Conditioning: Warm up to Work

Horsemanship Level 4: Conditioning pt II

At the end of April we covered work versus exercise in our Level 4 conditioning topic:

7. Work vs. exercise. Warm-up and cooling out, reasons why.

Cooling out was covered in this Level 3 post, so this week we'll look at what constitutes an effective warm up.

Just like you, your horse needs to warm up before exercise to prevent injury and help him perform at his best.  A gradual warm-up does several physical things:

  • increases blood flow and oxygen to muscles, helping them perform better
  • lubricates joints by getting the synovial fluid moving
  • makes ligaments, tendons, and muscles more elastic (less likely to tear)
  • eases out any stiffness (lactic acid buildup) from previous exercise
  • releases endorphins, making your horse happier to move

In addition to the physical benefits, warm-up is a time to get your horse mentally prepared to work.  A nervous  and 'looky' horse will relax and start to focus with a consisent and rhythmic warm up, while a dull or sluggish one will benefit from a warm-up with frequent transitions and changes of direction and bend to get her listening to your aids.  In all cases warm-up should be a low-stress time, where you are not asking new or challenging questions of your horse.

Every horse is different, and will benefit from a warm-up tailored specifically for her. Older or stiffer horses and those recovering from injuries may need a longer warm-up to feel supple and ready for work.  Temperature and stabling situations will also have an effect: a horse coming out of the barn on a cold winter morning will need a longer warm-up than one who has been turned out in a summer pasture all day.loose rein

Here is a general warm-up that I find works for most horses.  The amount of time devoted to each section will vary by horse, season, the type of work planned for the day, and the general 'feel' of my horse at the time.

  1. Walk on loose rein or light contact for 5 - 10 min.  This amounts to a few laps of the arena in each direction during which I allow my horse to simply move without too many demands.
    It's okay for the horse to be distracted and unconnected in the early part of warm-up.

    During this time I'll let her move her head around to look at her surroundings so long as she keeps moving forward.  The aim is simply to get her back swinging freely and start to warm and loosen her muscles.  I almost never take contact during this phase unless it's a skittish day, in which case a very forgiving, light contact may reassure the horse and keep her on track.

  2. Trot on light contact for 5-10 minutes, gradually taking more contact until we are at our normal working level of connection.  For a horse that's still learning about contact I may spend this whole phase on a loose rein.
    Build up gently to the level of contact at which you'll be working

    The goal is to warm up the muscles in a frame that's comfortable and familiar for the horse.  During this phase I will include large circles, half-circles, loops, or serpentines that supple my horse without taxing her degree of bend.  I may include some walk-trot transitions if I feel the horse needs waking up, as well as some subtle lenghtening and shortening of stride within the trot to ensure the adjustability is there.

  3. Lateral movements for 5-10 minutes.  For a horse that doesn't yet leg-yield, shoulder-in'lateral work' may simply be gently flexing and counter-flexing the neck or small walk circles to improve lateral flexibility.  For the more schooled horse, this section will generally include movements like leg-yields, shoulder-in and shoulder-fore, spiralling in and out of different sized circles, and possibly renvers or haunches-in if these are already well-established skills.

These three sections are my 'minimum' warm-up and will take anywhere from 15 - 30 minutes depending on the horse and the day.  The following are the optional sections that further prepare a horse for specific skills.

    1. Canter work.  I seldom warm-up the canter for regulcanterar schooling -- that will come in towards the end of the schooling session.  However, if warming-up for a test or competition, it's a good idea to include some canter to make sure the transitions are clean and the canter is balanced.
      Include circles, several up and down transitions in each direction, and possibly some lenghtening and shortening if your space allows.  Don't overwork the canter, as it's more tiring and less effective at evenly warming your horse up.  Your goal here is to make sure all the aids are working and your horse is tuned in, and leave it at that.

    3. Halts and volte.  A few halt transitions during your warm-up can get your horse's attention, and make sure he gives you a nice clean halt for a dressage test.  Horses get used to halting on the centre line, so pick unusual places like quarter lines, or the rail to keep him alert.  Turns on the forehand and haunches are also good checks of the aids and can help a horse get his feet 'under' himself, but only include them after the trot warm-up to avoid stressing cold joints and tendons.

    5. Jumping.  Jumping should not be used to physically warm-up your horse -- all that should be done before you point her at an obstacle.  However, whether you are schooling or showing over fences you'll want to mentally tune up your horse to make sure she knows what her job is before you tackle a course.  Begin with cross-rail from the trot and then the canter.  If your horse is straight and on stride with that, move to a low vertical and then an oxer.  When schooling, you'll have the luxury of gradually increasing the height; at a show, the three warm-up jumps will be set at the height of your course.  Don't over-do the jumping warm-up when showing -- this isn't the place for schooling.  Once your horse has given you honest jumps from both reins, return to walk or trot work until your course to avoid over-tiring or souring your horse.

Make your warm-up methodical and repeatable, working both directions equally.  You can change the times and elements within your warm-up, but having a basic structure allows you start your ride and warm both yourself and your horse up without overthinking.  The more you make a consistent warm-up part of your daily ride, the better you will get at feeling what your horse needs and being able to adjust your warm-up accordingly.

Thank you to Eleanor Landels for the lovely photos of Jack and Isabel (and Tilly in the header), taken at Delta Riding Club last weekend.

Upcoming Classes

Friday Clinics

Friday evening clinics are happening twice a month, beginning with Mounted Combat Movement on June 10th. Each clinic will feature a different equine activity, such as Mounted Games, Mounted Sparring, Prix Fiore, Cross Country, Dressage, etc.  More details to come!javelin 2

Sundays 6:30 – 8pm
cost: $60 +gst
Mounted Combat Movement: June 10th
Mounted Games: June 24th
Cross Country: July 8th
Prix Fiore: July 15th

Riding & Horsemanship Classes

Starting June 13th we will be running Monday evening Riding & Horsemanship classes.  Saturdays will resume in July, and in the last weeks of summer we’ll run classes on Mondays and Thursdays to prep you for Carosella 2016!

Mondays 13 Jun – 18 Jul
Saturdays 16 Jul – 20 Aug
Mondays/Thursdays 22 Aug – 8 Sep

Intro to Mounted Combat

Duello_Mounted-Combat_Chena_2897Back by popular demand, this 3-hour workshop will introduce you to grooming and handling horses, riding, and swordplay from the ground and horseback.  The perfect way to start the summer!

Sunday 3 July

Horseback Archery

Robert Borsos will be back on July 17th for another fabulous day of Horseback Archery.  This is the last workshop before Carosella and they tend to fill up, so sign up soon!

Sunday 17 July

Carosella 2016Rob archery

Three fabulous days of Mounted Combat, Archery and Games!  The dates have been set for September 9th – 11th.  Registration isn’t yet open, but you can look at last year’s schedule to get an idea of what’s on offer, and start planning your training now.

Carosella 2015




Jennifer Landels heads up Academie Duello's Cavaliere Program. She has been swordfighting since 2008, and riding since before she could walk. She started the program as an excuse to combine those passions.
Read more from Jennifer Landels.