Why Your Horse needs You to Know How
The warm up procedure of competitors at a show gives you a glimpse of what riders do at home.
There are those who are focused on their horse; attentive to how it is feeling, systematic in their gradual increase of work intensity; considerate of environmental conditions and empathetic to the time required for the brain to become more work focused.
Then there are the others who walk a little bit, have a little trot. Stop. Check their watch. Chat to the people on the side lines, watch others in the arena. Walk a little bit more, canter a 20m circle and head in to do their test. These riders are generally the ones who, after their test sit on their horse at the exit of the arena and dissect what they have just done in a fashion that suggests they are writing their own version of ‘War and Peace’.
The habits you display at a show do tend to mirror your habits at home, so if you don’t have a warm-up and cool down practice in place every time you ride, not only are you not getting the best out of your horse, you are also creating an environment that isn’t just inviting injury, but practically begging it to show up.
Let’s take a look at why the beginning and end of your training session are imperative to your horses’ welfare and performance.
The warm up is the time where exercise intensity is gradually increased to prepare the horse’s body for the demands of athletic effort.
An efficient warm up practice has multi-dimensional benefits that fall into both physiological and cerebral categories.
Physiological Benefits; what happens to the body
As the body is moved, an increased amount of blood begins to be directed away from the organs and the digestive tract and is sent towards the working skeletal muscles and the connective tissues of the limbs. With this increased flow of blood comes a rise in temperature of the horses’ body, raising the respiratory and heart rates and allowing the horse to feed and cleanse the muscles more rapidly. This highway of nutrients and removal of waste is essential to keep muscles from fatiguing when work load and waste accumulation rises.
As the soft tissues (muscles, tendons and ligaments) become warmer, their malleability increases and their tolerance to force rises considerably, making them much more resistant to injury.
As the horse begins to move faster across the ground, the joint stabilising muscles (which play a key role in injury prevention) have to switch on so they can respond to the rapid fire of messages and support the joints as they begin to move faster across the ground under an increased amount of load.
Environmental conditions (heat and cold) need to be taken into consideration, as this will effect the amount of time it takes for the soft tissues to become warmer.
Having a warm up routine allows the horse to transition into work mode not only for the body, but also for his brain.
It allows him the opportunity to explore how his body is feeling, how he needs to regulate his temperature to the environment, what the rider is asking for and what might be lurking in the hedge. If you are warming up at a competition, this part of your preparation may require more time than when you are training at home, as the amount of external stimulation is far greater.
The warm-up is also essential for the rider, as it can provide feedback of encyclopaedic value if the right attention is given; what feels easy, what feels more challenging, how attentive is he, has he learnt anything from yesterday, what needs to be focused on once we are warmed up, etc should all be part of the dialogue that you run through every time you get on.
Horses are not dissimilar to people; their bodies will feel different dependant on what they did the day before, or 2 days ago, how much movement they have had, how hot or cold it is, when they last ate, what equipment they are wearing and how the rider is feeling.
It may sound obvious, but you would be surprised at the number of people who don’t warm up with a rug over the horses’ hind quarters in cold weather. The whole premise of preparing your horse for training is to warm the soft tissues and increase heart and respiratory rates. Cold weather means that the internal temperature of the muscles will be lower than on a warm day. By keeping the back and hind quarters under a rug, for at least the first 10-15 mins will aid your preparation and allow the horse to relax into his work far quicker.
Warm days present their own challenges; the muscles will be at a naturally higher temperature even at resting, so your pre-work regime may be modified so that you don’t overheat your horse.
There is no one formula, but the principles do remain the same;
- • Warm the tissues so they are pliable and can cope with increased load via elastic stretch
- • Allow the horse time to focus the mind on the job
- • Glean invaluable information on how your horses body is feeling, so you can adapt your training session accordingly.
The Warm Up Process; having a plan
The warm up should have as considered an approach as the main training session. There needs to be a plan, which is adaptable but anchored with a consistent regime/theme.
Comparison can only be made of peas in the same pod; it is much harder to compare how your horse is feeling from one day to the next if your work is not consistent.
There is no one formula that is suitable for every horse, but there needs to be a formula that is suitable for yours.
As with any athletes training programme, you need to be consistent but adaptable. If you need longer in the warm up phase to go through more suppling exercises, more transitions etc then take the time you need. It may mean that this is all your horse requires on that particular day.
The key objective is to become disciplined about your warm up. Don’t waste steps or energy, be efficient and fair and empathetic to practicality. If you can’t start in walk because it would be unsafe, move forward in trot. Return to the walk once you can! Use this time to be attentive to how your horse is feeling. Not only will this help guide your training, but it may also alert you to potential problems.
The Warm Down
Once exercise has been completed, the body needs to be gradually returned to its resting temperature and pre-exercise physiological condition. Failing to warm the horse down correctly is as damaging to the body as failing to warm it up.
As we have seen, exercise sends oxygenated blood towards the working skeletal muscles and away from the organs. The warm down period is when this volume of blood is gradually redistributed around the body, sending more back to the organs and the digestive tract.
Physiologically, the main adhesions within soft tissues will occur as they begin to cool down. All that energy and micro trauma that has been created through work starts to settle in as the tissues cool and it is in these moments where muscular restrictions can start to take hold.
By cooling the horse gradually through steady movement, the systems have a chance to effectively catch up with waste removal from the muscles. The stretching and contracting mechanism that happens to soft tissues as they are moving allows the fibres to gradually return to their resting length, cleansing as they go.
The cool down requirement will depend upon the intensity of your training session. As a general rule, the more intense work you have done, the longer your cool down should be but all should consist of a steady trot with a lowered frame (not a loose, on the forehand frame) for 2 mins around the arena in both directions to start, moving into at least 10 minutes of walking. This can be increased to 15 or 20 if you have been doing higher level movements and intense collection. It is a good idea to do the latter stages of the cool down in hand.
Of course, weather plays a role in how you manage your cool down as well. In hot temperatures, you may need to reduce the horses body temperature with water and longer walking in hand. If it is cold, put a rug over his hindquarters; sweat will cool quicker than water, so a sweaty horse on a cold day can begin to chill quite quickly.
The success of your training and competition experiences can be predicted on the effectiveness and intelligence of your warm up and cool down. You are in charge of preparing an athlete for training and for allowing the body to recover from training in a safe and controlled manner. For soundness, welfare and performance reasons, neither end of your training session should be neglected.