Teach Those Shoulders To Reach
Yoga for Your Horse: Exercise 3

Any horse that has spent any time working on the forehand – whether in-hand or ridden – likely has developed movement habits that restrict the free lifting of the front legs through the shoulder and limit lateral flexibility of the barrel. Even when that horse has started to learn to carry himself better, lifting his back and stepping through from behind, these habits may persist.

When a horse isn't moving correctly through the shoulder, the gaits will look and feel stiff instead of light and springy. When asked to step out a bit, the horse might hyper-extend like the top picture on the right, putting undue stress on the joints and creating an unnecessary amount of concussion in every step. (The bottom right picture shows how the foreleg looks when the shoulder lifts up and the joints maintain their shock-absorbing spring.)

Tight, bound-up ribs are often the source of tight shoulders. If the horse is holding his barrel rigid, the upper end of his scapula may not be able to glide back to allow his shoulder to lift and reach. In addition, a horse that bends laterally at the neck and not the ribcage will lack real impulsion because the spine will not maintain the necessary alignment to enable the hindquarters to propel the body easily.

You can help your horse find freedom of movement in his ribcage and shoulders at the same time with a simple stretching exercise. This exercise is also good for those horses that are considered "girthy" or "cinchy" and horses who seem to chronically have a rib or ribs out and require frequent chiropractic work.

In general, any stretches like the one described below should be done when the horse's muscles are at least a bit warm, such as from a brisk walk, a longe session or even a ride. If you want to do the stretch before you mount, do a little warm-up on the ground first – some walk/halt transitions and a few bends should be sufficient.

Be sure you're wearing barn-appropriate footwear and, because you will be working both under and in front of the horse, be sure he is comfortable enough with having his body touched and manipulated that you won't startle him into kicking or stomping. This exercise can be done by one handler either holding a long leadrope or with the horse ground tied, but having a helper to hold the horse can be helpful, especially when you and your horse are learning the exercise. This is not an exercise I would do with a tied horse; if he startles and pulls back you would be in a dangerous position.

Most importantly, neither handler nor horse should at any time in this exercise straighten or lock the knees. That causes unnecessary stress on those joints for horse and human and will be counterproductive to what we want to accomplish.


Start by standing next to your horse's shoulder, asking him to pick up one foreleg just like you do to pick out his hoof. Once he has relaxed into your hold, move in front of him, clasping your hands or overlapping them to support the back of his knee.

With your sacrum and shoulderblades anchored toward the ground and your knees slightly bent, slowly and very gently lift your horse's knee up until you feel a slight resistance. Stop lifting and hold in that spot for three to five deep breaths. Be sure to maintain straight alignment, with the lifted foreleg lined up with the corresponding hind leg.

If the horse tries to pull his knee back, don't fight him, just breathe and give gently until he relaxes. The leg will feel a bit lighter then. You may feel the horse press his knee forward toward your body, experimenting with a little stretch. Praise him for this and allow him to softly put his foot down.


Pick up his foot again and repeat the lift and hold for three to five breaths.

Once you have a stable connection and your horse has relaxed into your supporting hold, move quietly to the other side, crossing your horse's foreleg to or just across the middle of his chest. Take care to keep your horse's knee at the same level or a bit lower; you don't want to push it up and force extra stretch beyond the point where you encountered the initial resistance.

If you add a little more bend to your knees, you'll be able to drop low enough that your head won't bump your horse's jaw as you move.

Once you have repositioned yourself to line up with the new position of the leg, be sure your sacrum and shoulderblades are once again anchored toward the ground and you are lifting with your core muscles.


Only lift the knee up and guide it across the midline until you meet a slight resistance. Again, don't fight the horse if he pulls. Once he relaxes, wait with deep breaths until you feel your horse push his knee toward you. He may do this with a bent knee or he may try to straighten his leg, so keep your stance wide to make room for him to reach forward without kicking your leg as you support his knee.

You should see the stretch both in the shoulder and the barrel from the flank forward, though you might need to practice a few times for the horse to feel comfortable offering the full stretch.

It's important that you don't pull the leg up or out. Let your horse offer the stretch. You just suggest the direction and provide support do he feels balanced and comfortable.

After you have completed the entire exercise with one foreleg, repeat on the other side. You'll probably notice that one side seems more elastic, that the knee lifts higher before you encounter resistance and/or your horse is more willing to offer the lateral stretch. It's important for you to notice and work with these differences. Don't just do the exercise by rote as if both sides are just the same. Paying attention to small differences and changes over time will provide you with valuable information.

Think about this difference in range-of-motion as you work with your horse, on the ground and mounted, and consider what movements are affected by the difference. Does your horse bend better one way? Could restriction in the ribs on the opposite side account for that? Maybe your horse has more difficulty picking up one lead than the other. Could restriction in one shoulder prevent him from lifting his front end up to allow his "leading" hind leg on that side to step through into a canter?

Your goal is to increase the suppleness and free movement of both forelimbs, eventually bringing them to symmetry. For some horses this might happen in just a few sessions. For others, you might need weeks or even months to see a substantive change. Be patient and let your horse's body tell you what it needs. Stacey Kollman

© 2012 Desert Horse Services/Stacey Kollman



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