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Horse Training & Equine Warm Up



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The value of warming up before working your horse.
(Part One )

By Bonnie J. Hilton (Horse training article copyrighted by Saddle & Bridle Magazine.)


This article is for the struggling owner or trainer who is trying to find applicable methods of warm-up, also known as loosening or suppling, for their problematic equines.. The equine that is difficult, in any way you want to define it. How can you train warm-up? In my  opinion, with problem equines, you have to train it. I would like us to attempt to embrace words from Give Your Horse a Chance by d Endrody. In reference to the loosening exercise or warm-up, The purpose of this exercise is to remove the horse s stable stiffness and steam, as well as to calm it down without making it tired. It is an essential part of the daily practice, since the success of the ensuing routine work depends largely upon the proper execution of the loosening process.

By omitting the loosening exercise, one loses time instead of gaining it. The reason for this is that an un-supple horse will create considerable difficulties for the rider and will merely waste its own and its master s energy without bringing improvement into the quality of the daily routine work. Therefore the rider should never fail to perform the loosening exercise, to which he should devote at least 15 to 20 minutes, in order to enable the horse to get rid of its stiffness.

With the problem equine, you also have to deal with the mind. Where do you start? The warm-up applications that will be discussed will fall into two categories, which usually are combined in latter stages of training. The linear approaches which simply mean working in a line, straight or curved, either somehow in hand or under saddle, suppling from back to front. The lateral approaches, which mean those that apply to the side to side flexions which can be accomplished in hand or under saddle. I would also like to suggest ways to break out of the time box we put ourselves into. Not simple by any means, but something to think about.

In years past, when I managed facilities, I never gave much thought to equine warm-up.  I handled stalled equines that were turned out into large grass fields each day. Some of the horses would race off at a gallop, buck, leap, stop, snort and look around and then start to graze for a few minutes, before taking off on another high speed lap of the field. Other members of the herd would just meander over to the newest shoot of grass and start eating. They would move out of the way of their playful herd members but seldom entered into the morning calisthenics. I never made the connection between the early turnout behavior and the under saddle needs.

I think it would be very simplistic of me to try to say that there are two types of equines to warm-up. But how do you teach classification easily? Do you even care? I never used to. Why should you stress warm-up as a preventative to injury? How would you explain it and describe the needs of your horses, if you embrace warm-up as an important part of your training and teaching program? Should warm-up meet the mental, as well as the physical needs of the equine?

To put an equine into a category for warm-up I like the simple approach of hot and cold, which could be changed to go and slow, or high strung vs. laid back, high maintenance vs. low maintenance, type AAAA vs. type ZZZZ or anything else that is more correct in your thinking.. Nutrition can dictate category, as many of us know, and feeding an equine more for its needs, than for our hearts, can make a big difference. Between the two basic categories there is a third, which needs warm-up as well. As a trainer I don t often have the honor to work with this type. I would call these equines grounded. (I know you thought I was going to say warm, but not all equines called warm by today s standards are grounded.)
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How would you classify your equines and how would you approach warm-up work within the category they fit? I have mares and geldings in training at present who I can separate into the two basic descriptive columns. As noted, one column will be headed by the hot attitude and the other by the cold attitude. Within the columns I can break down the behavior of the equines, the progress I have made in training and the failures I seem to be having as well. What possible good will all this paper work afford me, if I really did it on paper? I would see where several of these equines need in hand focus before they are started out under saddle each training session. Some of the horses can be started out under saddle but need straight lines and gentle bends before being asked to perform anything more demanding of resistive muscle groups. Then there are a couple of equines that need strong in hand or under saddle stretching exercises applied for side to side suppleness, as well as forward development. What am I talking about?

It is all about warm-up and the time it takes to produce an equine that is both mentally and physically ready to attempt to perform what you are asking from it. I ll ask again, how would you describe your equines? I am going to work with the short list I gave above. Although I feel that daily turn out can help keep an equine much more limber physically and mentally relaxed, I know that in some facilities, turn out is on a limited time basis.

One general thought on safety here. I am not going to go into detail on how to achieve some of the warm-up performance I am going to describe, especially the in hand work. For young readers and novice adults alike, you need to know what you are trying to achieve, the proper equipment to be using, the possible problems that may develop and how to handle them safely. Do your research, buy the books I mention or others, use the internet, pester your instructor or trainer and educate yourself.

In Hand Warm Up Training --

That is a fancy way of saying that in order to save your neck you had better put this horse into ground training first. I am not talking about longeing a horse into exhaustion on a line or in a round pen. I am talking about developing mental focus and finding methods to work the kinks out in the most controlled manner you can. Sorry to say it takes time and thought on the handler s part to produce a linear line warm-up. I like working with keen horses and they come in all shapes, sizes and breeds. There is no doubt in my mind that keen horses are sometimes difficult to focus on work.

 I feel that horses do have personality and it can be changed. One equine has been very difficult to bond with. Taking this horse right out of its stall to under saddle work, without an in hand warm-up, has proven to be an act of futility on my part as a trainer. The behavior indicated that the equine was either uncomfortable, unsure or untrusting of what was expected. Why deal with erratic behavior under saddle before the horse settles down? It simply is not safe, nor is it good training and we all need to understand that when any type of erratic behavior is allowed to continue, you are training it to continue. Warm-up sometimes has to approach these kinds of problems and hopefully work to reverse the issues.

A nervous, apprehensive horse will have a tense body. Range of motion will be limited. A tense body will not be supple and in my opinion you can produce pain and erratic behavior if you attempt to force performance under saddle. Training has nothing to do with force. Working in hand and training for specific performance that will become routine, is focusing for the brain and in time, produces memory for muscle. You have to create the fitness, the correct muscles, to carry out the performance you are looking for. In its most simplistic form you can train for walk, trot, canter and whoa and stand in both directions.

 I think that most readers know that between and within the three gaits you have the transitions. It is with these requests for rebalancing that the linear warm-up occurs. My discipline warrants the use of side reins and the development of the warm-up will focus on their application as well. Although I don t consider the canter a training gait, it is a warm-up gait for many equines and it needs to be done correctly. As I have noted many times in the past, running around uncontrolled on the end of the line is not longeing and it is not correct warm-up.

For the most problematic, I would suggest a linear warm-up developed with lateral, to help stretch and improve range of motion. A synopsis of what we are using with difficult equines is the horses are brought out in full tack with long side reins, into walking the ring in both directions. Simple lateral moves are worked at walk. Then into walk-trot-walk-halt transitions in both directions. Large circles, small circles and straight lines along the wall. Side reins are adjusted, but not to restrict, only to encourage a long frame and prevent the inversion problems of past improper handling. Then the trot-canter-trot and walk-canter-walk transitions are worked.

Halt is asked for at intervals and the rein back. For any horse actually, the in hand warm-up production will produce a performance foundation that you can go back to each and every time you run into problems.

I am going to go out on my proverbial limb and say that the walk is a wonderful warm-up for some horses. (If you deal with tantrums, violent willful outbursts of annoyance on your equine s part, it may be a very safe place to instill some discipline.) We all know that the walk is the easiest gait to ruin and the hardest gait to improve, yet some of us take little time in it. In hand at the walk is where all the body manipulation can take place that will teach and train the horse to shift its balance. I am often amazed at how many of the horses from the hot category settle down and focus once they really learn that they can walk with a handler and that nothing more is being expected of them. Once back under saddle, the same is true. I have had people tell me over the years that their horse does not walk. There is nothing wrong with taking the time to walk, you just have to take the time to do it. To have just walking training sessions may seem bizarre, but in my opinion, if you don t have a calm, forward, walk, what do you have? At home, on a daily basis, do you have a nervous, tense, uptight, unfocused equine? It is at the walk that some of the best neck flexions can be done, the displacement of both haunches and shoulder and the introduction to leg yield. For horses from the cold category, this type of warm-up has its benefits because it is slower, more balanced and productive with resistive muscle groups.  For horses with bitting problems, which is what often is encountered in retraining, the walk is the gait to use to seek quiet, to encourage the horse to stop all the mouth noise and tension that goes along with it.

 Lateral in hand means to train the equine to move away from your aids by crossing its legs over, from inside to outside, from back to front, either while moving forward or totally to the side. It can also refer to the pivots, forehand and haunches which can be achieved in hand with time and consistency. In simplistic form, which will have the critics howling, I could say that this type of work helps produce the ability under saddle to stand your horse up in balance, to achieve the slightest of change in weight shift or direction by yielding to the leg and the corresponding hand.

Although not lateral, I feel that training a horse to back in hand, the true two step movement of rein back, is a suppling movement as well. All of this work demands that the handler actually touch, manipulate with hands and firm commands of voice. I don t want to step on any toes, but when you look at this type of warm-up realistically, you will come to understand that you are performing a type of massage in motion. It is not the same as the deep muscle massage done in static position, but work in hand, by its very nature, is manipulative. Horses that are skittish or the opposite of resistive to touch will respond with time and patience. To see a horse relax with this work, to hear the sigh that the old timers talk about can be compared to how you feel after someone has just worked with you, touching and helping you move body parts, if you have ever had it done.

Since this article was started, the most difficult of my charges has graduated from working a full longe program in full equipment to being brought out in hand to work from the reins off the bridle. The program was first taught in an indoor, than the outside ring and is now being done in the open. This is bonding work and not for the timid handler if you are working in the open. There is the possibility of the horse getting away from the handler, but in my mind, if you handle in the open, there is always that possibility and it should not keep you from being able to trot your horse around in hand without problems. This in hand work is now short, 10 to 15 minutes before being mounted and asked to carry weight. The program consists of being led off both sides at walk, into longeing off the reins in small circles at walk, into lateral displacement known as the side over movements, to rein back and then into  transitions to trot, with the handler working along side. The halt is practiced from trot and the walk transition. Yes, the handler is either walking really fast or jogging themselves . The horse is then mounted and put to straight lines and gentle bends under saddle and at the finish of the riding session, the horse is again put to a short in hand session off the bridle. As will be noted, this extra time during cool down is important.


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