Updated: Jan 21, 2021
This week, the treatment technique I will be discussing (which I almost always use on my clients), is stretching. I love stretching! It is an incredibly simple and underrated technique, but the benefits it creates are very impressive.
Why should I do stretching exercises with my pet?
When working on our horse or dog, it is not just enough to build their muscle and have good aerobic fitness. Flexibility needs to be considered as well. Which is where stretching comes in.
A stretch is the action of taking a muscle or muscle group past its resting length to its outer limit of pain-free range of motion. Stretching may seem to be only necessary for animals on regimented competition training, but all our animals, (and us humans too!) need to stretch, on a regular basis, to maintain mobility and avoid pathological problems.
Stretching maintains the flexibility, strength and health of our muscles. Our animals need this flexibility to maintain a good range of motion in our joints. Without stretching, the muscles shorten and become tight. Meaning that when the muscles are called on for activity, they may be weak or unable to fully extend, thus increasing the risk of joint pain, strains or muscle injury.
For example, a horse which has been resting in its stable all night and is then turned out into a field where it gallops around for 15 minutes or a dog who has been lazing around on the sofa but then spots and chases a squirrel in the garden… when these tight muscles are called on for strenuous activity that stretches them, they may become damaged from suddenly being stretched. These injured muscles may then not be strong enough to support the joints, increasing the chance of joint injury also.
Moreover, animals are frustratingly efficient at creating compensatory movement patterns when they are tight, weak or sore in some areas. Therefore, they will quickly over compensate with a change in their normal gait pattern, creating secondary musculoskeletal problems.
Regular stretching keeps joints long, lean and flexible so that exertion, when the time comes, will not put too much force on the muscles itself.
A lateral baited stretch to the girth line.
It takes time and patience…
Completing some stretching exercises today will not magically make your horse or dog perfectly flexible and free from the risk of injury. It will take time and commitment to stick to the process. It may have taken months for your animal to acquire tight muscles, and therefore they will not be perfectly flexible after one or two stretching sessions. What is more, once this flexibility is achieved, you must continue to work on it to maintain it.
Never stretch cold muscles
It used to be thought that stretching ‘warms up’ the muscles, preparing them for activity. Now, accumulating research has suggested that stretching muscles before they’re properly warmed up can hurt them.
Exercising and warming the muscles up first will increase blood flow to the area, making the tissue more adaptable, preparing the muscle fibres and reducing the chance of damage. Warming up can be as simple as 5-10 minutes of walking or stretches can be completed after a training session/ dog walk. Furthermore, after a ride, stretches will help the muscles to ‘reset’ back to their resting length. This can reduce post-exercise soreness.
Passive or Active?
Stretching can be passive or active. PASSIVE stretching is when the veterinary physiotherapist or owner stretches a part of the animal without the animal having to do anything, for example, a leg stretch. These can be protraction, retraction, abduction or adduction stretches.
An example of a passive hindlimb protraction stretch.
Contrastingly, ACTIVE stretching is where the veterinary physiotherapist or owner will encourage the animal to do the stretch themselves e.g. baited neck stretches (also known as carrot stretches). This is where the horse or dog is coaxed with a treat (or carrot) to stretch their neck and back in certain directions. I love baited stretches because they not only increase flexibility of the neck and back muscles, but also look after the back by increasing core strength. This is something I am very passionate about and will discuss more in a future blogs because there is lots to talk about!
An example of an active lateral baited stretch.
So, to recap:
Benefits of stretching include:
1. Increased flexibility and maintenance of mobility
2. Flexibility allows our animals to accomplish everyday tasks of daily living, as well as more demanding tasks such as jumping a fence, galloping for an extended distance or chasing a rabbit. This all becomes far easier if joints can be taken through their full range of motion with minimal effort
3. Flexibility minimises risk of injury by allowing joints to move through their full range of motion without putting strain on ligaments or capsular structures. Maintaining joint health and range of motion
4. Flexibility allows for good circulation. This circulation is necessary to provide working muscles with nutrients and to allow for a speedy recovery following exercise
5. Stretching exercises help muscles to relax, relieving tension
6. Provides the horse with a general sense of well-being, especially when done regularly
7. When used in combination with a cool-down, helps to reduce effects of muscle strain and re-align muscle fibres
I hope this post has given you an introduction into the benefits of stretching as well as an insight into why I think they are so fantastic both for rehabilitation and maintenance of your animal.
If you would like to find out more or have any queries on stretching, or would like to ask about a stretching routine which can be incorporated into your horse or dog’s routine, don’t hesitate to send me a message, email or phone me, the details of which are on my website gracehobbsvetphysio.com
Harvard Health Publishing. 2020. The importance of stretching. [Online]. Harvard Health Publishing. Available from: https://www.health.harvard.edu/staying-healthy/the-importance-of-stretching