A proper warm-up and cool-down are especially important over the winter period. Low temperatures mean your horse’s body needs longer than usual to warm up to a working temperature. Warming up and cooling down should be gradual. Intensive training, when a horse is not properly warmed up could cause severe stiffness, spasms in the muscles, or serious injury to the tendons, ligaments, or joints.
A typical warm-up in the warmer months is usually 10 to 15 minutes and consists of mainly walking and trotting. If, however, you’re riding during the early morning or late afternoon, if you’re situated in a colder South African region or it is winter, your warm-up could take as long as 25 minutes if done correctly. Keep the warm-up as gradual as possible so that you don’t ‘shock’ the tendons, ligaments or joints by going straight into strenuous work.
The key to a safe and correct warm-up during winter is to do so gradually. Walking is a very important component of the horse’s warm-up and should make up a good 10 minutes of it. If you find the inside of an arena too boring, take your horse for a short hack down the road and let him walk briskly. If you opt to walk in the arena, allow some time for the horse to walk in a long and low frame, stretching over his back and neck. Stretch him laterally to the left and right by asking for some short leg yields and shoulder-in and haunches-in movements. Walk in both directions for an equal amount of time to encourage equal muscle development.
The cold weather could reflect in your horse’s responsiveness and initial willingness. There is no need to get upset if he’s a little more sluggish than usual when the weather is cold. Once you’ve spent 10 minutes warming up in the walk, test his responsiveness by asking for some upward and downward transitions between the walk and halt, and movements such as turn-on-the-forehand and turn-on-the-hindquarters.
Once your horse is feeling relaxed and looser under saddle, you can move up to a slow trot. Start with a few large circles on a light contact, allowing him to stretch down and out if he wants to. Over a few minutes, you can start taking up a contact and increase the activity of the trot to create a more working trot.
In a contact, ride lots of big circles and change your rein a few times across the diagonal, allowing him to move a bit more forward. Practice some transitions between collected trot and working trot to get his hind end more engaged. Ride some lateral movements in a slow trot to encourage suppleness and reinforce relaxation in the horse’s body. Work in the trot for about 10 minutes and keep testing his responsiveness to the aids. He should start becoming quite warm at the end of the trotting period.
Once you feel that your horse is working as normal in the trot, you can do about five minutes of canter work. Pop him into a canter, sit light and let him canter on a light contact, again allowing him to stretch in the canter if he wants. Ride big circles on both reins to start (making use of a flying change), and practice some walk-to-canter and canter-to-walk transitions. Gradually take up the reins, sit in the saddle and get your horse underneath you. Practice some spiraling in and out in the canter on both reins to encourage the horse to step under, and make sure to keep a slight inside bend and flexion in the neck. You can also ride a few circles of counter-canter to get him balanced and straight.
After five minutes in the canter, you will have completed a 25-minute warm-up and your horse should be responsive and ready for some proper schooling!