Whether you’re planning to hit the trails for a leisurely trail ride or engage in an intense arena workout session with your horse, it’s important to incorporate plenty of warm-up exercises and cool-down time into your riding schedule. Think about it this way. When was the last time you jumped off the couch and hit the gym for a few hours of lifting heavy weights and running on the treadmill without warming up first? Diving into an intense workout without taking the time to stretch or loosen your muscles is a recipe for soreness, stiffness and lameness, if not injury, and the same is true for your horse. It’s also crucial to take the time to cool your horse down after every ride because it allows his heartbeat, respiration and body temperature to return to normal.
HOW MUCH WARM-UP TIME DO I NEED?
The amount of time and the quality of your warm-up period may vary depending on your horse’s age and general state of health. For example, a young, fit horse fresh out of the pasture may need a little less warm-up time than a more mature horse with a touch of arthritis who’s been stalled, but both horses’ muscles will still be cold and tight. Keep in mind that there are two goals to every warm-up session. One goal is to help your horse’s muscles loosen and stretch so that when you begin to ask for more athletic maneuvers, such as lead changes or jumps, he’s able to respond and engage in the work. The other goal is to prepare the body for work, including elevating the heart rate and respiratory rate so that enough blood and oxygen is flowing to every muscle.
A good rule of thumb is to dedicate the first fifteen to twenty minutes of every ride as a warm-up period, and then scale up or down depending on the quality and amount of work you’re asking your horse to perform. It’s also a great opportunity for you to take time to warm up and loosen your own muscles, especially if you’re more of a weekend rider or know that you tend to be stiff or sore in certain areas of your body.
Looking for some ways to spruce up your warm-up routine? Try these!
Stretch, stretch, stretch! Before you tack up, lead your horses through these easy stretches as a pre-warm-up routine. Standing by your horse’s flank and facing his head, use a carrot or treat to entice your horse to stretch his neck all the way around to his side. Make sure to do this on both sides. Then crouch down by your horse’s forelegs and ask him to stretch his head all the way down to his fetlocks. Depending on how athletic your horse is, you may get him to reach between his front legs for the carrot. Next, scratch your horse’s belly to encourage him to lift his belly and engage his topline. Finally, gently and carefully lift each foot and encourage your horse to stretch his forelegs and hindlegs.
Use longe time wisely. Using a longe line or round pen is a great way to help your horse warm up unmounted. Ask your horse to walk, trot and canter in circles in both directions. This is also the perfect time for your horse to get those little bucks out of the way if he’s feeling fresh. If you and your horse are already a pro at longeing, consider teaching your horse to stop, transition between gaits and change directions at liberty with vocal cues.
Back to basics. Once you’re mounted, consider your warm-up time as a chance to go back to basics. Practice your circles, figure-eights and other shapes at the walk, trot and canter. Set up poles, barrels or other obstacles to add variety. If you plan to jump, pull out your cavaletti and practice over those towards the end of your warm-up session. As you ride, focus on relaxing and stretching your own muscles. If you’re an English rider, spend time in the two-point position and focus on stretching your hamstrings and calf muscles.
LET’S COOL THINGS DOWN
Cool-down time is equally important for your horse’s health, especially after a heavy workout or if your horse has worked up a sweat and the temperature is chilly. After every ride, aim to spend fifteen to twenty minutes walking your horse on a loose rein. Some people choose to dismount and loosen the girth as they cool their horse down. Spend this time praising and petting your horse, and occasionally checking his body temperature with your hand and watching his respiration rate. Once your horse’s breathing has slowed to normal (10-24 breaths per minute, depending on your horse’s size) and he’s cool to the touch, you can usually head back to the barn for a much-deserved post-ride grooming session.