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Warming Up Your Horse Before Exercise and Competition
How to avoid injury and muscle strain
What is a warm-up? The term 'warm-up' accurately describes what happens when we transition the body from a resting state to a state suitable for activity: the muscles are literally 'warmed up', receive increased blood and oxygen supply, gain flexibility and therefore reduce stress on tendons and ligaments.
A warm-up will also ensure increased oxygen supply to the blood and the elevation of the heart rate from a resting rate to an activity rate. If you warm up your horse gradually—instead of 'jump-starting' his heart-rate—you will also have a calmer, more relaxed, and more willing horse.
Sufficient warm up before exercise, training, and competition is essential, in order to avoid injury to muscles, ligaments, and tendons. A simple routine can save lots of pain and dollars spent on vet visits.
Why should I warm up my horse before working?
Just like your own muscles after a full day sitting in your cubicle or driving your truck, for example, the horse's
muscles are unflexible and his movement will be stiff after a day of lack of activity in his paddock or stall.
This even more so in the winter, where movement is even more restricted and the horses cannot kick up their heels on pasture. Many horses spend most of their day in a stall year round, which limits the horses' movements even more.
Our bodies-rider's and horse's-are made up of mostly fluids! Warming up body fuids inside muscles reduces the internal friction of a muscle and therefore prevents injury. Mobility and elasticity of muscles is increased, which minimizes the strain on ligaments and tendons.
Avoid muscle spasms, discomfort, stiff gaits and in extreme cases torn muscles or tendons or anxiety and unwillingness to work by warming your horse up properly at the beginning of every ride.
A simple basic warm-up for recreational riders of all levels (for more advanced routines see resources below):
Warm up your horse on a long rein in the walk
Alternate the pace of the walk
Start by moving around the outer parameter of the arena
Then continue with large circles and serpentines (20 meters, through the width of the arena)
After 10 minutes, make circles and serpentines smaller
Warm up a total of 15 minutes for best results
After your initial warm-up in the walk, you are ready for a few rounds of relaxed canter on a loose rein, then start your regular workout
What you are looking for: During the last 5 minutes your horse should bend in the circles, he should have a willing and
relaxed walk and stretch his head forward/down. Snorting, licking and (contently) chewing on the bit are good signs of relaxation What to avoid: Don’t pick up the reigns at this time, but rather keep him on a long reign. Don’t let him ‚go to sleep‘.
You can ask for a lively walk and alternate the pace. Avoid boredom, keep it interesting, for yourself and the horse. Special considerations: The older horse (20 years and older) can benefit from an even longer warmup.
Be kind to your senior and make the warmup 20 to 25 minutes. (yes, it can seem dull, but it PAYS...)
Warming up your horse before a competition
Before a competition, your horse might be a bit nervous and insecure. He is in a new or strange environment with lots of strange people and horses around. Give him as much routine as possible in this setting. Develop a warm up routine at home that you will apply at a show or competition location as well to give him as much familiarity as possible.
What you are looking for: The same indications of relaxation and flexibility as above. What do avoid: Do not run your horse in circles on a lunge, just to ‚warm him up‘. Do what you usually do at home for a
warm-up. Don’t repeat the dressage test or other competition exercises over and over in order to prepare.
Simply warm up and be done with it. Know your test, reassure your horse and relax!
Make the warmup a routine part of your exercise program. Talk to your trainer or purchase literature or video tapes if unsure how to perform the warmup and what signs to look for to determine that your horse is sufficiently warmed up.
The above exercises are beneficial in my own personal opinion. Please ensure fitness of your horse for any exercises described on this website by consulting your veterinarian, if in doubt. Equine Massage is NEVER a substitute for proper veterinary care. If you are in doubt about the physical condition of your horse, please consult a veterinarian.
*) Please note: Equine massage and bodywork is a non-invasive, gentle wellness modality aimed at enhancing performance in the healthy horse and never replaces proper veterinary care. If in doubt regarding the physical health of your horse please consult your veterinarian.