By Educational Partner: Megan Ayrault, LMP, L/SAMP of All About Animal Massage
Don’t assume stretching is always good for your horse or dog! It depends on how it’s done, when it’s done, and how often, just to name a few obvious factors. True, there are potential benefits to stretching, just some potential pitfalls as well. I also believe that massage provides an efficient and effective way to improve range of motion, even without passive stretching. For example, bodywork can melt adhesions that may be restricting joint movements, and can also lengthen the collagen fibers (and their orientation to each other) within the connective tissue.
Theoretically this is what stretching does also (one of the benefits), but only if the stretches are held for a length of time. (Some say at least 90 seconds for this to happen. Try telling your horse that as you’re trying to hold their leg in a stretch!)
Here are a few links for you to check out if you like…
One link offering a good summary of the research one research study with horses.
And another link for the research article itself (the abstract) and access to more.
There are also many studies and articles that look at the effects of stretching for people, with some similar conclusions regarding the potential for actually decreasing range of motion and increasing risk of injury- exactly the opposite of what we want!
In my books and eBooks, I teach a good alternative to stretching for the limbs, which is to use a combination of jostles and circles to help muscles relax and stimulate joint fluid. (For horses, you’ll find it in The Horse Lover’s Guide to Massage, and for dogs it’s in More Massage Moves for Dog Lovers.)
Here are just a few tips to help keep any stretches you do with your horse or dog (or yourself) safe and effective.
Have a sense of what muscles you are stretching and why before you begin. Unless the muscles across one side of a joint are initially tighter than others across the same joint, you may create an imbalance over time by only stretching one group.
Apply stretches slowly! This way both you and your horse or dog have a chance to feel when it’s time to stop before the range of motion is taken too far. If muscles are overstretched, a necessary but counter-productive guarding response occurs, or worse, a muscle or tendon may be injured.
Gently jostle your horse’s or dog’s leg or neck before applying any stretch. This will help muscles relax, reducing initial (and maybe unnecessary) guarding responses.
Do not hold stretches for more than 1-2 seconds, but rather keep the joint moving slowly in and out of a comfortable, easy “stretch,” repeating several times rather than one long stretch. The range of motion will (usually) increase a little with each repetition, and you will avoid many potential pitfalls of the longer static stretches. The longer stretches require more skill and experience from both you and your horse or dog to be done well.
Use either massage or exercise to warm muscles up before doing stretches. This will reduce the chances of causing a strained muscle, though even a warmed-up muscle must be stretched appropriately for safety.
Bottom line is that stretching can help, or it may actually do harm, depending on several factors. Don’t assume that all stretching is good stretching. Take a little time to learn some mistakes to avoid, and best practices to follow.
And also take your time when applying any stretching techniques. Being in a hurry can be one of the biggest mistakes!