As an athlete your horse needs to be correctly warmed up for the work he has to perform. If you’re tight for time it can be tempting to scrimp on this crucial phase, but you do this at your peril, as cutting the warm-up short is a sure-fire way to lead to injury. Cold muscles are much more fragile and prone to injury than warm muscles so a well-structured flatwork warm up is essential before any kind of schooling session.
Part 1: Plenty of walking
Start your session with plenty of active walk, ideally on a long rein and encouraging your horse to stretch. Getting the blood flowing to his muscles, particularly if he has just come out of the stable is important and allows you to move onto the next stages more confidently. Ideally, if possible, you should do this walking outside of the arena. If you have access to safe outrides you can even start by walking an ‘outride’ route for 10-15 minutes or so before returning to the arena to start your session. Work outside the arena prevents your horse becoming ‘sour’ and also adds some uneven terrain into the mix, and walking over ground that is not perfectly flat really warms up the muscles very well.
Part 2: Transitions
You can never ride too many transitions. Transitions check that your horse is listening to your aids and really get the muscles, particularly those in the hindquarters to work. Ride regular transitions between the gaits to begin with, trying to get your horse to move forwards and come back on the lightest aids possible. Then move on to riding transitions within with gait. For instance, perform the biggest trot you can and then a medium trot, before returning to a working trot. To begin with you can space the transitions quite widely, but once your horse is starting to get warm, you can ask for transitions more and more to keep him thinking and engaged.
Are your horse’s ears level during transitions? If they are this is a pretty good sign that your transition was correct and that your horse was working from behind. If there is a tilt, even if it is brief, it is more likely that your horse is pulling or lifting himself through the transition, rather than engaging his hindquarter.
Part 3: Lateral work
If you have lateral work in your toolbox, it is great to incorporate it into the warm-up. Lateral work improves engagement and makes your horse think about his hindquarter and what he is doing with his hindlegs. Riding some leg-yield in rising trot from the three-quarter line back to the track is a great way to incorporate this.
Part 4: Some cardio
The final part of your warm-up is some canter work. The amount will depend on the fitness level of your horse. Working canter is a great way to boost your horse’s circulation and get his cardio system firing. Try to keep the rhythm of the canter regular and if your horse is able to stretch down in the canter encourage him to do so, whilst maintaining self-carriage.
After all of this you can take a short walk break in an active walk and then proceed with the main part of your schooling session.
Whilst you may never recognise the full benefits of a warm-up for your horse, you will certainly regret not doing one if your horse incurs an injury due to cold muscles. Muscle strains and tears take months to recover from and dedicating time to the warm-up drastically reduces the risk of these. Time in a warm-up is never wasted and if you have a planned structure to your warm-up you can really know that you have done your best to set your horse up for success in his schooling session.
Of course, at shows the situation is a little more complicated. You have to work out if things are running on time; share the arena with plenty of other people; and decide how much you should do with your horse to prime him for optimal performance. Your instructor or coach will be best placed to advise you on this, but getting to know your horse’s ideal warm-up at home, will certainly help you to make more educated decisions about your competition warm-up strategy.