One area that I always have to work on is the neck. It doesn’t matter how old your horse is or what you do with it, I can pretty much guarantee that the neck will present some form of stiffness.
There are many things that can cause the neck to become stiff: dysfunction in the shoulders, the withers, even dysfunction of the Temporo-Mandibular Joint or of the Gastro-Intestinal Tract. You might not be able to help your horse with most of these, but you can actually help the neck with the very simple and old school carrot stretch.
Now, I’m hoping that most of you have heard of it before, but for those of you who might not know what a carrot stretch is, it’s simply getting your horse to move its neck in a specific direction by using a carrot as bait and reward, making your animal stretch its own muscles.
I’m going to share with you the advantages of doing carrot stretches, the common mistakes I see people make when doing carrot stretches, and finally 3 tips to do a top carrot stretch and get that neck moving. Some horses might not be able to do those exercises for health reasons, so do not do those stretches if your vet has advised against them!
Advantages of doing carrot stretch
- If done properly, they are a real plus for your horse’s movements. You get to slowly stretch the cervical joints as well as the muscles that attach onto the head, cervicals and some on the scapula, shoulder joint and humerus. This means that with this simple stretch you can reach quite a few areas of the horse’s forehand. Considering that horses carry 60% of their body weight on the forehand, it’s definitely a plus!
- It will give you an objective idea of the areas where your horse is stiff. Working with both professional and amateur riders, I have come to realize that one of the biggest issue amateur riders face is knowing if they are taking good care of their horse or not. And this is not easy! Knowing when you should call your manual practitioner isn’t always straightforward. Doing this stretch from time to time will allow you to have a more objective view on the range of movement of your horse’s neck, as your horse will be more comfortable reaching towards the left or the right.
- It’s easy to do. Most of you will have carrots or treats in your tack room and that is the only thing you will need, no fancy equipment needed, which means you can easily do them on a regular basis.
Common mistake done when trying to do a carrot stretch
The most common mistake I see people do is that they always do it the same way. Let me explain. When you do a carrot stretch, you should vary the angle and area that you are trying to make your horse reach. Not doing so will only bring mobility to one specific area of the neck and might actually bring the body to stiffen somewhere else, which is exactly what you don’t want to be doing!
So, how to do it properly?
- Start small. That’s very important. You can’t start by trying to make your horse reach the pelvis or hind end area. Always stay within the front end at first and when you see your horse can reach further and further, then and only then it is okay to extend the stretch. Here is an image to give you an idea of where to start and where to go, slowly.
- I’ve touched on that earlier, but my second tip is to change where you are aiming your horse to reach. There are 7 cervical joints in the neck, and in order for you to softly stretch each of these joints, your horse will need to reach different areas. You can see on the image above that each color has several points. This is to give you an idea of where you should bring your horse’s head. Once again this is not something to be followed precisely but only a guideline for you to use.
- Last but not least, do it regularly! Just like yoga for humans, stretching your horse’s neck will be a plus only if you do it regularly. Once a week, or once every 2 weeks is a good rhythm to bring a soft stretch.