Whether you’re a competitive rider or just go out for the occasional trail ride, warming up your horse before riding can help prevent injuries later. Pre-ride safety can start even before you get on. If you are working in an arena, check the area for holes that need to be filled or big rocks that can cause your horse to stumble. When grooming your horse, make sure there are no cuts or loose shoes or other indications that your horse isn’t 100%. Finally, when tacking up, make sure that your tack doesn’t have any weak areas, such as stirrup leathers or the throatlatch that can break while you’re riding.
Once you’re on your horse, you’re probably like many riders who don’t really have a warm up plan but just amble around the arena. Or you’re eager to get on the trail and figure you’ll warm up as you go. But to really make sure your horse is warmed up on both sides, at all gaits and is listening to you, you should take a systematic approach to your warm-up to ensure that your horse is really ready to go.
Warm up gradually and thoroughly, making sure you stretch and supple your horse on both sides. Check that your horse is listening to you and your aids. Keeping him moving will help not only help warm him up, but will help keep his focus on you as you start asking more or take off down the trail. With a systematized warm-up, you’ll know when your horse is ready to go, while if you just wander around, you can never be sure.
Start with five minutes of walking and put your horse on a 20m circle. Always work your horse’s easier side (and they all have one) first. Make sure he is bending around your leg to make a true circle. While you are walking, do some stretching of your own and/or check your riding position. You can change direction through the circle (making a figure 8) to work the other side. Make sure you do the same sequence at the walk on each side.
Move on to 10 minutes of trotting. Always start with a posting trot to let your horse’s back warm up as well. At first, use the whole arena and encourage your horse to trot out down the long side or across the arena. Later, you can put him on a 20 meter circle and start asking for him to come on the bit. You can also start adding some canter work once your horse is on the bit, relaxed and listening to you. Once you are cantering smoothly, work on transitions – canter to trot, trot to walk, walk to canter, etc. Change rein often to make sure you are working both sides of your horse.
Finally, add in some additional bending exercises like leg yields and shoulder in. This is a great test to see if you and your horse have it all together. By the end of this warm-up, you should be able to feel your horse moving from behind, that he is relaxed through the back and soft in both reins.
At the end of your ride, don’t forget to cool down your horse as well. Most of this can be done riding at the walk on a long rein. But you may also want to add some easy bending exercises like let yielding to stretch out those muscles after a hard workout. As always, make sure your horse is no longer sweating before you finish your ride.
Like athletes or dancers who stretch both before and after a workout, warming up/cooling down your horse each time you ride is essential to his well being.
Photo credit: Practical Horseman