Longitudinal Stretching of the Top Line During Riding (LSR): PART 1: Scientific Approach and Methods to Study the Effects After One Month Treatment

Written by Inger Lise Andersen, professor of ethology, Dep. of Animal and Aquacultural sciences, Norwegian University of Life sciences (NMBU) 


Preventive training to release tension, to stretch and to build core muscles along the top line of the horse deserves more attention in equine sports than what is the reality today.

Most riders want their horse to have long, supple movements, yet it is easy to forget that learning and successful training that demand collaboration with the horse has to start with calmness and a relaxed state of mind both in the trainer and the horse.

A high fear and stress level blocks or reduces the speed of the learning process and makes it difficult to communicate with the horse.

For instance, rewarding wanted behaviours instead of using force and punish negative behaviours, lead to long lasting positive memories in horses (Sankey et al., 2010) and stimulate positive behavioural expressions in the horse, indicating a positive mental state.

Behavioural indicators that could be of relevance to assess the mental and/or physical state of the horse are:

  • head and neck position and the degree of tension in the neck and back
  • tail movements and position
  • mouth activity or tension in the muscles around the mouth, ear position or changes in the orientation of the ears
  • other facial ques such as eye expression, tension in the muscles around the eyes, the degree of eye white expressed, or by using the recently developed facial grimace scale and related ethograms for ridden horses (Mullard et al., 2016; Dalla Costa et al., 2017).

Not surprisingly, rein tension is clearly related to mouth movements, as any excessive bit pressure causes oral movements (Manfredi et al., 2005; 2010; Eiersiö, et al., 2013), discomfort and pain. Facial grimace scale might not be so applicable to use during training when the horse is moving in different speed and direction, but it is possible to develop a related scoring system for all these factors mentioned.

In this project we wanted to address the link between behavioural expression and physical measures in riding horses subjected to a standardized, preventive, riding method termed “longitudinal stretching while riding,” (LSR).

Although general biomechanics of the horse is complex (e.g. Moore, 2010), it is far from being simply mechanical.

We would like to draw the attention away from control to partnership with the horse, and verify a set of simple, behavioural measures that can be used to assess welfare in horses during training as a whole.

According to McGreevy and McLean (2010), a longitudinal flexion that stretches and extend the horses back and top line should be a part of every daily training or warm up before every riding session because this loosens up the muscles and may initiate a relaxed state in the horse.

Another and important goal with this method is that it may strengthen core muscles along the top line and especially in the back if conducted in the correct way.

Simply head lowering induced by downward pressure on the head collar via a lead rope and then released pressure at the wanted height, did not result in any calming effect of the horse (Warren-Smith et al., 2007), revealing that it is more to this than just placing the head into a lower position.

If the horse is not relaxed, the lower head position per se is not likely to have the expected effect. To work efficiently with the horse, the handler needs to develop a partnership that constitutes confidence and respect, motivation, to observe patiently the horses` behavioural responses at any time, and not the least to keep a calm attitude so the horse knows that no matter what it does, you are still the steady “anchor”. Other relevant factors into this puzzle are of course straightness, balance, and self-carriage.

People seem to think that we need to teach the horse how to move correctly, yet the horse can do this by nature if we allow it to find its own balance unrestrictedly. A horse is likely to work in any frame as long as it is allowed to have a free-flow, non-retrained movement without tightening the rein and forcing the head into one constant position.

We would like to draw the attention away from control to partnership with the horse, and verify a set of simple, behavioural measures that can be used to assess welfare in horses during training as a whole.

First of all, we wanted to brush the dust away and shed some new lights on a specific, preventive, riding method that in early school books used to be the most important basis for classical riding: the longitudinal stretching while riding, “LSR” (alt: longitudinal flexion).

In the present study we have used this as a rehabilitation method for horses with back-related health problems, yet it is very well known that it should be an important part of the weekly riding also for healthy horses.

The objective 

The objective of this project was to study the effects of a one month treatment with longitudinal stretching while riding (LSR) on behavioural scores (i.e. expression of eyes, ears, mouth, head and neck position, willingness to work and collaborate with the rider) indicating positive or negative behaviour, gait quality, mechanical nociceptive threshold (MNT), and pain sensitivity. MNT may indicate the extent of which important muscle landmarks along the topline is pressure sensitive or painful.


Horses, experimental set-up, housing and feeding 

The study was conducted on 12 horses with different age (4-20 years old, mean 10,8), sex (7 mares and 5 geldings) and breed (7 warmblooded riding horses included a Frisian, 2 warmblooded trotters, 3 coldblooded trotters) during a 1-month treatment period. Before treatment, all horses were examined by a veterinarian to evaluate the physical state of the horses. All of the horses were poorly muscled in different parts of the body such as the back, shoulders and hindquarters. All of them showed clear signs of tension and stiffness in the back and neck area, but none of them had any kind of lameness. As all horses was ridden with a bit by the owner, this was also done during the experiment. All horses had the same training regime that included three days of 30 minutes LSR sessions with an experimental rider.

The following weekly program were conducted for one month:

  •  Three days with 30 minutes LSR in the riding house (Monday, Tuesday, Thursday).
  •  One day loose in the riding house to move freely for at least 15 minutes (Wednesday).
  •  One day of walking on a leash uphill and downhill on an outside track with sand on the ground for 30 minutes (Saturday).
  •  Two days off with resting outside in a paddock (Friday and Sunday)

During the treatment period, all horses were housed in the same way as they were used to in their home stable, minimising the effect of stabling. They were kept in individual boxes (2.8 x 3.5m) inside an insulated stable from 19:00 in the evening until 07:30 in the morning, and during the daytime when they were not trained, they were kept outside in a paddock (also individually) between 8 am and 7 pm.

Feeding of concentrates was done individually twice a day (in the morning before letting them out and in the evening immediately after they were let inside), and all horses were either fed the same as they were before the study or they were given “Champion diamant” from Felleskjøpet A/S, that contain more fibre than the regular concentrated feed. They were given hay outside in the morning, in the middle of the day, and inside in the evening.

Behavioural data, head and neck position and gait quality 

Behavioural recordings with video, direct scoring of behavioural expression, gait quality and head and neck position (Table 1; Figure 1), ease of handling score (from 1 to 6, where 6 is the most positive score), and all other data, were collected at the first day and the last day of the treatment period.

All horses were videotaped during training sessions with a handheld camera, so that behaviour also could be analysed at a later state.

The riding session on the two experimental days (day 1 and the last day of the treatment period) was devided into the following phases:

  •  5 minutes lunging in walk and trot (L1)
  • a 20 minute session with the same, trained, experimental rider using LSR devided into an early and late phase of 10 minutes each (R1, R2) that was equally devided between walk and trot
  • 10 minutes with a control rider (R0; the owner of the horse) riding regular warm-up in walk and trot with no instructions, either in the beginning or in the end of the riding session (this was rotated so that the order of the control rider and the experimental rider was changed from one horse to the next)
  • 5 minutes lunging in walk and trot (L2).

This summed up to an experimental training session of 40 minutes, as opposed to the treatment riding of 30 minutes three days a week that did not include lunging and was only conducted by the experimental rider.

Table 1. Behavioural expression, gait quality and willingness to work and collaborate. Values 1 to 6 denotes scores from the most negative (tensed) to the most positive (relaxed).

Figure 1. Different head and neck positions. A (yellow) illustrates the chest line, B (red) neck length, and C (blue) the vertical line from the ears (Olafsen, 2015). 

Mechanical nociceptive threshold (MNT) and pain sensitivity 

MNT before and after LSR was measured with a pressure algometer (Somedic, Hörby, Sweden) The apparatus had a 1 cm2 rubber edge with a maximal pressure of 30kg, and were placed perpendicular to the surface of the horse, and pressure were given on a constant rate of 10kg/cm2/sec, as recommended by De Heus et al. (2010).

Pressure continued until the horse showed avoidance behaviour, either by muscle contractions or by the horse moving the head or body away from the pressure. When this behaviour occurred, the pressure was immediately released and the value was registered. Only two pre-trained experimental persons conducted these measurements of all the horses.

Eight different sites were used to measure the MNT (Table 2; Figure 2). Measurements from one horse was excluded due to technical errors.

Table 2. Description of locations used to measure MNT (modified from De Heus et al. 2010)

 Places (4 bilateral)                                                        Location
1,5Middle of the splenius muscle at the third cervical vertebral level
2,6Brachiocephalicus muscle at the base of the neck, at the level of C7
3,7Mid-portion of the thoracic longissimus muscle at the 13th thoracic vertebral level, 10 cm lateral to the dorsal midline
 4,8Mid-point between the cranial aspect of the tuber sacral and tuber coxae (middle gluteal muscle)
Figure 2. Location of MNT measurements (modified from De Heus et al. 2010). 

Pain sensitivity was scored as the magnitude of reaction to the MNT pressure on the 8 selected locations, with a scale from 0 to 3 (where 0 was no response, 1 was small response, 2 was moderate response, and 3 was strong response). This was conducted in the same order on all horses.

 The project group: Inger Lise Andersen (ethology – head of the project NMBU Norway), Sylvia Burton (experimental rider Norway), Linn Therese Olafsen (VL Sport Horses Norway), Benedicte Reneè Stokke (master student NMBU Norway), Lars Moen (equine veterinarian Romerike hesteklinikk), Juan Carlos Rey (veterinarian SLU Sweden), and Lars Roepstorff (biomechanics SLU Sweden) 

Acknowledgements: We would like to thank Felleskjøpet A/S, Norway, for sponsoring us with the concentrated feed “Champion Diamant” that contains more fibre than other types of concentrates. 


Dalla Costa, E., Bracci, D., Dai, F., Lebelt, D., Minero, M., 2017. Do Different Emotional States Affect the Horse Grimace Scale Score? A Pilot Study. Journal of Equine Veterinary Science, 54: 114-117. 

De Heus, P., van Oossanen, G., Machteld C., van Dierendonck, M. C., Back, W., 2010. A Pressure Algometer Is a Useful Tool to Objectively Monitor the Effect of Diagnostic Palpation by a Physiotherapist in Warmblood Horses. Journal of Equine veterinary Science, 30: 310-320. 

Eiersiö, Roepstorff, L., Weishaupt, M. A., Egenwall, A., 2013. Movements of the horse’s mouth in relation to horse-rider kinematic variables. The Veterinary Journal, 198: e33-e38. 

Manfredi, J.M., Clayton, H. M., Rosenstein, D., 2005. Radiographic of bit position within the horses oral cavity. Equine and Comparative Exercise Physiology 2: 195-201. 

Manfredi, J.M., Rosenstein, D., Lanovaz, J. L., Nauwelaerts, S., Clayton, H. M., 2010. Fluoroscopic study of oral behaviours in response to the presence of a bit and the effects of rein tension. Comparative Exercise Physiology 6: 143-148. 

McGreevy, P. and McLean, A., 2010. Equitation science. Wiley-Blackwell Publication, 314 pp. 

Moore, J., 2010. General Biomechanics: The Horse As a Biological Machine. Clinical Technique. Journal of Equine Veterinary Science, 30: 379-383. 

Mullard, J., Berger, J. M., Ellis, A.D., Dyson S., 2016. Development of an ethogram to describefacial expressions in ridden horses (FEReq). Journal of Veterinary Behavior: Clinical Applications and Research, 18: 7-12. 

Olafsen, L. T., 2015. Developing a Welfare-friendly Training Method for Sport horses: Behavior, Pressure Algometry and Biomechanical Measurements. Master thesis at the Dept. of Animal and Aquacultural sciences, Norwegian University of Life Sciences, 49 pp. 

Von Borstel, U. U., Duncan, I. J. H., Shoveller, K. M., Merkies, K., Keeling, L. J. and Millman, S. T., 2009. Impact of riding in a coercively obtained Rollkur posture on welfare and fear of performance horses. Applied Animal Behaviour Science, 116: 228-236. 

Warren-Smith, A. K., Greetham, L., McGreevy, P. D., 2007. Behavioural and physiological responses of horses (Equus caballus) to head lowering. Journal of Veterinary Behaviour, 2:59-67.

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Tidsskriftet Sportshest.no

Categories: Artikler, Forskning, Hestevelferd og helse, Kommunikasjon og atferd, Sportshestmanagement, Trening

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