In this article Samantha Bobyn (Veterinary Physiotherapist) describes how dynamic mobilization exercises, also known as baited stretches or carrot stretches, activate and strengthen the muscles that round and bend the horses neck and back.
This ground work helps strengthen the bond between horse and rider whilst having a positive impact the musculoskeletal system of the horse. Each method involves firstly teaching the horse to follow a ‘treat’ of some kind whether it be a carrot, ‘lick it’ or similar with the muzzle whilst the feet remain stationary.
When, where and how often?
During the teaching phase it is advisable to carry out each exercise on a non-slip surface and helpful to back the horse into a corner or stand him against a wall until he learns to follow the bait with his chin rather than by moving his legs. It is important you stay in tune with the horses behaviour and positioning to eliminate any accidents to yourself or your horse if he was to become unbalanced for example. Once the horse learns the concept then we can progress to the exercises which will strengthen target muscles.
Research suggests maximum benefit is achieved by performing the correct exercises with regular use. I suggest making them part of your daily management routine, as it is well known horses respond well to routine, but not to lose sleep over it if you miss a day! Carry them out in surroundings where your horse is comfortable. A bedded down stable, crew yard or school provide adequate surfaces for them to be performed on.
Each stretch should be held for approximately 10 seconds for it to have an effect on the muscle tissue.
*TOP TIP: They do form part of a nice cool down protocol as muscles are warm and so can be stretched to their full potential without risking damage.
What’s the point?
Specific muscles are activated in order to move and stabilize the intervertebral joints as the horse moves his chin into the different positions. The abdominal muscles help to round and bend the back, while the back muscles provide a counter-torque that stabilizes the intervertebral joints during back movements.
Joint stabilization is very important both for improving athletic performance and for preventing back injury. Previous scientific research has shown that regular performance of dynamic mobilization exercises over a period of 3 months stimulated muscle bulk that stabilise the horse’s back. Additionally personal experience has seen with frequent use horses recover from kissing spine surgery in half the time than without physiotherapy intervention.
Are these exercises safe for my horse?
Baited stretches are generally safe for any horse to perform. However, it is advisable to consult with a veterinarian or qualified physiotherapist on the specific use for your horse. Especially if your horse has a history of musculoskeletal injury, neurological disease, or is a veteran as they need to be kept within the horses comfortable range of motion. Exceeding their physiological limit may cause more damage than good.
What do I need?
The nice thing about these exercises is that any horse owner can perform them with little or no cost. You generally need a form of treat which appeals to your horse to motivate him to work for it. Generally carrots are used as they are long enough not to cause a nip to the fingers. However, I bear in mind owners know their horses and so I leave it up to my clients as to what they decide to use. I would advise carrying the exercises out wearing gloves (preferably leather) for extra protection. In addition, you can make a simple finger protector from a piece of plastic, such as the lid of a coffee can with an X cut in the centre to allow the bait to pass through.
*TOP TIP: for the exercises to have the desired effect on the correct muscles it is important that the horse does not rotate his head. For the lateral bending exercise, do not to allow the horse to tilt his head which is shown by having one ear higher than the other as shown in picture A
Chin to chest
To encourage deep flexion of the horse’s mid- and upper neck. Stand at the horse’s shoulder, facing forward, and holding the carrot in the hand closest to the animal. Hold the carrot in front of the chest, encouraging him to bring his chin toward his chest, and hold the rounded position for 10 seconds. You will be able to tell if he is doing the exercise correctly as the chin will stay aligned with the middle of the horse’s body for the dorsal flexion exercise. As the horse becomes more flexible, encourage him to bring his chin closer to his chest. Within 3-4 weeks you can progress this exercise to bringing the head between the knees and then also down between the fetlocks for increased flexion further down the spine.
The lateral bending exercises involve enticing the chin sideways. Try to keep the ears at the same height so the horse is truly bending rather than twisting his neck. Aim to sustain each position for several seconds then allow the muscles to relax after each attempt. Repeat each exercise 3 times on each side.
The girth region
Remember to teach the concept of the idea first – so start with holding the treat one to two feet away from the side of the horse’s body to encourage the neck to bend along its entire length (picture B). Picture C is a little beyond the girth, but you get the concept of the idea. Only entice the horse as far as seems comfortable for him. If the horse loses interest in the treat, you are probably asking too much of him. As the horse becomes stronger you can ask for more advanced movements, like the little mare in this picture who has it down to a fine art now!
The flank region
Over a period of weeks if the exercises are carried out regularly your horse will soon be able to progress to more challenging ones such as the chin to flank exercise. Most horses will initially perform this exercise a little differently between the left and right sides but may become more symmetrical with practice. Most horses will initially perform this exercise a little differently to the left and right sides but should become more symmetrical with practice.