Wednesday, January 4, 2012

"Baby, it's COLD outside!" Part II: Warm-Up Techniques for the Horse

After riding in last night's windy, 28F weather and carefully dodging frozen areas in the arena, I can't help but laugh at the timeliness of my two-part series on winter warm-up techniques! (And to think, it was unseasonably warm here in the Southeast just last week.) Today, part two addresses warm-up strategies for the horse.

I believe that every ride should begin with a good warm-up, regardless of the weather. A warm-up, as the name suggests, is intended to give the horse an opportunity to warm and loosen his muscles before being asked to do more intense work later on in the ride. Like the warmed-up rider, a horse that has been properly warmed up is at a reduced risk of injury due to strain on his muscles, tendons, and ligaments. As an added bonus, the warm-up process gives the rider an opportunity to judge "where the horse's mind is" and determine whether today is the day to learn something new, or just to practice something the horse has already learned.

The length of your warm-up depends on several factors including, but not limited to, the age and breed of your horse, your riding discipline, and the temperature. As a general rule of thumb, the younger or hotter horse will usually warm up more quickly than his older or lazier counterpart, and all horses will warm up more quickly in warmer weather than in the winter cold. Keep in mind that every horse is different, so listening to your horse is essential in determining which techniques work for you as a pair.

Warming Up with Longe Work

Generally speaking, longe work isn't something that most riders do on a daily basis. However, it certainly has its benefits and shouldn't be dismissed as a good warm-up technique. On the longe, a horse can move out more freely and loosen up his back without interference from the rider's weight or aids. This is an especially useful technique for warming up the young or "cold-backed" horse that might be inclined to buck or rear after being saddled.

Mysti, my Polish Arabian mare, spent a lot of time on the longe line in the early stages of her training. I always liked to make sure that her brain was "installed" before I got on so that we could make each ride a pleasant experience.

If I choose to warm up Sam on the longe line before a ride, I typically begin with 3-4 laps of walk in both directions before asking him to pick up the trot. Once he settles into a nice rhythm in the first direction, I ask him to shorten and extend his stride, then transition from walk to trot several times. After 3-5 minutes, I bring Sam back down to a walk, switch sides, and repeat the trot work going in the opposite direction.

Whether I ask Sam to canter on the longe depends on his willingness in the trot work. If he seems unimpressed with his trot work and is hesitant to move out, I'll ask him to canter quietly both directions, then bring him back to a trot and try again. I never ask Sam to canter on the longe if he is rushing through his trot work or feeling more "up" than usual. I don't want him to associate the cue for canter with an excuse to tear around like a mad-man.

When I'm satisfied that Sam is going quietly, I'll mount and do a quick warm-up under saddle.

Warming Up Under Saddle

I like to begin and end every ride with at least 10 minutes of walking. The first 5 minutes or so are done on a loose rein, inviting Sam to stretch his neck and back. For the next 5 minutes, I take up a little on the rein and ask him to march forward into the contact. I also use this time to check my position, finding center in the saddle, stretching down through my legs, and making sure that my elbows are at my sides so that I'm ready to give Sam clear, definite cues.

Asking Sam to bend to the inside and yield away from my leg helps me feel for his responsiveness to my aids, even in a busy warm-up ring the morning of a show.

Walking doesn't have to be boring. During the walking phase of my warm-up, I incorporate several changes of direction, spirals, serpentines, circles of all sizes, lengthening and shortening strides, and a halt or two to get Sam thinking and paying attention to my aids. Although Sam really thrives on an active warm-up routine, some horses would rather be left alone for a few minutes before being asked to engage mentally and physically. Pay attention to the feedback you're getting and adjust your routine accordingly.

Our trot work in the warm-up consists of something I like to call a "stretchy trot," but other riders call "forward, down, and low" or "FDL". The basic premise is that the horse should be allowed to trot forward into a long, low frame so that he can stretch his neck and back forward and down, loosening the muscles along the topline and inviting him to really reach for the contact.

Sam really uses the stretchy trot as an opportunity to release whatever tension he's built up in his body and develop "throughness" from his hindquarters into the bridle. I always post the stretchy trot to give him more freedom to round his back and to help establish a good working rhythm. Usually, the result is a supple, flowing trot that is easy for him to maintain when I take up more contact. As in the walk, I ask Sam for all kinds of movements in the stretchy trot to make sure we're still on the same page.

Sam, ridden by the barn manager at Lakeview Farms, shows the roundness and nice, fluid forward movement that is a product of the stretchy trot. Love it! (Many thanks to Diane for riding Sam so that I could actually see how he goes.)

Once the trot is nice and fluid and I have successfully taken up contact for a few minutes without having Sam get fussy and behind the bit (which he has a tendency to do if he feels that I've shortened the reins too soon), I'll ask him to canter. Cantering Sam requires a bit of finesse, as he's learned to anticipate the cue somewhere down the line and can get pretty fidgety coming into it. To keep him quiet and prevent anticipation, I keep a fairly long rein through the entire warm-up at the canter and allow him to find his own balance while staying out of his way as much as possible.

The whole process takes about 20-30 minutes, depending on how "together" Sam and I are feeling on any particular day. Depending on how Sam feels, I might make a few minor adjustments to the routine such as asking for a few strides of canter if he's being particularly sluggish or behind the aids in the trot. When I ask him to trot again, he's usually more willing to cooperate. (I have found that warming up at the canter before working at the trot is also beneficial to horses with stiffness in the back or arthritis in the joints.) That aside, my basic warm-up routine is a pretty solid "go-to" program that sets both of us up for a good ride later on, whether we're just lessoning at home or away at the show.

Remember, the warm-up is designed to engage your horse's mind and body, no matter what your discipline. Don't be discouraged if a warm-up turns into an entire ride; it's better to take the time to work through any issues your horse may have - stiffness, unwillingness to bend, etc. -  when they first develop, rather than waiting to address things until they've become a full-blown problem. Even if you have to set aside your training goals for the day and focus on warm-up exercises, you'll eventually have a horse with a solid foundation that will be a major building block for all future work.

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