I thought I would put together a list of 10 things to do with your horse during lockdown. The necessary restrictions that have been put in place due to Covid-19 have made us all adapt our way of life in ways we never could have imagined just a few months ago.
Even our routines with our horses have had to change. Sadly some of you may not be able to visit your horses at the moment if they are on full livery and even for those of us who are lucky enough to still be able to see our horses things have changed. Social distancing makes time at the yard slightly more challenging, some people have restricted times in which to see their horses whilst others have chosen not to ride at the moment. Even if you are still riding you may need to steer away from your normal activities if they are classed as high risk and obviously there are no competitions to work towards either. So what better time to try something new? All of the suggestions I have put together are perfectly achievable even if you have limited time at the yard.
(1) Basic massage techniques
At the moment your equine therapist can’t come out to see your horse and as many of us are having a bit more time on our hands, now is a really good time to learn some basic massage techniques which you can perform on your horse to help keep him supple until your therapist can come back out.
Your therapist knows your horse and his issues so they will be best placed to offer specific advice. Message them to see if they can advise some techniques which you can perform with your horse. If you don’t already have a therapist, don’t panic, some therapists like myself are offering a free lockdown service which involves taking some background information, sharing videos and tailoring a bespoke plan to help you.
A really good starting point is to try a spot of effleurage. This is the technique you will see me use often throughout my treatments – therapists use it to warm up the tissues and also to influence the circulatory and lymphatic systems.
Many horses find this technique really relaxing and it is a great way to strength your bond.
This can be used throughout the body but, as a rule of thumb, only use it on the muscles not on any bony parts of your horse’s body like the scapula or the spinous processes. The movement is performed with the palm and fingers of one or both hands with a consistent pressure applied. It consists of a sweeping, flowing movement directed towards the heart or towards the lymph glands to aid lymph and venous blood return.
* Venous blood and lymph is not very swift so the strokes must be slow in order to affect them.
* Always start with a light pressure – remember less is often more! Light pressure warms up the tissues and prepares them for heavier strokes.
* Keep the pressure even and mould your hand to the shape of the horse.
* Simple lymphatic landmarks to work towards:
- From the neck and shoulder down the shoulder groove and between the forelegs towards the heart
- From the back of the shoulder down to behind the elbow
- From the back and quarters towards and underneath the base of the tail
- Drain UP the legs to the same corresponding points
(2) Carrot Stretches
Yes, the old favourites are the best! In this case that is certainly true. To give them their correct name, dynamic mobilisation exercises (carrot stretches to you and I) are quite simply some of the best exercises you can do with your horse.
Carrot stretches are a topic in themselves but simply put they are great for improving suppleness, strength and core stability. There are a full range of mobilisation exercises which focus on targeted muscle groups and are designed to increase flexion in specific areas of the body – here are a couple for you to try
Chin between knees:
Encourage your horse to lower his head and follow the carrot down between his knees. Aim to keep his head straight.
This rounding exercise helps:
- Elongate the nuchal ligament
- Elongate the epaxial musculature (topline)
- Elevate the cervicothoracic and thoracolumbar areas of the back by causing flexion of the intervertebral joints
Flexion to the side
With the carrot encourage your horse’s head to the side, roughly to the area of the girth. Aim to avoid a tilt to the head if you can – standing at your horse’s shoulder facing away from him and asking him to bend around you can make that a bit easier to achieve.
Develop an even lateral bend throughout the entire neck
* Firstly if you have any concerns about whether you should perform these or any other exercises with your horse, check with your vet and consult with your therapist.
* Always make sure your horse is warmed up before you try any stretches so after you have walked him in from the field or take him for a 5 minute walk in-hand.
* At first your horse may be a little unbalanced when he performs these exercises so a good idea is to try them in a stable at first and position him against a wall so he doesn’t back up or swing his quarters away out of the stretch.
* Try to create a smooth stretch by holding the treat at his lips and slowly guide him in to position – this should hopefully avoid snatching. However, if your horse is hell-bent on snatching at the carrot, try using a lick instead or reduce the range of the stretch
* Try to hold each stretch for between 5 and a maximum of 15 seconds, after that return to a “neutral” position and then repeat each stretch 5 times.
* For optimum results perform the stretch routines 5 days per week.
(3) Groundwork exercises with poles
Again this is a vast subject matter in itself. Suffice to say I love groundwork and find it an invaluable training and rehabilitative tool. Groundwork exercises are included in the majority of my post-treatment plans for my clients and now, when our riding options are more limited, is a perfect time to experiment with some. Not only do they offer something different to do with your horse which will stimulate both you and him, but targeted exercises are really useful in developing your horse’s core strength.
Perform these exercises at a slow walk and ask your horse to stretch into a long and low frame to help improve his balance and strength. Working at this pace and in this frame will help your horse to use his back correctly. Watch your horse move through the exercises – does he trail one leg, fall out through a shoulder etc…? Working in a slow walk will enable you to start correcting abnormal movement patterns and re-train muscle memory.
Ground and raised poles
Working over poles in hand in a long and low position strengthens your horse’s topline due to the required contraction of the abdominal muscles. Progress to raising the poles at one end and then at both ends. As an advanced exercise you can try them at differing heights and distances to aid with proprioception (awareness of limb placement). This exercise improves core stability, topline, stride length and cadence.
Shallow serpentine over poles
Place three or four poles end to end in a straight line and serpentine your horse up and down over them making shallow serpentine patterns as you go. This exercise is great for building strength and coordination, opening up the chest and hips and strengthening the stifles. To increase the difficulty level you can raise some or all of the poles.
(4) Passive stretches
Stretching your horse is a great way to help keep him supple and maintain good muscle health. Remember that stretches should only be carried out once the muscles have been warmed up -after exercise is the best time.
Forelimb Retractor Stretch
Lift the leg and wait for your horse to relax. Supporting the leg at the fetlock and behind the knee, gently bring the leg forward extending the horse’s shoulder forwards slightly across his chest using your supporting hand at the knee. Then move both hands to support at the fetlock. You can move one hand to the toe to ask for a further extension. Hold this stretch for 10- 15 seconds, then relax it for 5 seconds and ask for the stretch again (up to 5 reps).
Tightness in the shoulder and forelimb flexors. It also stretches the thoracic trapezius, Latissimus dorsi and other associated muscles in the under-saddle area.
Hindlimb retractor stretch
Draw the horses’ hind limb forwards toward the front fetlock; make sure you keep the leg in a straight line rather than pulling the limb away from the body. Hold for 10-15 seconds relax and repeat as above
This stretch targets the hamstring muscles and the lumbar area of the back.
(5) Take your horse for a walk
This is a great thing to do with your horse providing he is a sensible soul. Now is probably not the time to try taking a very spooky or green horse for an amble around the countryside. However, providing you feel confident you and your horse will be safe, going for a walk together in-hand can be very rewarding. It is an enriching exercise which will stimulate your horse’s mind. Let him browse the hedgerows and discover what plants and herbs he enjoys eating. You can even add in some therapeutic benefits by deliberately moving him over different surfaces – for example tarmac, to grass and on to soil. This will aid his proprioceptive responses and heighten his awareness of where he is placing his limbs. Last and by no means least, it is a great way to spend quality time together.
(6) Pamper session
Remember the joy of grooming your pony when you were a kid – when you had time and not a care in the world. Whilst we can’t banish our current worries, we can take this new found time and spend it just enjoying our horses. Take advantage of the better weather to give your horse a bath, wash his mane and tail, tidy his mane and feathers, basically pamper and polish him until he is gleaming! And remember A good groom helps stimulate the blood flow to the superficial muscles, so its great for muscle heath, as well as for bonding and mutual relaxation.
(7) Hang out with your horse
If we think about it, most of the time that we spend with our horse we are asking something from him. So now that we have a bit more time, and the weather is (finally) quite nice, it is the perfect opportunity to just hang out with our best bud. If he is spending most of his time in the field, head out there, maybe with a good book and just settle yourself in a corner. That way your horse can choose whether to interact with you or not. Most horses love the novelty of having their owner in the field with them and want to interact. But its also OK if he simply wants to graze – it means he is relaxed enough with you around to just carry on with his day!
Conversely, if your horse is spending quite a lot of time stabled then you can still just hang out with him. Clean your tack or do your other chores outside his stable, he will enjoy hanging out with you just as much as you do with him
(8) Make your horse a toy box
Half fill a strong bucket or crate with horse-safe toys – large dog toys, strong rubber balls and rings are ideal. Scatter grass nuts, vegetable strips or high-fibre treats in the bottom and pour a little diluted apple or carrot juice on top. Watch to make sure that he doesn’t become frustrated or swallow anything he shouldn't and give him only 10-15 minutes at a time with it to maintain his interest. This idea is courtesy of Justine Harrison Equine Behaviourist
(9) Practice taking your horse’s vital signs
We all know that we should have a record of what is normal for our horse in terms of his vital signs but, let’s be honest, how many of us actually do?! Now is a good time to take a measure of your horse’s temperature, pulse and respiration rate – track them over a few days to gauge the norm.
- Temperature – a healthy adult horse’s normal temperature range is between 37.2 and 38.3 degrees Celsius. The easiest way to take your horse’s temperature is rectally with a digital thermometer – remember to attach a piece of string to the thermometer and HOLD ON TO IT!
- Pulse – a healthy adult horse’s normal pulse range is between 28 and 42 beats per min. The easiest places to take these are at the facial artery just underneath the jaw or at the digital artery
- Respiration – A healthy adult horse normally takes between 8 and 15 breaths per minute. The easiest way to check your horse’s respiration rate is to watch his flank or nostrils.
If you have any concerns at all regarding your horse’s vital signs or anything else to do with your horse’s health, please contact your vet. Even if not deemed an emergency they will be able to help you remotely.
(10) Obstacle course
Create an obstacle course around your yard, arena or field. Use old feed sacks, bits of tarpaulin, cones, feed bins, flags or whatever you have to create the course. This exercise has so many benefits- by introducing these new experiences in a calm no pressure scenario it can be a really positive desensitising exercise, adding in different surfaces like raised pedestals (make sure they are strong enough) or tarpaulin to stand on aids proprioception and creating different exercises like a slalom through cones aids balance, flexion and coordination.
I hope these 10 things to do with your horse during lockdown have given you some ideas and remember, they will still be great even once lockdown is over!