If your warm-up consists of walking or trotting a few times around the arena, you’re not getting the best performance from your horse (or yourself). A good warm-up routine gets you both focused and ready to work – mentally and physically.
Note that when muscles, tendons and ligaments, are cold they are more prone to tears or strains. Stretching should only be encouraged after the body has warmed up.
A good warm-up:
- gets the heart pumping
- increases blood flow
- warms up the muscles, tendons and ligaments, preparing them for the work they will be doing
- creates mental focus
- develops connection between you and your horse
The warm-up should focus on:
- rhythm and relaxation
- clarity of and response to aids
- correct and energetic gaits
The following basic warm-up routine, which should take 15 minutes, benefits all levels of recreational riders and can be a prelude to starting competition-focused exercises. Some horses may need a longer warm-up time, however, so listen to your horse and give him what he needs most.
Pay Attention to Posture
It is important to be conscious of your own posture during the warm-up. Make an effort to keep your core engaged, your seat bones straight down, your spine open as you lift up through your torso and your legs long as they drop down and around your horse.
Starting on your horse’s easiest side on a large circle, establish a forward four-beat walk on a long rein (with contact). Let your horse stretch his back and neck, carrying his nose slightly in front of the vertical. Encourage him to bend around your inside seat bone and leg. Keep your legs long and supple (no gripping), giving your aids in time with the swing of his barrel. If he is heavy on the inside rein or high headed, gradually spiral out onto a larger circle. When he softens, gradually spiral back into a 20-metre circle. Include changes of rhythm within the gait. Half halt to slow down a bit. Lift and open your chest, firm your lower back, stop your seat. Go more forward by releasing your elbows, softening your back and following with your hips. This exercise engages the hindquarters and can help lighten a horse that is heavy on the forehand.
Change direction by riding a figure eight. Repeat the exercise on the harder side until your horse is moving forward energetically while stretching his neck out and down. You’ll feel more movement in his back and swing through his barrel as his hind legs step further underneath him.
Avoid boredom by including more changes of direction (serpentines and figure eights) and changes of rhythm.
Your aim is for your horse to be able to walk forward and relaxed while holding true bend in the circles, and stretching his neck forward/down. Signs of relaxation are blowing, licking and softly chewing on the bit.
Add Trot and Canter
More advanced riders and horses can include trot and/or canter in the warm-up, focusing on the quality of transitions.
Continue on a long rein with contact so your horse can still lengthen through his neck and back. For the less forward horse, ride the entire arena in a large figure eight pattern, changing direction across the diagonals. Encourage your horse to lengthen his stride on the long sides and across the diagonal and shorten it on the short sides.
If your horse is too forward, trot on a 20-metre circle using your half halt to slow him. Repeat trot/walk transitions in different places on the circle. Trot out of the circle when you feel him softening and relaxing. Change direction across the diagonal. Any time he gets too forward, come back to the 20-metre circle.
Add canter transitions on a 20-metre circle when you have established a comfortable, consistent trot. Allow your horse to supple, loosen and lengthen his muscles by letting him take a little more rein. If he starts out stiff, get off his back by taking a half seat position for a few strides.
Canter only one or two circles then ask for a trot transition. Repeat a couple of times then change direction across the diagonal at trot. Pick up the canter in the new direction on a 20-metre circle. Neither of you should be breathing hard at the end of your warm-up. If you are, go back to an active walk for a few minutes until your breathing rate returns to normal.
After your 15-minute warm-up, if your horse is not lighter in the reins, engaging his hindquarters, and softer through his neck and back, he needs a longer warm-up or more time focusing on a particular area. Experiment and pay attention to your horse to find the right warm-up routine for him.