Baited stretches are a form of active stretching exercise that asks the horse to move their body, and mobilise their joints through their full range of motion.
How do they improve performance?
Baited stretches help to activate muscles of a horse’s back and stomach. This means, when they participate in ridden exercise, they are already able to engage these muscles. They are a fantastic rehabilitation tool after injury and in training to improve your horse's performance by increasing core stability and managing back pain. This helps the horse to transfer its strength and speed throughout its body and encourage them to direct and master complex exercises when riding.
Strengthening these muscles via baited stretches has been found to reduce the risk of reinjury, increase performance and facilitate earlier recovery and return to work.
WARNING: Baited stretches may not be a good idea if your horse has:
Regular, long lasting pain or struggles with a specific stretch
Certain nerve disorders
Certain muscle, joint or bone injuries
Therefore, always check with your vet that your horse is capable before performing baited stretches.
The Science Behind the Stretches
Back pain causes reduced muscle activity which leads to loss of mass to the Multifidus muscle (a deep spinal muscle), and spinal instability. Instability has been linked to osteoarthritis and other painful spinal diseases. Creating the perpetuating cycle shown below:
When performed regularly, baited stretches reactivate, increase size and strength of the multifidus muscle, aiding correct transition of hind limb forces through the body and reverse the effects explained earlier. Also giving quicker recovery.
How to perform Baited stretches
Please never stretch your horse cold. These stretches should be performed after exercise. If this is not possible, a brisk 10-15-minute walk is sufficient to allow increased blood flow to the muscles. Make sure the environment is enclosed, but large enough for you to step away if the horse becomes unstable. This could be a school, large stable or small, level paddock. Perform these exercises 4-5 times per week, beginning with 3 reps of each stretch. Aim to hold the stretch for around 5-10 seconds and then reward them with a small piece of the bait. (This time may be too long for your horse to hold so do not be disheartened if they cannot do the full time, you can aim to increase the length of time holding the stretch as you progress through the weeks).
Allow a few seconds for your horse to rest and relax their muscles before completing the next stretch. Do not ask the horse to go further than they can comfortably, we want slow controlled movements, not jerking to reach the treat.
Be careful not to get your feet trodden on if the horse steps sideways. This can be prevented by standing close to the horse. Stay clear of areas where the horse may kick.
You can use a carrot; low calorie treat or a salt lick as the bait but be cautious that your horse does not bite you when reaching for the bait!
Before each stretch, make sure the horse is untied for complete movement of their head and neck. Make sure they are stood squarely and balanced.
1) Chin to chest
Standing next to the shoulder or infront to the horse, guide the horse with the carrot to stretch their chin as close to their chest as possible.
This asks them to lift the chest and causes flexion (rounding) of the spine in the withers region, creating space and relief.
In stretches 1-3, try to keep the neck straight and avoid twisting of the poll. As the horse progresses with this stretch you can begin stretches 2 and 3.
2) Chin to knees
Next, guide them, switching hands so the treat comes between their front limbs and their head comes between the carpi (or knees) and as far backwards as they can stretch. This engages their back and stomach muscles.
3) Chin to fetlocks
Guide your horse’s head between the front limbs again, this time further down between the fetlocks, swapping hands so the bait is between their legs. Ask your horse to come as far downwards and backwards as possible. This stretch flexes the spine in the area behind the withers.
Lateral stretches alternate between each side (e.g. one repetition on the left, one repetition on the right then back to the left etc.).
4) Chin to outer side
Guide the head to the side so the horse stretches, aiming to be in line with the girth, but further out to the side and slightly lower than the belly. Once this is mastered, you can also include stretches 5 and 6.
5) Chin to hip
Guide the head so the horse stretches their neck to the side and backwards, aiming to reach towards the hip.
6) Chin to hock
Guide the horse to the side and backwards again, but this time, aim for the hock, reaching as far downwards and backwards as possible. 7) Neck extension
Standing in front of your horse, hold the carrot up and away from the horse, asking them to extend their neck and chin, reaching as far forward as possible. It may be useful to have your horse behind a low barrier or stable door across the chest to prevent them from stepping forward. Keep the head straight and avoid twisting of the neck.
This is a basic introduction to the benefits of baited stretches for performance enhancement. If you would like further information, help, or have concerns about your horse, please do not hesitate to contact me (contact details can be found on the contact page of my website) where I can assess your horse and personally tailor the stretches to your horse’s capabilities as well as your routine. We can also devise a plan to progress these stretches with other exercises to increase their performance.