With a little practice and a handful of carrots, you can get your horse to do his own chiropractic work – on himself. Well, it's almost as good as chiropractic…
Many veterinarians, equine chiropractors, massage therapists, and bodyworkers encourage carrot stretches for horses. Carrots are nutritious and horses love them, and the benefits of stretching are many.
When a horse is encouraged to stretch for a carrot, he stretches his muscles and joints. He increases the circulation through the muscle tissue and frees up sticky fascia. He opens the spaces between vertebrae and loosens up other joints. All of this allows for increased flexibility and range of motion, and it feels good. Being flexible can prevent a lot of problems. Reaching and stretching to different areas of the body affect many different muscles and different areas of the spine.
There will probably be a lot of popping and cracking sounds, which are normal and nothing to be alarmed about. Slow and gentle stretches will not cause injury and will be more effective. Don't cross-tie or tie him; use a loose lead rope and a friend to hold it, if needed. At first you may want to stand the horse beside a wall for the stretches to the side so he does not move the hindquarters away. He will soon get the idea to stay put and stretch instead.
Always start out the stretches by asking for only part of a stretch. Asking for too much too soon could cause the horse to overstretch and injure himself. If he does well on a partial stretch, then go for the full stretch. Encourage your horse to stretch as far has he feels comfortable; don't force him to stretch beyond his limits. Start with easy ones and work up to the more difficult ones. Do this daily and notice how his flexibility gradually increases. One side is often more flexible than the other; this usually evens up somewhat over time.
Also increase the duration of time of the stretch – get him to hold the stretch longer and longer, for as long as 10 to 15 seconds, if possible. Show him the carrot and draw his head in the direction of the stretch, to where you want him to stretch. Then let him have the carrot. Watch your fingers!
1. Center carrot stretches:
- tuck toward the chest – stretches the poll, crest
and neck muscles, opens the space between the base of the skull and
the first vertebra (atlas)
- down between the forelegs toward girth – stretches
the top line, crest, and withers; opens up the withers and thoracic
2. Sideways carrot stretch:
- toward the barrel - warm-up stretch – stretches
the neck and shoulders area
- toward the stifle - stretches the lower
neck area and opens the shoulders
- toward the hip bone - stretches the lateral flexors
of the neck, the shoulder, and part of the rib cage and spine; a good,
thorough lateral stretch
- toward the elbow, slowly raising it toward the
withers – stretches the lower neck and point of shoulder area, and
- Poll twist – stretches the poll area. Draw his
head forward and down, then with his neck remaining centered and low,
place your free hand behind his ear to stabilize him. Slowly draw his
head so it rotates to the side, so his cheek is parallel to ground,
then draw his nose upward and give him his carrot. Note: A horse who
is stiff in the poll will generally do the other sideways stretches
by twisting his neck rather than his poll, thus his cheek will be parallel
to the ground. This head twist exercise will increase poll flexibility
so he can do the other stretches more normally and effectively.
Practicing these stretches in one designated area will teach your horse to be cooperative in stretching and less apt to get grabby about carrots when elsewhere. Keep plenty of carrots on hand so you can practice daily Carrot-Practics! (Say THAT 5 times in a row!)