If you exercise, you know how important it is to warm up properly before you start, and to cool down when you’re finished. In all athletic endeavors, in fact, coaches spend a great deal of time focusing on effective warm-up and cooldown routines. These routines are just as important to your horse’s physical and mental well being as they are for yours, especially when the weather turns colder.
• The warm-up routine prepares the mind and body for physical and mental exercise. It ensures the mind is focused on the activities to come. It also increases blood flow to the extremities and raises body temperature and oxygen and nutrient supplies to the limbs, allowing them to function efficiently, painlessly, and with minimal risk of injury.
• The cool-down routine lowers body temperature, reduces cardiovascular and respiratory output, stretches and relaxes the muscles, and returns the body and mind to a resting state after exercise.
Taking the time
An effective warm-up routine doesn’t start when the rider is in the saddle. It should start before exercise occurs, from the moment you fetch your horse from his paddock or stall and begin the process of grooming and saddling up. The horse’s mindset changes from a resting state to a state of alertness and anticipation, because he knows that once he is groomed he will be tacked up and the adventure of a ride will begin.
Unfortunately, in this age of hustle and bustle, many riders are so pressed for time that they miss out on the opportunity to effectively warm up their horses from stall to saddle and better the odds of a positive and happy riding or exercise experience. Often, people only give their equine partners a quick going-over with the brushes to remove the worst of the dirt before saddling up and heading out on the trails. Once in the saddle, many find their horses are inattentive, stiff, and reluctant to move down the trail or around the ring. What horse wouldn’t be when a mere ten minutes has passed from the time he was fetched up to the time his rider dropped into the saddle?
Developing an effective routine
A first rate warm-up routine before exercise helps the horse become more attentive and the rider let go of her day’s distractions, thereby ensuring a positive riding outcome. The process should start from the moment the horse leaves his stall or paddock and enters the grooming area.
The first step is to increase circulation and slightly raise cardiovascular and respiratory output by giving the horse a vigorous and thorough grooming. This essentially involves giving the horse a mini-massage from head to tail. It will not only effectively increase circulation, especially to the extremities, but it also allows you to do a thorough head to tail check to ensure your horse is in good health before saddling up. Lastly, it’s an excellent opportunity to work on ground manners and help the horse become mentally alert and focused.
Grooming to go
We have a simple routine that starts with the following grooming approach:
• Use the palm of your hand, a rubber curry comb, grooma or grooming mitt in large circular motions, starting with light pressure and moving deeper into the large muscles of the neck, shoulder, back and hindquarters.
• If your horse leans in at any particular point, work in deeper and with smaller circular strokes until he lets out a big sigh or begins to yawn.
• If he moves away at any given point, ease up your pressure and move to larger circular strokes.
• Follow with quick short firm strokes using the dandy brush. Put your back into each stroke, flicking dirt and hair well away from the body.
• Finish with long deep strokes with the body brush or rag. Again, put your back into each stroke. If your horse is sensitive to stiff bristled brushes, use softer, longer bristled brushes or towels of varying textures. Start with a rough textured towel or rag (burlap or cactus cloth is very durable), then move to a terry cloth towel and finish off using a polar fleece towel or flannel sham to put the final polish on the coat.
• This grooming routine should not take longer than 15 minutes. Your horse will be clean from head to tail and you’ll feel warm and slightly out of breath! In cold weather, immediately put a wool cooler or quarter sheet on the horse to keep this warmth in while you tack up. Keep it on for the first ten minutes of your ride.
We start every ride in the ring for the first ten minutes so we can fully assess the horse’s attitude and soundness before heading out on the trails. This part of the warm-up asks the horse to move forward at a strong walk, encouraging him to gradually increase the length of his stride and reach down into the bridle.
We then begin doing large circles and serpentines. As the horse develops a nice swinging gait with ears forward and a little chewing going on, we move into smaller serpentines and spiraling circles that encourage greater reaching under of the hind end and more lateral bending. We make sure to work both sides of the horse equally, though if a horse is stiffer in one direction than the other we’ll work the stiffer side 10% more than the flexible side.
Once we have made certain the horse is mentally focused and physically comfortable, we hop off, pull off the wool cooler or quarter sheet and stretch out his limbs holding each stretch for ten seconds (see photos at left).
After the ride
When you return from your ride, immediately replace the wool cooler or quarter sheet to keep the horse’s muscles warm and help draw away from his body any sweat that has built up in his winter coat. This will minimize his chances of getting a chill across his loins and coming out next day stiff and sore.
With the horse untacked and warm under the cooler, complete the stretch routine as you did after your ten-minute warm-up walk. This time, hold the stretches for 20 seconds.
Now proceed with your cool-down grooming. The aim here is to lift the coat so that air can freely circulate through the hair fibers and thoroughly dry out the coat. Use only your rubber curry comb, grooma or mitt (I like to use my fingertips and rake the body in a “W” pattern; this helps me locate any areas of significant temperature change and small areas of injury or soreness that may have developed on the ride).
Work the coat in large circular strokes, gradually getting deeper with each circle until the horse is settled and leaning in. Then use the polishing towel, again working in large circular motions against the grain or lay of the coat to remove any residue dampness. Finish by using the body brush in long slow deep strokes to lay the coat back into place. Finally, put your horse’s blanket back on or simply let him back out to frolic in the snow.
An appropriate warm-up and cool-down routine before and after exercise will help your horse have a happy, healthy career. It also alerts you to any problems he may be experiencing before you head out on your ride. Develop one that works for you and your horse – it won’t up take that much time, and the benefits are worth it. A thorough grooming can be accomplished in 15 minutes. Add a simple walking warm-up followed by effective stretches and you’ll have a sound equine partner who will work with you on the trail or in the ring for years to come.
Note: With stiff horses, stretches that are held for only 5 seconds many times over many days are better than one big stretch that overwhelms the body and causes injury. Over time, as the horse learns the stretches and flexibility is increased, the length of the stretch and duration it is held will be increased.
If at any point during the stretches the horse takes and gives the stretch in tiny increments (he fusses in your hands) don’t force a bigger stretch to happen. Simply let him fuss 3 to 5 times and then let the leg go. This increasing rate of muscular contraction and relaxation will in its own way stretch out the muscle fibres – a little like a human with tense shoulders who tenses them some more and then releases them and repeats the exercise a few times. As your horse learns what you are asking he’ll fuss less and give you bigger stretches that he can hold longer.
Treetops was founded in 1991 by Sigle (Sheila) Skeries as an outstanding full service equestrian centre with a special interest in equine rehabilitation. Since 1995 Treetops has focused solely on equine and canine rehabilitation while also providing exceptional educational programs in the field of complementary therapies. Sigle (Sheila) Skeries has an honors bachelor of arts in educational psychology with 25 years teaching experience and over 35 years experience in the animal industry. Her qualifications in therapeutic massage and herbal remedies have been secured through training in England and successful completion of the ITEC licensing examinations. She is also qualified as a British Horse Society Intermediate Instructor, and has managed equine facilities in breeding, racing, training and showing. This ensures a well rounded and knowledgeable approach not only to rehabilitation but the specific needs and demands of a wide variety of disciplines.