bodywork and proper gymnasticizing, the horse soon gains muscular comfort and starts picking up the right lead without further ado.
However, since I became aware of my horse’s limitations, I now know what type of maintenance he needs in order to stay sound and performing well.
This is a typical case for asymmetry as the CAUSE for performance issues.
These types of issues are often addressed as training problems, causing the horse suffering and grief and the owner and trainer a never ending source of frustration.
Asymmetries as secondary issues, caused by other physical irregularities: Horses can display asymmetries that are noticeable to the beholder but are not the root cause of their performance issues, instead a symptom for another underlying problem.
This is where the example of the “Mini-Shank” comes in!
No, I don’t eat Minis, any horse meat at all, actually, and not much meat in general, but I had so much fun handling this Minis leg, that I could not simply call it a ‘leg’, it became a ‘shank’.
The Mystery of the “Mini-Shank”
When working on horses at St. Francis Horse Rescue and Retirement home. Mary Hetzel, Director and full-time ‘Mom’ to over 30 horses, introduced me to Rosie, a 12-year old Mini mare, who was in foal with her 10th foal (!!) and had recently been rescued out of a less than ideal situation.
The mare showed an irregular gait and hopped a bit when speeding up, which had led the vet to suspect a locking stifle, at first glance. Rosie’s hip on the left was severely dropped (asymmetry) and her spine looked torqued. Her left gluteals were rock-hard and smaller than the right (asymmetry) and she looked quite ‘crooked’ in the hind end.
The Masterson Method is a great tool to get to the bottom of things… and I soon came to the conclusion (during the exercise ‘pelvic drop to the front’) that her left hind leg must be shorter than her right hind leg (underlying cause for the symptom of asymmetry). Mary soon after measured the legs hip to toe and found the left hind to be an entire inch shorter than the right! For a mini with leg length of under 30” that’s quite a bit!
Asymmetry, whether as a cause for secondary issues or as a symptom of other underlying problems, must be assessed on an individual horse by horse (or mini…) basis. EVERY human and EVERY horse is slightly asymmetrical. Exploring and knowing your horse’s body like ‘the back of your hand’ will help you help him along, whatever his situation, physical make-up or training level.
Just like you know which is your weaker or stronger eye, bigger or smaller foot or longer or shorter leg, you should know your horse’s asymmetries. It will help you do the right thing for your horse and help you help him stay well.
One way to get in tune with your horse’s body and help him feel and perform his best, is to practice interactive bodywork with horses, such as the Masterson Method, which is also a great ‘fact finding’ tool when it comes to your horse’s anatomical asymmetry. For a class schedule and more information (also about hosting a weekend seminar) please visit Jim Masterson’s website.
Nelly (27) and Lady (28) are a senior draft horse team – Morgan/Percheron crosses and full sisters – that have been working the farms at Old World Wisconsin in Eagle, WI, for the past 17 years. Owner, care taker and historic farmer Bryan Zaeske calls them ‘the best team I ever worked with’. Nelly is the the slightly smaller, but also livelier of the two. According to Bryan, Nelly gets her kicks, if she is allowed to really step out and be a little frisky. Lady is a bit more reserved and the calmer one during team work. Their lives resemble the lives of a typical farm horse only a little more over 100 years ago. They are used to plough, thresh grain, make hay, pull a carriage and for logging. Nelly and Lady – the two senior draft horse girls – are Old World Wisconsin’s best logging team.
A few years ago Lady dislocated her hip. The hip sprang back into place but Lady has been having a bit of difficulty ever since. Bryan thought it would be a good idea to have Stefanie come out and give Nelly and Lady a massage and do some Masterson Method (TM) bodywork with them. Nelly was accepting and happy to comply immediately. Lady had to be convinced that the strange lady asking her to do weird things with her limbs was really to be trusted. But soon she also enjoyed her bodywork session and showed good releases. Due to the gentle nature of the Masterson Method (TM) both horses were able to release a lot of tension without feeling overwhelmed or intimidated.
Both horses, especially Lady, will benefit from more bodywork and I will return to work on them and the Old World Wisconsin oxen team when I return to Eagle next month.
I am looking forward to my next visit to OWW and to taking and posting more pictures of the wonderful animals that help make this historic site so special and authentic.