Sunday, 7 December 2014

Warm-up Exercise for the Horse: why do it and for how long

Mental and physical preparation

The importance of warming up the horse before any planned training, ride out or competition has been discussed many times in books and journals.  Even if you just intend to have a hack out on your pony, there is a lot to be gained by warming up first. A good warm up routine helps the horse mentally and physically prepare for work and, crucially, reduces the risk of injury.

Gillian Higgins in her article Effective Warm-Ups talks of the horse needing to do exercises to increase blood flow to muscles, warming the body up in readiness for work and to reduce the risk of injury. She also speaks about the mental attitude of the horse. Exercises should allow the rider to assess the horse and encourage him to listen and respond. Gillian suggests a warm up routine of at least 20 minutes.

In natural horsemanship, Pat Parelli uses the term “pre-flight checks” where the horse goes through a series of ground exercises, before being saddled and then under saddle, to enable to the rider to assess the condition of the horse and his mental attitude in that moment by working through exercises that ask the horse to move in straight lines and circles, yielding away and coming to, the rider. Initially this is at walk then trot and canter. Though it is n’t spoken of in terms of allowing the horse to warm-up, it can surely count as part of a warm up plan for the horse, as he is being prepared for the main work of the day.

What’s the difference between loosening and warming up?

If you think about cold winter days on the sports field at school, most of us will have a memory of being asked to do quite energetic exercise that was uncomfortable, painful even. Maybe you were breathless, maybe you felt a cramping in the muscles. In short, you were probably ill prepared and needed to loosen up and adequately warm up first.

Before a horse can begin to warm up, joints need to be loosened and blood flow gently increased to the muscles. Aristotle Ballou writes in "What makes a warm-up good?”  (see the link below) that the horse should spend the first few minutes – up to five- of a warm up session, loosening up. This is done through walking in hand or relaxed ridden work that encourages the horse to move freely. Fluid in the joints is mobilised to lubricate and protect the joint during the loosening up phase. Before exercise, Ballou says that blood flow is mainly directed towards the digestive system with only about 15 percent being available to the muscles. Because of this, any attempt to ask the horse to perform exercises requiring collection will demand more of the muscles than the horse is able to deliver. Anything that restricts free, relaxed movement and causes contraction of muscles will impact on an effective loosening and warming plan, including devices such as side reins, says Ballou. As the horse loosens up, blood flow will increase to the horse’s muscles by another 70%. Loosening up facilitates the transition of blood flow to muscle from low, to high.

How long does warm-up have to take?

There is probably no definitive answer to this question. How you warm your horse up and for how long will depend on the condition of your horse and the activity you want him to do. The horse need not be as fit as a grand prix dressage horse if he is a leisure horse, but he still needs to be prepared for exercise nevertheless.

Higgins, above, suggests a warm-up session of 20 minutes. Ballou’s article suggests 5 minutes loosening followed by 10 minutes of trot or canter work doing straight lines before moving onto more demanding exercises.

Way back in about 2006, at a showjumping and dressage clinic in Birmingham, England, trainer Ferdi Ellberg explained that all of his horses warm up for at least 45 minutes. In her DVD series on training the young riding horse, top event and dressage rider Ingrid Klimke - seen in the photo - recommends warming up for 30 minutes. This includes the loosening up phase mentioned by Ballou.

In 2008 Whitaker, Mills and Duxbury (link below) compared a British Showjumping Novice class with a Foxhunter class and found that the higher the level of competition, the longer the warm-up session was. It is not yet known –from a scientific view point- if a longer and thorough warm-up session results in being more successful in competition or, conversely, if a shorter warm-up yields a poorer result. Nor is it yet known if there is an ideal, ‘one size fits all’ warm-up time.

The reality is that most horses probably need their own bespoke warm-up schedule to suit their needs.

Tina Sederholm wrote that, when showjumping, she likes to start warming her horse up when there are about 15 horses left to jump, in front of her. That way, she has time to properly prepare for the task ahead. 15 horses may seem like a lot, but Tina thinks it pays in the show ring. Allowing the horse to increase blood supply to the muscles and reach a supple state through graduated exercise must place them at an advantage not only in relation to performance potential, but by reducing risk of injury too.

Whitaker, Mills and Duxbury 

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