Most riders who work their horses regularly have a set routine for warm-up. Others may not follow any routine or minimize warm-up and go straight to working. Still others may not really know what to do or how to effectively ride a warm-up. Understanding the purpose of the warm-up for both horse and rider may give you a perspective on how to implement this important part of the ride.
Brisk activity prior to work increases the blood flow to muscle capillaries that are closed off at rest. It increases the heart rate, the level of oxygen available, and prepares the mind mentally for work. In the horse, the spleen also plays an interesting role. At rest the horse’s large spleen stores blood. When needed the spleen can actually contract, squeezing out nearly 25 liters of additional oxygen rich blood for exercise, or flight from danger.
The name “warm-up” is also indicative of how the muscles and body increase in temperature, which allows the muscle fibers and other soft tissue structures to stretch with more ease and helps the utilization of oxygen in the body. Warming up the muscles and soft tissues with more blood flow decreases the risk of injury. Taking full advantage of this initial period of work is beneficial to both horse and rider.
An effective warm-up also allows the rider to gauge the disposition of the horse on that day. Even if you ride the same horse all the time, the horse you get from day to day can be very different mentally and physically. Some days the horse may come out fresh and ready to work, while on other days it may take longer to relax and focus them. Sometimes a high-level workout may not even be possible due to physical resistance, like soreness from a previous workout, or some environmental factor causing anxiety or distraction.
The chart illustrates a hypothetical week of work sessions. On Day 1, the horse and rider are rested and fresh. They are both calm and focused mentally. A typical 10-15 minute warm-up effectively prepares them for 30-45 minutes of higher level work, or trying something new that has not been learned before. On Day 2, there may be some soreness or stiffness from Day 1 which may take a few more minutes to work out. After a couple of good hard rides, Day 3 is not good. The rider is stressed from some outside life event, the horse is sore and distracted. Today is a good day to return to the basics, which essentially means a whole session of warm-up exercises. Or perhaps scrapping the session and going on a quiet hack or ending the ride entirely if the horse or rider is too tired or anxious for anything else.
Day 3 is not a setback or a failure, this is the typical training cycle. Do not get discouraged on these days, and it’s not necessary to push hard ‘to ride through it’. These days will happen on a regular basis because delayed-onset muscle soreness (DOMS) in horses and people peaks at 24-48 hours after hard exercise. The well-known trainer Carl Hester says he generally works his horses for two days, and the third is a hack or a day off. This allows muscles to recover and does not sour the horse on the difficult work.
Once over this Day 3 hump, the routine often returns to more productive work. And the cycle repeats. You may not work your horse every day, but this can be a useful pattern to observe and keep track of to maximize the effectiveness of your working sessions.
If you don’t really know what to do for an effective warm-up, I’ve outlined a possible routine below. You can modify it based on your horse’s level of training to make it more challenging or less difficult. Don’t try to learn a new movement during the warm-up, no matter how tempting. Wait until the body is supple and the mind is focused. Try this routine out and let me know what you think! Did it improve your ride?
- Once you’ve mounted and walked a few steps, ask for a regular marching walk. Pick up your connection and focus on the tempo and rhythm of the gait.
- Change direction several times on the diagonal, focusing on your balance in the saddle, and the change of the horse’s balance and bend from side to side. Note any irregularities or changes from the previous ride.
- Add 10-15 meter circles in the corners or at each letter. Keep the same marching walk as you had on the straight line and try to ride a proper round circle. Ask for more bend, appropriate to the size of the circle. (For less difficulty, increase the size of the circle.) Repeat in the other direction.
- Ride a brisk working trot (posting) a few times around the arena. Pay attention to the regularity of the gait and the focus of your horse. Change direction on the diagonal and note the suppleness and balance side to side. Develop the connection and observe if your horse is on your aids.
- Add 20-meter circles at each end and in the center. For a more advanced horse you can reduce the size. A 20-meter figure eight pattern or serpentine pattern is great to help the horse find lateral balance.
- Transition to the walk and use a zig-zag pattern on the center-line to further increase lateral suppleness. After a couple times at walk, try it at the trot. If your horse is more advanced, leg yield or shoulder in can be included.
- You can end your warm-up here and start more advanced trot work or you can add a bit of canter in either direction with 20-meter circles to finish this warm-up routine.
Hopefully after this beginning, your working session will be very productive and fun!