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Warm Up Your Horse



Warm Up the Horse: Training site section Logo, horses grazing in tall grass.

More about warming up your horse
( Part Two )

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


Straight lines and gentle bends, Warm up training --

Out of the hot, as well as the cold category are horses that will warm-up well under saddle if you give them enough time at straight lines and gentle bends to get their minds and bodies working together. If you don t take the time you could produce problems. With equines out of the hot category, I have often asked for canter performance before the back top line was stretched and have found myself being bucked toward the moon. I deserved it. From the cold category, I have had bullish, belligerent, lockjaw performance produced due to my lack of tack in knowing that the horse was as stiff as I am first thing in the morning. I didn t allow any time to stretch.

 This is where all the teaching on lines of the arena, clock pattern and mirror image come into play. After walking around large in both directions, you ride a large figure of eight and you compare the bend produced from one side to the other. How is the horse performing today? Do they need to spend more time in walking serpentine, to work out a sore muscle in the shoulder or neck? Only by slowly working in your warm-up are you going to discover what is needed. You have to have a plan when you get on. What do you want to accomplish? What are your short term and long term goals in your riding, in your training, on this particular day? The warm-up should support your training, as well as assist you during the whole of your training period, in that you can go back to elements of warm-up to reestablish your partnership with your horse.

Working from the basic circle to serpentine work is one of your best diagnostic tools for evaluation of stiffness. Serpentines, by definition in dressage, are figures involving changes of rein. Students who have had some formal instruction in figure work should be familiar with the classic three loop serpentine. Easy to ride at the walk and much more difficult to do correctly at the trot, if the horse is not cooperative to the changes of bend. The three loop serpentine consists of two end loops to one bend and the center loop working in the opposite bend. For this reason, it should be ridden in both directions to make a good working comparison of what is going on with your riding partner. If space allows, a four loop serpentine bilateral movement is wonderful to school for warm-up work at both the walk and trot. For those advanced students with well trained mounts, the classic serpentine at the canter with both simple and flying changes is a suppling gymnastic and a true test of your schooling, when it can be executed in counter canter. Cherry Hill s book 101 Arena Exercises is a good resource for learning about figures.

Breaking Out of the Time Box

Why do we ride for an hour? Recently I have been discussing this with my students. We work on hourly schedules, we pay for hourly work and we live by the clock. Does the equine care about this? I kid my students that it seems some of the horses do wear a Rolex and know that their hour of work is up. You may find that in order to warm-up your equine from either category given and really produce some quality performance, it may take a lot longer than an hour. My lessons are based on warm-up and sometimes we just start getting that elusive partnership developing when my time is up. I tell my students to keep riding, if I have to leave. Keep doing what you are doing. Horses that are in fitness programs, as well as training programs, are going to benefit from your perseverance. Anyone who does long distance trail riding is laughing at me at this point, but from the ring to the trail is like going to a foreign country for some of my students, they have never spent three or four hours continuously in the saddle. The concept of training for two hours, combining in hand and under saddle, is something I have been pushing my training students into and the time wall is very hard to tear down. For the one very problematic equiner, we often worked 30 minutes of in hand warm-up, one full hour under saddle with the owner riding, with frequent long walk breaks and a finish of another 10 to 20 minutes of longe work with me. The whole handling session lasted over two hours. (Please note that this is not a youngster, the horse is physically fit from longe work and that this horse from the hot category with past training problems is learning that quiet, consistent in hand and under saddle performance is what now is expected and with the extra time being dedicated to the warm-up and training sessions, it was slowly developed.)


Strong In Hand and Under Saddle Warm Up Training --

 I have made the mistake of thinking that a horse from the hot category doesn t need to be put through strong stretches. I have come to learn that often, the more agile and fluid the mover, the more pronounced a problem can develop if they are not helped to work out of it. Pre-ride stretches, as well as a ridden stretch program are beneficial for all equines and although they take time to train, once learned they become part of your routine. They help to evaluate your equine on a day to day basis no matter from what category they come.

While demonstrating carrot stretches with one of my training charges, a new student asked me if they could be used as part of warm-up. They most definitely can be and can be thought of as part of your lateral work as well. As older readers may remember, back in the 80s, sports therapist Jack Meagher started many of us on the hands on approach to helping our equines with massage. He wrote the book, Beating Muscle Injuries for Horses, which outlines 25 common muscular problems, their cause, correction and prevention.

Massage is a fascinating area for research for warm-up. I don t think there is any rider out there that would not like to have a pre-ride and post-ride massage. The horse would agree as well, if it could talk, yet few of us, and I should know better, take much time to work it into our programs. I would like to caution however, you also need to develop fitness.

The basic carrot stretches I use are the two side stretches to the hip (the horse should remain standing four square and not swing the body around), the between the front legs stretch done from both sides (done with caution at first as some horses will lose balance, actually kneel or bow), the front chest stretch bringing the chin to the chest as high as possible to flex the neck, jowl and free the jaw and the up high stretch asking the equine to reach up high. It is interesting that most of the in hand stretches are under saddle stretches that can be taught if you approach the training slow and systematically. For some equines with a tense poll response to pressure, training on command to lower the head to the ground is part of the carrot stretch routine as well.

There are trainers who don t feel it is safe to hand feed horses.. Once you train the stretch you don t use the treat to continue to have it performed. You train to your hand and after the horse completes the stretch, you reward, if only with a pat on the body. If you are consistent, it becomes part of your routine.

The manipulation of the four legs with stretches can be done as part of warm up. Horses have to be trained to accept the positions, just like accepting the blacksmith. Pulling the front legs and lifting the hind will alert you to stiffness and range of motion problems. What I find of interest is that horses of both categories can have major range of motion problems. The back lift stretch can be performed by asking with stiff finger tips to the ventral line of the abdomen or by finding the response spot on either side of the spine in front of the dock. Caution should be taken when attempting to lift the back. The horse may well cow kick at the handler when they try working from the ventral line.  When attempting to find the right spot to get the back lift from the rump, some horses may kick and on occasion get startled by the movement produced if there is pain present. It is wise to work with a handler when you first start attempting this work, rather than place the horse on a tie or in cross ties.

Two books which may be of help for those readers who are looking into stretches and manipulation are as follows: Stretch Exercises for Your Horse by Karin Blignault and Sports Massage for Horses by Pennie Hooper. Much of what I have been talking about is explained in a much more informative manner. I have also found some of the text to be very thought provoking and makes me even further aware of how much I rush my equine students into work before they are ready to perform.

As part of the strong in hand or under saddle warm-up, bending is key. Here again, if you take the time to learn handling, you can manipulate most horses to do some interesting dance steps with you in hand. I am always handling equines that don t have a clue as to how to work away from  me once I get on their off side. The concept of bilateral development as opposed to unilateral development is not complicated. As you embrace warm-up, you supple one side to the other. Most of what you do on the ground can be duplicated under saddle.

The equine from the cold category not only needs bending and lateral in their warm-up, but they often need to be encouraged to embrace forward in their thinking. If I evaluate a new horse under saddle and put my leg on and get the reaction that I just asked a stone wall to move I am not putting on spurs or reaching for a whip. I am going to get off and find out what this horse knows on the ground and how fit the horse is. Body fat and type does not always tell me fitness level. What has been the previous training and where is the present training headed with this particular animal? Why has the horse been labeled, dull, belligerent, stiff or unresponsive? Will a warm-up be something that the owner really cares about and embraces each and every time they go to work with this animal? Warm-up will support fitness training and then when the horse becomes fit, the warm-up will protect against injury.


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