Written by: Anne Gage

Anne Gage shares tips for giving your horse a proper cool down after exercise.

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Riding is an athletic activity, and you and your horse are athletes. All good athletes – even amateur ones – include a cool down as part of every exercise session to avoid injury, strain or sore muscles. No matter what type of riding you do or how often you do it, it is important to include a proper cool down to end every ride.

The cool down allows your horse’s body (as well as yours) to safely recover from the exertion of exercise while preventing possible problems like sore or pulled muscles and even colic or founder. A proper cool down is simply the reverse of your warm-up (see “How to warm-up for a better ride” in the March/April issue of Horse-Canada).

A proper cool down benefits the horse by:

  • returning pulse rate, respiration rate and body temperature to normal
  • improving blood circulation, which reduces chance of inflammation
  • removing lactate from muscles
  • allowing dilated blood vessels to slowly return to normal
  • relaxing and lengthening muscles
  • bringing the horse into a state of mental and physical relaxation

Here are some tips to help you design a proper cool down routine for your horse:

Know Your Horse’s Respiration and Pulse Rates

It is good to be familiar with your horse’s resting respiration and pulse rates. When your horse is at rest, watch his flanks moving in and out as he breathes. Count the in/out movements for 10 seconds. Find your horse’s pulse by placing your fingers over the mandibular artery (just inside each branch of the lower jaw). Count the number of beats for 10 seconds. Multiply each of these numbers by six to get his per minute respiration and pulse (heart) rates. Although respiration rates vary widely, on average, resting respiration rate is between eight and 12 per minute and resting pulse rate is about 35 beats per minute. A horse who has worked extremely hard may increase the pulse rate to 140 or more. That rate should drop quickly to about 100 as soon as exercise has stopped and return to the normal rate within 15 minutes. Both rates should slow significantly during the first few minutes of cooling down.

Adjust Your Cool Down for Each Ride

A proper cool down can range from five to 15 minutes or more depending on all of these factors:

  • your horse’s general physical condition, fitness level and build
  • how hard your horse has worked
  • the external temperature and humidity

Do Your Warm-Up in Reverse

If you have been working in canter or gallop, then start your cool down by bringing your horse back to the rising trot for a few minutes. Ride some 20-metre circles, serpentines or figure eights while encouraging your horse to stretch long and low. The aim is to stretch the muscles that have been working so hard along his top line.

Following the trot work (or if you only trotted in your working part of your ride), walk your horse on a long rein, allowing him to go into a long and low frame to stretch his back. Encourage him to stay bent around your inside seat bone and leg as you ask for changes of direction (serpentines or figure eights). Ask him to maintain a nice consistent and fluid rhythm in the walk while keeping his hindquarters engaged. Falling on the forehand is still a no-no even in the cool down.

Dismounted Cool Down

Once your horse has settled and his breathing is more normally, you can dismount, loosen your girth one or two holes and walk him around the arena for a few minutes. Check his breathing and that his body is not warmer than your hand. If he has not returned to resting state, remove his saddle and walk him some more.

Adjust for the Weather

In cold weather, prevent the muscles in your horse’s back and hindquarters from getting chilled by putting a cooler or wool blanket over them while riding him at walk. Once you remove your saddle pull the cooler up to his withers and cover his chest if he is sweaty. Rub his body vigorously with a towel to dry his coat and give him a massage.

In hot weather, after his breathing and pulse have returned to normal, sponging him down with cold water will help cool his muscles and bring his body temperature back to normal.

Your cool down is finished only when your horse’s respiration, pulse and body temperature return to normal.