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Variables to Consider in Equine Warm-up

As each and every one of us is different due to our upbringing, body type, talents and limitations, so are our horses. We can lump individuals into categories due to conformation, breeding and known specifics of that breed, but individualism still exists. Take for instance the categorization of specific breeds into terms such as hot, cold or warm. What category would best describe your equine or do they fall into more than one category? I have worked with some very hot cold bloods and conversely some hot bloods that were more like cold bloods. I presently have a warmblood in work that can exhibit both traits of being a hot blood and a cold blood during a single training session. How do you start to assess what your horse may need in warm-up to enhance its performance and actually maintain it? What daily considerations have to be made? Are there variables that exist?

There is no specific warm-up template that I know of that you can just apply to your horse. I have written on the subject in the past and will continue to do so in the future, for references from archives, S&B article Universal Equine Suppling Exercises from April 1997 and S&B article Training and Equine Warm-up from May and June 2006 may be helpful. Although we are focusing on your horse, please keep in mind that the same advice needs to be applied to your own warm-up as well or the needs of your students if you are teaching. A one-size application for warm-up does not fit all. You are going to have to develop a warm-up program customized for your horse’s needs, your time schedule, your ability and even your facility and not the method used by a friend or even a mentor. Please keep in mind that those needs change not only yearly, but month to month and even day to day as determined by housing, weather conditions, performance expectations, fitness level, work load, etc. Hopefully you will take the time to learn the in hand and under saddle movements that you can apply in an equine warm-up and be able to discern on a daily basis what is needed. Let’s take a further look at some of the variables.

How your mature horse is housed will make a big difference in their range of motion, especially as they age and the known ravages of time, namely arthritis, start to take their toll. What has been the commercial adage used so much in the past few years by a human arthritis drug company? Taken from Sir Isaac Newton’s first law of motion, also known as the law of inertia. “An object at rest stays at rest and an object in motion stays in motion— with the same speed in the same direction unless acted upon by an unbalanced force.” We could also use the other adage so often used of, “move it or lose it.” I always ask when I travel to a barn to teach/train if the horse being used has just come in from turn out or has the horse just come out of being stalled for many hours. Unfortunately with some boarding facilities, turn out can be very minimal in area and due to the lack of space the horse really hasn’t done much stretching or suppling on its own. Always take this into account in your warm-up program before you ask the equine for strenuous performance. Warmed (through increased blood circulation) muscles and joints perform better and the risk of trips, stumbles and actual injury due to unbalanced loading of joints is lowered when a considerate warm-up is produced.

For the range of motion it maintains and the mental balance it achieves, I prefer free access housing if it can be produced safely. The health benefits for a grazing equine are well documented but I would like to add the training benefits of warm-up. Older equines spending much of their time grazing and meandering around are not as stiff and recalcitrant as the same equine that is stalled. This is not a scientific study by any means, just a decade old observation of the same equines, in different housing conditions that I have worked with. By mental balance, I think of the old term of ring sour and how several younger equines that didn’t have what I would call pleasant attitudes about work, became much more tractable when they had free access to turn out 24/7. I totally realize that this is not feasible for many equines but what arrangements can you make that they have some out time each and every day, even if it is on the end of a lead or longe line?

Housing and “play time” go hand in hand in maintaining focus with the younger equines more apt to act up during training. Your young equine needs recess just like human children need time to unwind between study sessions. However, having watched my own colt many years ago have a high speed tumble, I know the fears that lurk in the back of your mind about pasture injury. It can happen at any age. Presently, one of my students has an aged gelding going through the weeks of in hand walking rehab due to a front leg high bow sustained during turn out. In twelve years of ownership never a lameness mishap of any kind. The excruciating disappointment that after several years of striving to have performance achieved at the highest level to now having everything put on hold.

Should turn out time be limited? Does it make a difference for your performance? Here again, only you can decide what may or may not be appropriate for your horse. Here in New England during the brutal winter months, some horses want out to play and others rather stay in their stalls. You can always tell in a herd situation who wants back in – they are hanging out by the gate waiting while others may be out in the field pawing through snow to graze. I can also remember my ignorance during the time when I was taking lessons at a very exclusive training facility in Massachusetts. Whenever the “call of the wild” was heard and specific horses that had separate turnouts started to act up and race around they would be brought in to their stalls. I never realized until later in my own profession that those horses were worth more than the yearly salary I was receiving at the time. Now you know why bell boots on all fours, polo wraps and other bandages are part of the daily attire worn by many equines who have owners that do take the risk of turn out and want their expensive equines to be normal horses as much as can be achieved safely.

Should you warm-up on the longe or under saddle? If the horse, of any age, is known to have unpredictable behavior and needs to settle down to work before it can be safely ridden, then it should be well trained to longe in full equipment. One of the horses that I showed for an owner here in New England was always placed on the longe prior to my rides when we were traveling. There were always one or two “out of the stall bucks” that were very explosive to watch and honestly, not fun at all to ride. I have a video of me riding those bucks in a warm-up ring with other riders when I had a “Velcro® butt seat” 25 years ago. However, once the first one or two were accomplished and reprimand was produced, he went to work without protest. When you work with an equine for over a decade and they continually do the same thing, you have to admit, it is their thing and there is little or nothing you can do to change it, except expect it and deal with it appropriately. If he was stalled due to bad weather at home, the same behavior was exhibited. I was recently at an equine symposium here in New England and one of the riders was longing their young equine prior to riding in their class. The horse had been nervous and jumpy with the large audience and commotion and the walk around and longe work was the smart option to produce the warm-up, to loosen the tight muscles and joints and focus the brain. Why jeopardize your safety or that of your equine? However, notice I said well trained to longe in full equipment. As I have written so often, a longe warm-up is not a horse running around unbalanced in disunited canter. Initially in the training of a young horse it is controlled and as time goes by it evolves to be contrived to produce the results you want. If the equine acts up on the longe, it needs to be reprimanded to stop the nonsense and to move forward and focus on work. Developing mental focus in your equine is part of your warm-up as well; they need to pay attention to you.

Since I mentioned snow and cold here in New England you need to think about weather/temperature changes and how it affects per-formance and your warm-up. How do you func-tion in 95 degrees with 90 percent humidity? How do you function at 32 degrees with a wind chill of 20? How do you warm-up an equine in either of these conditions? You know you need to stay hydrated when it is hot and humid, but the equine also needs to stay hydrated when it is bitter cold and dry. For in depth information, such as with endurance/distance riders and when traveling into different climatic conditions, research the work of Dr. David Marlin from the United Kingdom and his work on thermoregulation and his teaching on electrolytes.

Tailoring your ride times to meet the weather conditions on a daily basis is sound advice but sometimes difficult if you are in the middle of competition or constrained by boarding hours. We know that keeping the equine cool can be achieved with sponge offs, hosing, even ice packs when combating high heat and humidity and possible hyperthermia but also consider the pre-ride warm-up of leg massage, heating pads and the use of quarter sheets and/or exercise rugs to keep the equine back warm when the blankets come off and the saddle or surcingle goes on during times of excessive cold and possible problems with hypothermia. In both extremes of temperature, warm-up is produced with slow work in hand producing flexions and suppling moves with corresponding slow work under saddle to achieve further flexion and suppling.

Footing concerns during warm-up only should deal with outside ring conditions, but too often if indoor footing is not maintained, you can be dealing with issues in an indoor as well. I don’t like overly hard or deep footing in an outdoor ring, especially if frozen or muddy. You really need to think about joint/bone concussion on hard/frozen ground and the suction and joint stress that heavy going in mud and deep footing can produce. When footing issues in outdoor rings are bad, simply in hand and walk transitions under saddle are your options. My problem with warm-up in indoors is the “trench.” Trying to achieve flexions in hand or under saddle when the horse is unbalanced due to uneven ground conditions is not what you want to do. If you are boarding and have to deal with this on a daily basis, use the inside track, your quarter lines, stay off the outside track and if you are paying for indoor use, what are your options for complaint?

Since I mentioned walk transitions I need to explain the value of the walk in warm-up. What kind of walk does you equine have? Does it have a walk? I started this article with a short discussion of equine types. I enjoy the equine type that has a wonderful forward walk and will exhibit a ground-covering walk in hand and under saddle. Unfortunately I am unusually training equines that have far less than what we would call quality walks. Why? Because enough time has not been dedicated to developing and improving the walk or their walk was ruined somehow. The walk as a warm-up tool should not be overlooked. Try walking your horse out and about in hand prior to your ride. They should stretch out and move forward. Try walking off both sides; you have to train to achieve bilateral performance. Try changing your stride, make it longer not faster if you can and see if your equine will stay walking up with you. This is where my challenge usually is with the equines that I handle and the owners. You have to be fit yourself to do this work. As always, stay safe, have proper equipment on and don’t allow your horse to misbehave. It is a pleasure to see one of my clients, who had a horse that didn’t walk (it jigged), now warm-up at the walk in hand and under saddle with an equine that walks out and about without the tension problems that used to exist. That is what warm-up should produce, lack of tension and preparation for performance, on whatever level you want.


Ms. Hilton would like to answer questions and receive ideas for future columns from our readers. You may submit your questions or ideas to: Bonnie Hilton at

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