Warming up.... and cooling down your horse

Let’s begin at the beginning

Skooter having a hooli.....We all know we should warm up our horses before schooling or showing.  But if you think about it, do you have a routine that you follow consistently and do you really understand why it’s so important?  However much you’ve schooled and prepared, been to all those clinics and bought all that expensive new tack, if you don’t warm up well before the class you can’t expect to do well in the show pen.  It’s vital to have a well formed warm up routine to allow your horse to perform to his or her best on the day.  That applies just as much to schooling at home as it does to competing at a show.

Physical and mental aspects

When we warm up a horse we need to think about physical and mental preparation.  To prevent injuries we need to increase the blood flow to limbs and warm up muscles gradually.  Cold tissue will easily be injured, resulting in possible lameness or worse.  Gymnastic stretches (i.e. flexion) prepares muscles, tendons and ligaments for increasing demands and will prevent torn or sore tissue.  No human athlete goes straight into a race without a systematic series of exercises – the same needs to apply to any equine athlete.

However, warming up isn’t just about the body, it is about preparing your horse’s mental state for the tasks he’s about to perform.  He may be in an unfamiliar environment with lots of distractions.  You’ve probably had a long journey - that can be unsettling - and now some b****y idiot has just loped past you too close and your green horse is about to go cosmic.  It happens so you just need to be prepared to cope with it.  Working in is about creating focus and concentration for you as well as your horse.  It’ll get you both on the same wavelength, ready to help each other through whatever obstacles (real and imagined) you’re about to encounter in the class.

So what exactly is a “warm-up”? 

Briefly, the warm-up is the period of adjustment from rest to activity.  If you’ve ever been to a big show or clinic you know that there’s quite a bit of standing around.  Exercises are designed to improve performance and to reduce the chances of injury by mobilising the horse mentally and physically.  This will increase:

  • body and tissue temperature
  • blood flow through active muscles
  • heart rate
  • oxygen utilisation
  • the speed at which nerve impulses travel, and
  • the muscles’ ability to relax and contract faster and more efficiently.

It will also help to decrease muscular tension.

The 4 phases of warming up:

Phase 1 of the warm-up is MOBILITY.  This prepares the joints and muscles by working without stress.  In reality this is the walk phase and will last between five and ten minutes, though older horses may need longer.  Your horse will have either been standing in a stable or travelling in a trailer or lorry and will need to spend time loosening up.

Phase 2 is the PULSE RAISER, where we aim to increase the temperature and blood saturation of muscles and tissues, preparing them for more effort with minimum risk of injury.  Allow your horse to jog trot large circles and changes of rein before moving into a lope.  It can be tempting in western to work on ‘going slow’, but letting your horse move forward freely at a pace comfortable for him at this stage will help him to warm up well.  Try a little rising trot for the first few minutes - this will improve the ability of your horse’s back to work correctly.

Phase 3 is STRETCHING.  Now you can start asking for direct and indirect bend, leg yielding, turns on the hindquarters and forehand and move onto travers, stops and back ups.  This prepares the horse’s body for it’s specific activity.  The tissue fibres around the joints should now be lubricated by synovial fluid which has been warmed within the joint. [This is illustrated in the picture to the left, where Judith is part way through her warm up for a ridden clinic with Forest Jac.]  

The final phase is VIGOROUS MOBILITY which further increases heart rate and respiration.  This would be where you practice some of the elements of the class you’re entered for.  For pleasure horses this could be a series of direct and indirect transitions and reverses; for trail possibly work over some poles, transitions, back ups and side-pass. Reiners will perform some stops, roll-backs and spins and those preparing for a western riding pattern will go through some lead changes.  The temperature of the deep muscles is now raised and the tissues will be more pliable, minimising the likelihood of any resistance and therefore injury.  The entire warm-up routine should take around 20 minutes but will obviously vary on the age of the horse, if the weather on the day is warm or cold, how fresh/unsettled the horse is and will need to be adjusted for each individual.

Designing your own warm up routine

You need to take into account all of the relevant factors and treat each horse as an individual.  These are some practical tips to follow:

Take into account your horse’s age.  Older horses often need longer to mobilise joints.  Younger horses need more time to settle, relax and concentrate.
Practise at home.  Using a familiar routine will help your horse when you’re away from home.
Know when your horse is performing at his optimum.  If your horse does his best work after 30 minutes that’s obviously the time you should work in for, aiming to enter the show pen as he peaks.
If you have to work in for hours then you seriously need to look at your horse’s behaviour.  Wearing your horse out before that pleasure class is not the same as warming up!
Discuss your warm up with your trainer, ask them to watch you and give any feedback on your routine.
If your horse has a physical therapist (osteopath, chiropractor etc) talk to them about warming up and cooling down.  They may also give you some stretching exercises to use in the stable.

Lunging to warm up

Lunging a young or fresh horse before you get on can be helpful, but you need to check that you can do this without getting in the way of other riders.  You should also be confident in your own ability to control your horse: you won’t endear yourself to fellow competitors if your horse is turning itself inside out and winding up all the others!  You must also make sure your equipment is safe.  If you aren’t experienced with lunging then obviously get some lessons and practice at home first.

And don’t forget to cool down

Forest Jac 2009 - cooling down.This is every bit as important as the warm up. But how many times have you seen a steaming, blowing horse left standing around while the rider chats to friends, or taken back to the stables and immediately hosed down and put away!  At best these horses will be stiff and sore next time they’re asked to work.  At worst they’re risking long term lameness.  Once you’ve finished, walk your horse until the pulse and breathing rate is near to normal rest levels.  You could get off, loosen the cinch and lead your horse if appropriate.  In cold weather you may need to throw a rug over your horse to prevent the large muscles of the hindquarters tightening up before they have cooled internally. [This is illustrated in the picture to the right, where Judith is cooling Forest Jac down at a show, prior to putting him back in his stable.]

And finally, the boring Health & Safety bit

There are several universal rules that exist to keep riders and horses safe when working in a confined space together. Here goes.... 

Pass left hand to left hand.
Do NOT stop on the rail.
Give way to riders performing counter canter or lateral work.
Do not “cut up” fellow riders – keep safe distances at all times.
When chatting to friends preferably leave the arena.
If you need to stop to rest, do so in the middle of the arena.
Reiners - please do NOT warm up just before the novice rider pleasure class!
Be courteous to other riders at all times.
Pay particular attention to any directions given by stewards – they’re for your own good!

© Judith Hubbard Registration No:327062 All rights reserved.