How You and Your Horse Can Maximize Performance by Having a Good Warm Up and Cool Down Routine
We have all heard by now that stretching is one of the most important injury prevention methods that exists, but how many of us actually stretch? Let alone stretch before exercise? We may be ignoring our own needs, but it is vital to remember that we are our horses’ representatives. This means that our horses should be given the best chances at performing and feeling their best. Even if you are riding your horse as a hobby and have no competitive goals, your horse (and you) are putting in physical effort. In order to prevent injury and create better performance, both rider and horse must have an excellent warm up and cool down routine.
As riders/horse owners, it is in our best interest to take care of ourselves for the sake of our partner(s). If something happens to us because we were too stiff, who will be there for the horses? Stretching before a ride (or even simply first thing in the morning) is one of the best ways to get yourself prepared (both physically and mentally) for the day ahead. In addition to relaxing your muscles, it can also help you improve your ride (e.g. by improving cross-coordination). One such stretch can be done by alternating stretching your left arm/right leg (and vice versa) by moving them forward, backwards, and sideways (Meyners). Act as if you are on the horse while doing this stretch (by looking in the direction that you are going) and repeat several times. Good comprehensive stretching can be done alone (with the developed routine) or using guidance of videos found on the internet (yoga can be beneficial for both the mind and body of the rider). Take the time to “stretch yourself mentally” by smiling, repeating positive affirmations and humming. Humming is a great stress-reliever because it allows for your body to release tension. Another great activity to do for the brain is the “lazy eight.” Pick a reference point straight ahead of you and “write” with your arm a horizontal figure eight crossing through that point using counterclockwise movements. In addition, take the time to notice the location of your tongue in relation to your palate, as this can help you become a more sensitive rider. Your tongue should be pushed up to your palate just a tiny bit behind the incisors in order to center your energy and promote better balance both on and off the horse.
It may be tempting to cut a ride short by skipping a warm up and going straight into the activity, but the repercussions are detrimental if this is done on a consistent basis. Consider this: we have taken horses from the wild where they are constantly on the move, and put them in a box where their only form of exercise is whatever we set them for the day. Therefore, it is up to us to ensure that we set them up for success right from the get go. Warming up does not have to begin under saddle, it can begin right in the crossties with a good groom. Using curry combs and a medium bristle brush can assist in getting the blood moving (Rudin). A grooming session combined with a massage over the grains of the muscles can do wonders by decreasing tension, increasing circulation, and removing any knots. When it comes to actual movement, a good warm-up should consist of a minimum of 10 to 15 minutes of ground covering and loose rein walk. This number increases to thirty minutes for older horses. A slow start like this allows for glucose to be used more efficiently in the blood (Wilton). This type of walk can be done in hand, on the lunge, or through riding. Loose rein walk increases blood flow, lubrication of joints, and gives the muscles a good stretch prior to more strenuous exercise. After a good walk, the horse can start to trot on a lengthened stride. Work on a loose or long stride allows for the horse to oxygenate and also work his topline (if the horse is worked correctly, he/she will extend downwards). This is not ideal for a horse that already has problems with the front legs and has naturally downhill balance as it causes for more of the weight to be shifted onto the forehand). Afterwards, you can start to add more complexity by including suppleness exercises such as circles and serpentines. Progressively make your turns tighter and move his/her body (shoulders and hips in particular) laterally once he/she is nicely stretched and warm. A good warm up will vary greatly from horse to horse, so it will take some trial and error to establish a good routine.
The cool down is just as important as the warm up because it sets the horse up for success in the future (or even just the next day) by minimizing soreness. The goal with the cool down is to keep your horse walking until his respiration rate is back to normal. His chest, shoulders, and legs should feel normal (temperature wise) to touch as well. If your horse’s legs feel warm, hose the legs with cold water in order to reduce chances of inflammation/injuries. What is normal for one horse will again vary from horse to horse. Make it a habit to check on your horse as you get on/get off/untack/groom (every time you are with your horse). If something doesn’t feel quite right, it is best to be safe rather than sorry and call your veterinarian!
It may be tempting to cut some corners and skip some parts, but if you want to succeed you must be disciplined. The small things that you do in your everyday life are what make you (and in turn, your horse) disciplined. A good warm up for you and your horse means energy preservation, greater oxygen availability, and musculoskeletal advantages. Everyday you warm up yourself and your horse correctly, is a day that you prevent a potential injury and make the job more enjoyable because little things start to become easier. Everyday you cool down properly buys you another day during which your horse can reach peak performance.
Rudin, Dale. “Warm up and Cool down to Keep Your Horse Comfortable.” Horse Illustrated Magazine, 2022 EG Media Investments LLC, 23 Jan. 2015, www.horseillustrated.com/horse-training-warm-up-and-cool-down-to-keep-your-horse-comfortable.
Meyners, Eckart. “Warm up Exercises for Equestrians.” Expert How-to for English Riders, Expert How-to for English Riders, 25 Sept. 2011, www.practicalhorsemanmag.com/training/warm-up-exercises-for-equestrians-11600#:~:text=Alternate%20stretching%20your%20left%20arm,it%20with%20your%20opposite%20hand.
Wilton, Emily. “The Importance of Warming up Your Horse.” Hereford Equestrian, 2020 Hereford Equestrian, 4 Mar. 2008, www.herefordequestrian.co.uk/2008/03/04/the-importance-of-warming-up-your-horse/#:~:text=Warming%20up%20and%20cooling%20down,and%20physically%20to%20maximise%20performance.