When considering a human athlete, we know that the warm-up prepares the body and the mind for the coming effort. We also know that a good warm-up and cool down are necessary for the prevention of injuries and muscle soreness. Similarly, to prevent injury and optimize progression, we need to give horses the necessary exercises and time to prepare for the demands of training.
Studies have shown that a warm-up will benefit the overall performance of the horse and prevent injuries. During the warm-up the heart rate will increase, the body temperature will rise, and there will be a release of red blood cells throughout the body. More red blood cells means more oxygen carrying capacity. With this increase in body temperature the body tissues become more elastic. Muscles contract and relax more efficiently and the tendons become more elastic. Every step the horse takes impacts its tendons, joints and muscles. By gradually building up the warmup we can prevent the injury of these structures.
When we look at energy preservation, energy is stored in the muscles in the form of glycogen. This is used most during the initial stage of exercise. There is only so much glucose stored in the muscle. As you warm-up you want to minimize the amount of glycogen you use right away or you will run out of usable energy too soon. Warm up gradually so the circulatory system can adjust and so glucose gets into the blood and saves the glycogen.
The length of the warm-up is dependant on a couple of factors. First, consider the level of the horse you are riding. For a green horse, the warm-up may be the whole ride or quite a substantial amount of the ride, for a high level horse, the warm-up may be 10 minutes to check in before the session. Secondly, the weather will be a factor. If you are riding in a cold environment always give more time for a warm-up. It will take longer for the horse's temperature to rise and for the tendons and muscles to warm-up. If it is hot, you will need to decrease the time of the warm-up to avoid overheating.
Another point to consider when warming up is to remember that you are always training your horse, every step of the ride (and when handling on the ground). If you let your horse be "free" during the warm-up, with its head in the air and body not engaged and then you ask for him to be more connected when you are ready for the main stage of your workout, the horse will likely get confused and put up a bit of an argument. Imagine a teenager that has never had to do a chore, then suddenly being asked to pitch in. They will most certainly argue.
Warm-ups vary considerably depending on what you are using your horse for. Here at Mountain View Training Stables we are mainly working with young, green horses, as well as english and western dressage horses from intro (walk/jog/trot) to Level 3 (Flying lead changes, half passes, etc.).
I like to begin each session with a few minutes of in-hand work. I start with walk to halt transitions, making sure the horse is "tuned in" to the breath, using an inhale breath to prepare and an exhale breath for each downward transition. I like to do this from both sides of the horse. When riding we ride the horse equally on both sides, in-hand work should be the same. Train for symmetry. Next focus will be on the "go" part of the transition, halt to walk. Cluck to ask the horse to step forward into light contact, keeping your hand directly under the horse's throat. Resist the urge to move the hand forward to "pull" the horse forward. This will cause the horse to invert on the first step. The goal is to have the horse go softly forward into light contact, back to front. If the horse doesn't go forward with your first cue use a dressage whip with a light tap near the flank to ask for forward. Ask for the halt again and retest the go forward cue again until the horse steps off quickly without a tap.
After checking in with whoa and go commands I like to ask my horse to bend both ways at a standstill. We do this by pressing directly behind the girth, where your leg would ask for bend. The horse should bring his head around without moving his feet. This does take some time to teach, but is a great way to assess how much flexibility the horse has. If you notice one side bends easily while the other side does not come as far then it may be time for a chiropractor or you need to spend more time bending on that side. The horse should be able to hold this bend for 10 seconds and not just swing back and release immediately. We also do this to prepare the horse to bend under saddle as this is the spot that your leg will ask for bend while your reins determine how much bend the horse will give you.
Now the under saddle work can begin. When warming up the horse besides warming up muscles and joints and bringing the heart rate up you also want to check in to see:
1. The horses' reaction to your aids...seat, legs, reins, and breath.
2. Check rhythm of gaits. Can your horse maintain an even rhythm in walk, jog/trot, and lope/canter?
3. Can you ride in connection working from back to front?
4. Check in on movements that your horse has learned.
Once I am mounted I want to check in and see if my horse will readily bend off my leg, without me pulling on the reins, or the horse walking away. This is great to do at the mounting block, especially if your horse likes to walk off after mounting. In the photo I am pressing with my left leg and you can see that my left rein is slack. My mare has responded to the leg pressure directly behind the girth by bending. I am not pulling her to the left. My body is turning with her so that my right rein releases to allow the bend.
The next reaction I want to test is "go" and "whoa". I like to start all my rides with a few minutes of walking, asking for halts with my breath and seat. I will walk forward on an arc and then ask for a halt by breathing out, relaxing my seat, and then holding with the reins if needed. By asking on an arc it is easier to get the halt without the horse inverting. When asking on a straight line it is far easier for the horse to push into the bridle, invert, and push through the halt. Once the horse is halting quietly both directions I will move forward to walk/jog/trot transitions. I find it is best to do these on a 20m circle, perhaps walking 1/4 -1/2 the circle in a walk and then 3/4 - a full circle in a trot. To go from a walk to a trot I use my following seat and a squeeze from my lower legs (more inside leg to maintain bend through the transition). If the horse does not respond I will increase my leg pressure to a tap, tap, tap, until the horse moves into the trot. If the horse required the stronger pressure I will bring them back down and retest the transition. The ultimate goal is for the horse to move off at the lightest pressure, this is what we call, 'being in front of the leg'. The horse moves forward readily off the lightest pressure. If the horse inverts (lifts their head up) through the transition then you know the horse is not working from the hind end, but is trying to PULL itself into the transition with the front end. You can ride the horse onto a smaller 10m circle in the walk to establish more bend and then ask for the trot again just before you get back to the track of the larger circle.
Once your horse is responding quickly to both up and down transitions promptly and softly you can begin to ask the horse for transitions within a gait. Begin by asking for a working jog/trot to a more lengthened jog/trot for half a circle. Use the full arena for this exercise, riding 20 m circles at A and C (circle at each end of the arena). Ride working trot around the arena and then as you start the circle ask for a little more energy, maintaining contact, for the first half of the circle and then working jog/trot for the second half of the circle. Again the horse should readily respond to both the up and down aids. In a jog/trot I will use more inside leg with a supporting outside leg to ask for more. My hands may widen slightly to give the shoulders more freedom to move. As I ask for the downward transition I will breath out as I squeeze my outside rein, half halting (squeezing and releasing in time with the outside front leg swinging forward). On a high level horse I may ride this exercise in a lope/canter, using my outside leg to ask for more energy and half halting on the outside rein along with my seat to return to a working gait.
Once I have established that the "whoa and go" cues are there then I will work on rhythm. On the dressage training scale rhythm is the number one basic. I will ride circles, serpentines, and loops in walk and jog/trot
checking to see if the horse will maintain rhythm and suppleness throughout the changes of bends. At this stage I will also ask my horse to stretch over the topline on a 20m circle. Now that the muscles are warming up the horse can stretch the long muscles of the back more easily. Taking the time to work on free walk and jog during the warm-up and again during the cool down will pay off when you take your horse to a show. This is an area that many people neglect and an area that is worth a lot of marks in the dressage showring. Stretching the horse over the topline also aids the horse in developing more swing in their step. Swing cannot come unless the horse is free and relaxed over the back. When you ask the horse to stretch down take your hands slightly wider so this becomes a cue to stretch. If the horse doesn't understand the idea of stretching down you can encourage them by flexing left and right in time with each front leg going forward. Right front goes forward, flex right and vice versa. The horse's head balances over the leg that is going forward so you are using their own movement to massage the head down.
After I have established rhythm and stretch I may move on to some lateral work to work on suppleness and to get them working into more contact. Spiral in, leg yield out on a circle for a green horse, leg yielding from the 1/4 line to the wall or centre line to wall on a more advance horse. Maybe some shoulder-in on a higher level horse. I generally don't spend much time on lope/canter in my warm-ups. For the higher level horses I will ask for a few transitions into a nice working lope/canter, but make the lope work a bigger part of my workout. Remember the goal of the warm-up is to check in and see if the horse is responding to your aids and preparing him for the work that will proceed the warm-up. The longevity of our horses is worth the extra time it takes to both mentally and physically prepare our horses for work. Enjoy the process!
The mare in the photos is a 5yr old AQHA/APHA mare who will be competing in Intro/Basic Western Dressage in 2017. She is working on developing rhythm, suppleness, and contact.
Lateral exercises will be articles for future blog posts.
Photo Credit to Rebecca Wieben Photography