Winter/General Health Massage Tips!
Updated: Mar 21, 2018
We all know how long winter is! It seems to drag on and on, the relentless cold, wind, rain and snow all in one day sometimes! With this comes icy yards and boggy muddy fields, which often means horses have to stay stabled for longer periods of time. Dark nights meaning less riding time and fresher horses, sometimes it feels like it will never end! Here are a few of my tips for keeping your horses happy, healthy and feeling super supple during the rest of winter!
1. Warming Up
With the cold weather comes stiffer horses and joints, especially in horse's with arthritis. Make sure before starting any riding to fully warm up your horse, so to not strain the muscles and other soft tissues which can, in some cases, lead to repetitive strain injuries. Make sure you walk your horse for long enough on a long rein, either with or without a rug for 15-20 minutes. I know walking for that long in the arena can be very tedious, especially on a more lively horse, but making sure the muscles are sufficiently warmed up not only prevents injury but, also stretches out the horses neck and back muscles, especially on a long and low contact. The trot is very much the same as the walk, a few minutes of relaxed, long and low trot work will again help warm the muscles and give a good stretch to the horse. This type of warm up is beneficial throughout the year.
2. Pole Work
I love pole work. Pole work is very beneficial for horse's soft tissues, and can provide relaxation in some horses. Walk, trot and canter poles as well as raised poles encourage the horse to stretch down, as well as engaging the horse's back, hindquarters and hind legs. Poles are not just beneficial for the back, but for all the muscles in the body. Raised poles are useful for getting a horse to stretch, lowering the neck, stretching through the back and increasing the amount of flexion through the joints of the front and hind limb. This stretch is very beneficial for horse's with musculoskeletal conditions such as kissing spine, and for horse's who are hollow through the back.
Poles and raised poles help strengthen the back muscles and core, which is critical for horse's with kissing spine as it provides support to the vertebrae, therefore providing some relief. Poles are also beneficial for horse's with arthritis due to the increase in flexion of the joints. The best thing for arthritis is to keep the joints gently moving and it has shown positive results. Pole work is perfect for all times of year but especially during winter, during times of increased stabling and stiffer horses.
See below various pole exercises for straightness, balance, bending and stretching.
Leg stretching is one of the simpler things you can do to keep you horse's muscles, tendons, ligaments and joints supple and healthy. Stretching enhances the sensory nerve endings in the muscles, tendons, ligaments, and joints, that give the brain information about movement and body position. After an injury, these nerve endings can be modified by pain and lameness. The body then tries to avoid these painful feelings by limiting muscle movement. With this, muscles can become shorter and tighter, which then limits the horse's range of movement and way of going.
A regular stretching routine is advantageous to preventing injury and increasing the elasticity, and suppleness. You will improve circulation and in some cases relieve pain, inflammation and muscle spasms. Stretching lengthens contracted muscles and extends them to their proper position, relieving pain by taking the stress off the joint.
It is important to only stretch warm muscles. Stretching cold muscles can result in injury. However stretching can be part of your pre-ride routine. To warm up the muscle before hand, you can use various massage strokes such as effleurage and light kneading (Will be discussed) on the area being stretched, or using a heat pad to gently warm the muscle first.
Stretching after riding is the most beneficial because your horses body is already warm. Stretching after a ride will increase circulation, promote relaxation, and cut down on muscle contraction from intense work. Below you can find instructions and photos of how to perform a number of stretches.
Neck stretching (carrot stretches) are not only great for stretches muscles in the neck, but also the muscles along the back, especially the deep muscles of the back. These stretches are extremely beneficial for horses with back related problems or tight backs as they help to strengthen the back and engage the core, providing support to the vertebrae.
Tail stretches are great for improving the core and improving posture.
Front protraction- Slowly extend the leg forwards in a smooth gentle action. Do not force the leg up too high or pull too much. Let your horse find the stretch themselves before asking for a bit more height.
Hind Protraction- Gently bring the leg forwards towards the fetlock, back of the leg or back of knee. Again don't force too much of the stretch at first and ask a bit more when your horse has relaxed into the stretch.
Hind Retraction- Gentle stretch your horses leg out backwards (some horses may take a while to relax into the stretch) Start the stretch lower encouraging the horse to stretch outwards before asking for more height.
Tail stretching- Hold the tail half way down the dock and pull gently backwards and then releasing 3-5 times, repeat this standing at the side of your horse.
I like heat, it's a great way for warming up cold and stiff muscles before exercise, or if you have a cold backed horse. The easiest way to use heat on your horse is the traditional hot water bottle or wheat bag! Most yards have a kettle or microwave meaning you can easily get heat to your horse. Heat is brilliant for sore or tight muscles, especially over the back and lumbar regions. Heat can be beneficial in a number of ways from a therapy point of the view.
1. Used to neutralise trigger points. ( A nodule of tender muscle and a source of muscle pain.) Treatment of these trigger points is aimed at increasing the local circulation so the irritated part of the muscle is able to relax. Heating the muscle causes reflex relaxation of the muscle fibres.
2. Heat increases the metabolic activity in the cells, which then causes an increase in oxygen demand locally. From this, the capillaries dilate, increasing the amount of blood bringing nutrients to the area of tight muscle, chronic injury or condition (e.g Arthritis.) which facilitates the removal of waste products.
Heat products are great for horses who suffer from back conditions such as kissing spine and sacroiliac problems, and arthritis. Heat packs are also great to use on the neck and poll area to help release tension in the poll. Using a rug over a heat pack or hot water bottle will help spread the heat. Remember to test out the heat first to make sure your heat pack or hot water is not too hot. Make sure that hot water bottles are not in danger of falling off and being stepped on. They can be secured by a surcingle. There are also ready made equine heat products, however these do come with a bit of a hefty price tag!
4. Bandaging and Stable Boots.
The use of bandaging and stable boots in the winter is a great idea, especially if your horse suffers with arthritis, but they are also great for just keeping your horse's legs warm and helping to increase circulation. There are lots of different products on the market and I have tried most of them! For me my personal favourites are: stable bandaging hind legs, Premier Equine infra red stable boots, Back on track stable boots and Horseware ice vibe boots for warming up and cooling down, before and after exercise. I also use and really recommend Cryochaps for after work.
My two favourite products for the season.
Premier Equine infrared stable boots.
Cryochaps, ice therapy. ( Don't use ice therapy for too long in really cold temperatures)
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Hopefully this has been an interesting and helpful read. These are just a few things you can do this winter to keep your horse happy and supple, reducing stiffness during the awful weather we are having! I would love to see peoples pictures of them trying out exercises, stretches, or having a go at some massage!