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Exercises to Improve YOUR Horse, with Amber Rutstein of Sleepy Horse Equine Bodywork

I'm so excited to welcome as a guest writer and an expert in her field, Amber Rutstein of Sleepy Horse Equine Bodywork, LLC, based out of Jupiter, Florida. Read more to learn more about the benefits of equine massage therapy (and other bodywork practices), what you can expect from a session with a professional, and 5 different exercises you can do with your own horse today.

Have you ever come across a horse who’s grumpy (ears pinned, tail flicking, biting, kicking out, etc.) when being groomed or ridden? A horse who is unbalanced and asymmetric throughout their body? A horse who is lethargic, in heavy training, old and stiff, ridden consistently, anxious all the time or post-illness/surgery? Does your horse buck, rear, won’t stand at the mounting block, back sore, refusing to go forward, head tossing, short-strided, refusing to pick up one lead, etc.? I can guarantee if you have spent any time in the horse world you have come across many of these situations. If any of these symptoms sound familiar, your horse would 100% benefit from a massage.

Sometimes we don’t think about it enough but horses are athletes just as much as we are. They are prone to tightness, muscle soreness, stiffness, muscle knots, and muscle spasms. As with humans, being tight and sore and continuing to push yourself through the pain, can lead to catastrophic injuries. Whether you have a competitive show horse or a pasture pet, any horse can greatly benefit from massage therapy. Keeping your horse on a regular massage maintenance schedule or calling out a massage therapist when your horse is showing signs of discomfort, can help keep your horse feeling good physically, less prone to injury and mentally happy. As we all know, a happy horse means a happy owner. 

Here are some of the many benefits of equine massage therapy:

  • Increases blood flow and circulation

  • Decreases tension and soreness

  • Decreases muscle spasms

  • Increases range of motion and suppleness

  • Increases joint flexibility

  • Improves muscle tone

  • Reduces scar tissue formation

  • Reduces swelling

  • Helps prevent injury

  • Reduces stress and anxiety while promoting relaxation

  • Increases a sense of well being

What can you expect from a massage session? 

A typical session with an equine massage therapist can vary depending on their skill level, focus and types of modalities offered. With Sleepy Horse Equine Bodywork, my first session is thought of as a full body assessment of the horse. I like to watch the horse walk and trot in hand as movement can have a big influence on a horse’s muscular development, tension throughout the body and posture. I discuss with the owner regarding the history of the horse such as past injuries, vet and farrier work, chiropractic work, and acupuncture.

I first begin by assessing the horse’s range of motion. This can include checking the flexion and extension of the poll and neck and mobility of the thoracic spine and limbs.

I then work on the horse’s poll, TMJ area, and neck of the horse on both sides and compare how they feel to each other. Next, I start by using relaxing strokes on the horse’s body to warm the tissue and then use various sports massage techniques along the horse feeling for the 4 T’s of palpation (Temperature, Texture, Tension, and Tenderness).

Additionally, I have a variety of IASTM (Instrument Assisted Soft Tissue Mobilization) tools I use to assess and treat the fascia (connective tissue) of the horse. These tools reduce scar tissue, myofascial adhesions and help give my hands a break. Furthermore, I use a combination of muscle activation exercises in the body to activate and strengthen the muscles while improving mobility. At the end of the session, I use a combination of stretches for the front and hind limbs, neck, back and tail. 

In addition to massage therapy, I have added on a few other modalities to help our equine partners. I use a cold laser on horses to promote circulation in the body, stimulate cells, and reduce pain and inflammation. New to the company this year is  cupping therapy and kinesiology taping. These are great types of therapy to decompress the soft tissue of the horse and bring more space into the fascia.

What are some strokes and stretches to work on with your horse in between bodywork sessions?

Here are some exercises you can work on with your horse to help keep them feeling their very best! Give these a try and see what you think. Look for signs of relaxation in your horse such as licking and chewing, blinking, yawning, eyes closed, relaxed nostrils, relaxed jaw, a sigh of air, a full body shake, and a lowered head. Remember with horses LESS is always MORE. Start soft and gentle and observe how the horse reacts. You can increase your pressure slowly as needed. 

1. Effleurage (To flow or to glide) Stroke

  • Place a flat hand on the horse and slowly glide your hand down the contour of the horse’s body with long, slow strokes and repeated movements

  • Start at the horse’s neck and work your way down the horse’s body to the hind end

  • This can be similar to what you would consider as “petting” the horse

  • Follow the direction of the horse’s hair and feel the horse’s tissue under your palms

  • This is a great stroke to add to your grooming routine to help warm up the horse’s tissue, provide circulation, and relax your horse

  • This stroke helps you get a feel for your horse’s muscles and to help find any tight or sore areas

2. Hamstring Jostle

  • Locate the horse’s hamstring muscles that run from the top of the horse’s butt near the tail down to the top of the horse’s hind limb (Bicep Femoris, Semitendinousus and Semimembranosus)

  • Gently grab the horse’s hamstring muscle at the top near the tail and do a gentle shaking/rocking motion down the hamstring muscle until you reach the top of the horse’s hind leg and then you can use the same motion as you work your way back up

  • Repeat 3-5 times

  • This shaking motion is very soothing and stimulating to the horse and can help relax the tissue

3. Shoulder Circles (Opens shoulders, pecs, and engages thoracic sling)

  • Pick up the hoof as if you were picking your horse’s feet

  • Support the knee with one hand and the fetlock/pastern area with the other hand 

  • While holding the leg up slowly make circles with the limb going both directions

  • If the horse is resistant, you can gently shake/wiggle the limb before circling

  • You can increase the size of the circles gradually over time as your horse gain’s more mobility

  • This is great to add into your grooming schedule and can be used before or after you ride your horse

4. Tail Pulls/Circles

Tail Pull Back

  • Ask your horse to stand square with their front and hind legs

  • Pick up the horse’s tail and hold the tail at the bottom of the tailbone

  • Lightly wiggle the tail back and forth to make sure the horse is comfortable with the stretch

  • Gently pull the tail back and down at a 45 degree angle. The horse may pull against you if they want a deeper stretch

  • Use soft and slow motions as you pull the tail into the stretch and then when you release the stretch 

  • Hold for approximately 20 seconds

  • This exercise stretches and relaxes the spine and engages the core

Side Tail Pulls

  • Ask your horse to stand square with their front and hind legs

  • Stand to one side of your horse’s hindquarters

  • Hold the tail at the bottom of the tailbone and pull it towards yourself at a diagonal angle to the horse’s body

  • You can hold this stretch for 20 seconds or you can gently and slowly pull the tail, hold it for 5 seconds and then release the tail as if you were doing reps in a workout. If doing the pull and release method, do this approximately 5 times for each side

  • This exercise helps stimulate resistance in the pelvic stabilizer muscles and is a great stretch to help strengthen the quadriceps and stifles

  • Start lightly and increase pressure slowly if the horse is pulling against you. The amount of force applied can gradually increase as the horse gets stronger

Tail Circles

  • Hold the tail at the bottom of the tailbone

  • Gently lift the horse’s tail and perform small circles with the tail both directions

  • Start with a small circle and you can gradually spiral out to a larger one

  • Circle 3-4 times one way before changing direction

  • Start with small movements and if the horse is resisting and clamping his tail down, gently wiggle the tail until the horse releases

  • This helps stretch out the lower back muscles, pelvic muscles and reduce back pain

5. Carrot Stretches

Rounding the Back (Carrot between front legs)

  • Use a carrot to encourage the horse to bring his head down and between his front legs directly under his chest (to the girth area).

  • Next, use a carrot to encourage the horse to bring his head down and back between his front legs to the fetlock area.

  • For both exercises ask the horse to hold there for 5 seconds or as long as he can

  • Repeat both movements 2-3 times

Side Flexion to Hip (Carrot to hip)

  • Use a carrot to encourage the horse to bring his head toward the flank/hip area

  • Try to keep the horse’s ears level when flexing to the side 

  • For the side flexion stretches, your horse’s hind and front legs to the side you are flexing should be closer together than that of the outside legs. 

  • Hold for 5 seconds or as long as the horse can

  • Repeat 2-3 times

Side Flexion to Hock or Hind Fetlock (Carrot to side and down low)

  • Use a carrot to encourage the horse bring their head as far as they can towards the hock and hind fetlock area (if they can reach)

  • Avoid the horse twisting at the neck

  • For the side flexion stretches, your horse’s hind and front legs to the side you are flexing should be closer together than that of the outside legs

  • Hold for 5 seconds or as long as the horse can

  • Repeat 2-3 times

  • Flexibility with the horse should improve over time

Neck Extension (Neck out and down)

  • Use a carrot and ask the horse to extend his neck out and down without walking forward

  • The upper and middle neck should be fully extended with the neck lowered from the withers

  • It can help to do this stretch over a stall door so the horse can not walk forward

  • Make sure the horse keeps his ears level. If the horse starts twisting head then re-ask for the stretch before giving the carrot

  • Hold for 5 seconds or as long as the horse can

I hope your horses enjoy all of these strokes and stretches!! Follow my page on Facebook or Instagram under Sleepy Horse Equine Bodywork, LLC for more equine massage techniques and stretches. Please feel free to reach out with any questions or concerns about your horse. Thanks for taking the time to learn about equine massage therapy and how much of a difference it makes in the wellness of your horse. Happy Riding!!


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