Equine Therapy today seems like selling articles in magazines or books, or promoting equipment, videos, or courses. Things are copied and reproduced 100 times by different authors, i.e., the carrot stretching techniques that Dr. Hilary Clayton published almost 20 years ago. Does anybody ask "Is it effective or are we just playing with our horses'"
In my original training in Sport Therapy it was important to analyse your therapy. The formula is a simplified feedback loop depicting a problem-solving approach to Equine Sport Therapy:
1) Assess the needs. Why are you stretching? What muscles will the stretch affect?
2) Develop a plan, focusing on how you stretch and the direction of the stretch.
3) Implement the plan. Do the work.
4) Evaluate the plan. Is there less stress in the muscles? Does the horse go forward straighter, easier, with less resistance? Is the resistance on the bit gone?
5) Change the plan if not effective.
Jack Meager published Beating Muscle Injuries in Horses in 1985. The focus of Jack's book is incorporating movement with stress point therapy. Except we forget a simple principle of Jack's work is the prescription of exercise after therapy. Why? Because the exercise will technically release the stress points and the muscle will have more elasticity from the exercise, not the stress point therapy. The stress point therapy takes the pain away and the exercise releases the spasm in the muscle so the muscle can work more easily.
Mimi Porter published Equine Sport Therapy in 1990, which covers many different therapy modalities. She informs the readers of warming the muscles before any stretching is done. Trying to stretch a cold muscle could result in small tears in the muscle fibers. Do you see anybody stretching after riding?
Dr. Hilary Clayton, renowned biomechanical researcher in the equine field, published Conditioning Sport Horses in 1991. "The risk of overstretching depends on the temperature of the tissues, the intensity of the stretch, the rate of stretching. Overstretching tears muscle fibers, tendons or ligaments" (p. 128). For the horse's sake we really have to evaluate why we stretch. Is it beneficial? And how do you judge the effectiveness of the stretch? In understanding effective equine therapy it is important to realize two principles:
That you have a basic understanding of the horse's natural instincts, as written in Book 1 of the German National Equestrian Federation: "[a] fundamental mistake frequently made during training is to expect human reaction from a horse ... Only a trainer who understands the basic animal (horse) psychology will be successful."
2: To have an understanding of the horse's reflex mechanisms. We and our horses are subject to certain neuromuscular laws. In harmony movements are smooth with the least energy expenditure and in disharmony movements are stiff and jerky. Fair warning! Stretching without formal training can be dangerous to your horse's health. "The horse's straight position, expressed by the harmony between the antagonistic forces, followed by the exact distribution of weight, assures the harmony of movements when the horse moves in a straight line" (General L´Hotte). In other words, it is not the strong muscle that is the problem but possibly the opposite, e.g., the belly muscle is antagonistic to the long back muscle. We can do the belly lifts but the belly does not get stronger; it can only get stronger by isometric contraction -- cavalletti, transitions and half halts when properly done all have moments of isometric contraction of the bowel muscles. It is the moment the horse holds suspension.
You see many pictures of a therapist flexing the back of the horse. Why and what are the results? Look at the two pictures and see which way your horse flexes his back. Which way do you think is healthy? (insert sillohette graphic from his original article here. There should be two images of a horse's back)
Is it better to have spinal stability or spinal flexibility? In order for the horse to step under himself in a more efficient way he has to have spinal stability and power from the hind legs. "The action of the back is secondary to the action of the legs" (Exploring Dressage by Paul Belasik, 1994, p. 31). Few people understand the basic principles for straightness in our basic training.
Overstretching, improper longeing, excessive bending, and leg yielding are the major reasons of DJD in horses. In reality the horses are becoming too flexible and stretching increases the flexibility of the spine, not always the muscles. Today we are so concerned about the horse stepping under with his hind legs but we forget the more he pushes back, the more he will step under and the more the joints flex, the more spring he has.
Today's horses are too flexible and with too much flexibility it increase the possibility of instability. "The primary function of the back muscles is to preserve the stability of the thora-lumbar spine" (Dr James Rooney). A joint or spinal segment is said to be unstable when it is inadequately stabilized by the ligaments and/or muscles when strain is put on it. It is well documented in physical therapy that prolonged stability gives rise to premature degenerative changes in the joints, ligaments, tendons, or muscles. In human therapy the therapist will do functional muscle testing before stretching. This requires some experience on the part of the examiner. Testing is passive, with the horse as relaxed as possible. Your grasp should be without force. If the horse compensates anywhere in his body, back off. Stretching any further is counterproductive as the horse compensates in other parts of his body and the stretch can cause muscle fiber tearing.
Stretching with treats or carrots has the same effect. It's not a passive stretch, but active. You see the horse cheats into the stretch by putting one leg forward, shortening his back, inverting his thoracic vertebrae, which is nonproductive and can be harmful.
Human passive stretching is done only in the comfort zone, watching for any protective muscle states and stabilizing the body before and during the stretch. For example, when stretching the hamstrings, the person is lying on his back and the therapist stabilizes his hip to prevent compensation. How many horses do you see with excessive lumbar curvature (kyposis) when stretching the hind leg forward? Does this cause instability of the lumbar vertebrae? Why do we stretch a horse's hind leg forward and sideways? In classical dressage, leg yielding was detrimental to straightness. A great debate -- think about what Dr. Rooney says. Does this stretch cause rotational movement in T18-L3? If so, you will stretch the ligaments in this area. The instability in this area will transform rotational stresses onto the hocks and the knees. Bone spavins of the hock usually arise from twisting stresses. Predisposing cause is high load (balance the riders), rotational movement (reduce longeing) and low range of motion (improve transitions). This abnormal wear begins to pinch and then painlessly erodes the cartilage between the bones. Remember the cause and effect rule.
When one asks a horse to do the carrot stretch to the left and down, the muscles of the back are contracted and there is spinal rotation with compression. This is creating compression of the vertebrae, which can lead to kissing spine syndrome (the spinal vissets are closing together.)
When stretching the foreleg, we could be stressing the shoulder and serratus thoracic muscles. Many times the horse's head is up in this stretch and the back is concave which can be causing more hypertension in the spine.
In conclusion, I would suggest riding your horse forward straighter and work on your transitions and half halts. Read some classical books on dressage. Remember, dressage is really just basic training. Horses are meant to be ridden. The late Colonel Podhajsky often advised: "It is not what (you do) but the HOW (you do it) which will determine success or failure."
The best way to loosen up a horse and elongate the muscles is a series of lengthening and shortening exercises at light trot and transitions in straight lines. Simple, but we have ride to do this! With more extensions at light trot we can straighten a horse better than any other method.
DJD: Degenerative Joint Disease
Agonist: a muscle that contracts into a shorter length
Antagonist: A muscle that opposes the Agonist and lengthens proportionally to allow movement, as well as keeping the muscle steady.
Synergist: a muscle functioning with another in a combined action.
Epaxial: Muscles below and above the axial plan of the spine
Isometric: Muscle contraction against a load without change of load. A way to build muscle strength
Isotonic: contraction; the tension stays the same as the muscle shortens
Michael Baxter is a graduate of the McGill University of Animal Science and a lecturer in Touch for Health at the International Kinesiology Institute in Zurich. He has trained horses and riders internationally for competitions for 15 years. His Equine Sport Therapy teaching CD is available through the Holistic Horse web site bookstore, www.holistichorse.com or through Equilite 800-942-Lite.