Want to make sure you’re giving enough warm-up time during training? Here are some essential stretching tips for horses to get you started.
Just like humans, horses need to warm up and stretch their muscles before exercising. Imagine spending all day sitting at your desk and going to practice any sport afterward. Your body would feel numb and stiff; and the same goes for horses. Especially if they’ve been on a break or in a small paddock or box for most of the day. This article will provide you with several tips to help you plan your training sessions with sufficient warm-up and cool-down in mind. Let’s get started with some essential warm-up and stretching tips for horses.
The importance of warming up and cooling down
Ensuring your horse has adequately warmed up and stretched their muscles is necessary to prevent injuries and increase blood circulation. It will also help them feel more relaxed and focused ahead of their workout. A proper warm-up results in an attentive, responsive, and happy horse. It also makes the rider’s task easier when seeking engagement and collection, for example.
Tip #1: Stretching and relaxation
The first stage of stretching and relaxation is pretty simple, and should already be part of your daily working routine. You can do it inside the arena or along a trail with even and soft soil if the weather allows it.
Start your session with 10 minutes of good-quality walk, keeping your horse on a long rein.
Encourage them to stretch his top line and allow them to lower their neck. When horses are relaxed, they tend to search for the ground, so if they go down, show them that it’s ok to do it and pat them gently. Don’t push them, and don’t use too much leg, as that will make him raise his neck. Instead, mark the pace by softly bumping their sides with your heels, one side at a time. Feel their rhythm and touch their sides as you count their steps.
Use this moment to relax, and if you want, you can do some stretching on your own as you do it.
Tip #2: Warming up in-arena
In the arena, pick up a relaxed contact with your horse and begin to trot. Take a few laps to the side you and your horse feel most comfortable with. Don’t focus on your horse’s flexion over the straight lines of the arena during these first laps. Use your inside leg and rein on curves to give them a slight inner flexion, but let it flow, and don’t push them too much.
After a few laps, change direction; you can do a diagonal change or a wide half-turn of 20 meters in diameter or wider. Remember that as the horse is not completely warmed up, doing small circles is not convenient.
Repeat the same in the opposite direction. Remember to change your aids and use your “new” inner leg to give your horse a slight flexion on each corner.
The number of laps to each side depends on the arena’s size. In a typical 20×60 dressage arena, you can do two series of two laps each. In a bigger arena of, let’s say, 40 x 60, two or three laps to each side would be ok.
You can add more trotting if you have a green horse, or depending on how many times a week you ride your horse.
Once you feel the horse is ready, increase contact a little bit and use an angle to ask them for a canter transition. Repeat the exercise, allowing the horse to stretch their neck. If they lean too much into the bit, move your fingers and ask them for flexion and counter-flexion alternately to prevent them from doing it. A few laps to each side will help the horse oxygenate their lungs and muscles, warm up the joints, stretch out, and relax. It’s always important to avoid disturbing your horse when you ride. And especially in this first stage of your training session.
Tip #3: Circles, circles, lateral flexion… and more circles
Once you’ve finished warming up your horse, you can continue to stretch their muscles. This will prepare them for more demanding exercises like advanced dressage movements or jumping.
Circles are a great way to help horses stretch and flex their back and neck. Besides, they aid them in engaging their hind legs and stepping under their bodies. These actions are fundamental for achieving collection. Start with large circles (20 meters wide) and increase inner flexion by pressing with your inner leg. Do it as if you were trying to wrap your horse around your leg. Move your outer leg back an inch. This will contain the hindquarters’ displacement. You’ll also want to increase contact on the outside rein in order to engage his hindquarters and lift his back.
You can start doing circles at a working pass or trot. Once you feel your horse relaxed, increase the bending a little more without reducing the circle’s diameter and keeping the rhythm. Work to the left and right; symmetry is crucial to achieving a well-balanced horse.
As the horse relaxes more and more, try to seek longitudinal flexion using your outside hand. Work opening and closing your fingers, and don’t fight with him; wait until he willingly lowers his forehead. Sometimes you will have to play around with your internal and external rein and switch between flexion and counter-flexion until they yell the poll, and you find your horse submissive but willing to move forward.
You can do this at trot or canter. Use the gait in which you know your horse is more balanced and feels more comfortable.
Keep doing this for 10-15 minutes or until you feel they’re ready. Then go back to walking, loosen the reins, and let your horse stretch his neck down and forward.
Tip #4: Leg yielding
Lateral movements are another great way to stretch your horse’s ribcage and engage their hindquarters. They are also great exercises for helping horses improve their lateral flexibility and begin to engage their hindquarters. You can do it by forming a 30-degree angle with the arena’s wall, or you can do it in the middle. For example, suppose you are working in a dressage arena and turning counterclockwise. In that case, you can turn in “A” with direction to “C”, and before your horse is stretched, you can start yielding to the right until you reach “B” or to make it less demanding, you can do it until you are close to the wall.
Besides reducing the risk of injuries, working with a properly warmed-up and stretched horse will make your training sessions more productive and enjoyable. If you add these simple stretching tips for horses to your daily routine, you’ll see results in no time. Don’t forget to cool down your horse; it is just as important as warming up. A good way to cool your horse down is to do a 10-minute relaxed walk, as you did in the first part of your training session. Both you and your horse will benefit from these practices.
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