The Tail Stretch: Spinal Decompression For Your Horse
It may seem like an overly simplistic thing to talk about, but surprisingly few people are aware of the benefits of performing a tail stretch on their horse. When we think of spinal decompression, the picture that comes to mind usually involves a human, not a horse. When taking into account the torquing, jarring, and twisting movements required by the spine for the average pleasure horse – then add a bouncing rider on its back – it is not surprising that horses would have some level of tension in the supporting musculature and associated compression of the spaces between the vertebrae.
As humans we take for granted activities that can help us stretch and decompress our own spinal columns. There are all sorts of devices available these days that you can purchase to help achieve spinal decompression in the human. Even to achieve the most basic form of spinal decompression, humans have the ability to hang from bars by the hands or feet. Horses don’t have any means to do this. The closest they can come to stretching out their backs is when they put their front feet up on a pedestal, as is popular with many Parelli Natural Horsemanship students, and add a carrot stretch between the front legs. The tail stretch can help facilitate a level of decompression for the horse that no other exercise can, but they need your help to accomplish it!
In simple terms, manually decompressing the spine of the horse using the tail stretch helps increase the space between the vertebrae. This takes pressure off the discs and allows nutrients to reach the tissues which may have been impeded by the compressed disc space and thereby facilitates the healing process. It can also help relieve pressure on pinched nerves which can cause significant pain to the horse and stretch contracted muscles to their normal resting states.
You’ll find that most horses are VERY receptive to this stretch. Once they figure out what you are doing, they will really lean into the stretch and help you out. However, fair warning! If you are a Parelli student and you’ve taught your horse to lead backward by the tail, there will be a little bit of a learning curve for your horse and it may get confused by the conflicting cues. If you encountered this and your horse keeps backing up, you’ll need to recruit a friend to hold your horse’s head and encourage them to stand still during the stretch. They can learn to understand the difference between asking to back by the tail and standing for a tail stretch, but it may just take some consistency on your part in they way you ask for each.
Always practice safe horse handling techniques when introducing something new to your horse. Make sure that your horse is okay with you being behind it before attempting this. Some horses are very defensive when it comes to their tail being handled and you may need to do some approach and retreat to desensitize your horse to handling the tail.
Once you have determined that it is safe to handle your horse’s tail and they are not bothered by your being directly behind them, gently grasp your horse’s tail about 3 inches below the actual bony part of the tail so that you are only grasping tail hairs. I wrap the tail hairs once around my palm for a more secure grip. Then gently begin to pull on the tail, gradually leaning back into it adding your own weight to the pull. Most horses will lean slightly forward, pulling against you and will hold it for you. Hold this stretch for about 30 seconds. If your horse steps to the side or back, just start over again and release as soon as they stop moving their feet. You can gradually increase the time as your horse begins to understand the process and can stand still.
You can perform this stretch as often as every day, but usually 2 to 3 times per week is sufficient. I would love to hear your results from this. Please feel free to leave your comments in the space provided below the article.
Lisa Carter is a Certified Equine Massage Therapist (CEMT), with multiple certifications from several different equine bodywork schools. She incorporates her knowledge and experience with Parelli Natural Horsemanship, equine bodywork and as a veterinary technician to provide her clients with the resources they need to make informed decisions for their horses. She encourages and facilitates network building between equine health care professionals, working together to find the best combination of therapies to meet the needs of the “whole horse”.
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This article is very informative. I learned a lot from reading it. Thanks.
Another great article … I have been tail stretching for over 20 years now. The horses expect it and love it. I am becoming a fan yours.
Thanks Shelley, I appreciate your feedback and am glad you are finding the articles helpful! I have yet to find a horse that didn’t like a good tail stretch:) It’s something that they really can’t do for themselves and it’s so beneficial.
Yes, nice — and the T-Touch method has this same thing — stretching the tail straight out, and also pulling it to the left and right, and folding that top part of the tail up into a question mark kind of shape!
Yes, that’s right Jeanne. That is also a very useful technique for stretching and softening the soft tissue in the area of the croup and the tail itself. It’s amazing how many horses are tight in the tail. Much of it is emotional, and the technique you mention is very good for helping them to relax and let go.
I perform this stretch before every ride! my horse has had back issues (from a serious fall) and stretches before a ride (tail, leg circles, carrot stretches) are part of the overall grooming process. I actually follow the TTouch method whereby you do "tail circles" and then follow it up with a lovely stretch of the tail. My Parelli horse learned the difference in one session, it's a different feel for him and the circles before the stretch helps him differentiate what I want. He LOVES the tail stretches and what is super interesting is that when you release (I stretch for a count of 4, hold for a count of 4, then release on a count of 8) – the RIPPLES that travel down his spine, just shows you how powerful the stretch can be! one of my favourites and again – part of my grooming process before each and every ride! just like picking his feet – takes no time at all, but I won't ride without doing it 🙂
Great stuff Heather! Thanks for sharing your routine and the benefits to your horse for others.
I will HAVE to try this!!!!!!!!! I can't wait!! =D
Let me know how it works for you 🙂