There are many different opinions about how a horse should be warmed up prior to exercise. Unfortunately, there is not much available in terms of formal equine research to validate anyone’s opinion.
With flight as the horse’s major defense mechanism, he comes endowed by nature with significant built-in athletic ability. However, what we ask of our performance horses — particularly those in specialized disciplines such as dressage, cutting, jumping and high-speed work — is much more than a horse in the wild would ever do on a regular basis. A correct warm-up has the potential to influence how well the horse performs.
The goals of a warm-up are:
• To prepare the horse mentally
• To prepare the horse physically
• To reduce the risk of injury.
Preparing the horse mentally depends heavily on the horse’s personality. An extremely excitable horse will benefit from being kept as far away from the busiest areas at a competition, hopefully with a quiet companion. Keep to a predictable routine and time schedule at competitions as much as possible. For example, try to always arrive at the same time before your event, always warm up X minutes before your event. Begin and end your warm-up with a strong focus on getting the horse to drop his head and relax as much as possible.
This type of horse also often benefits from being kept walking before competition. Easily distracted horses also benefit from this type of mental warm-up, while the horse that is disinterested or on the lazy side needs the stimulation of having activity around him and a warm-up that is demanding his attention every minute you are in the saddle.
How best to prepare the horse physically is where most of the controversy lies. Some feel hard warm-ups take too much out of the horse, others feel they improve performance. Again, good equine data is lacking, but there is quite a lot of human athletic information out there we can try to use. There is good agreement that stretching probably helps reduce soft-tissue (muscle, tendon, ligament) injuries. You can’t ask your horse to stretch but you can make sure you do five to 10 minutes of loose, relaxed walk at the beginning and end of your warm-up.
Advocates of gentle warm-ups would have you only trot, maybe a slow canter for short periods, between the two walking periods. However, several human studies, looking at everything from children through conditioned athletes, have found a more intense warm-up definitely improves performance in terms of speed, strength, jumping ability. That’s basically everything except agility, which has more to do with nervous-system function and reflexes conditioned by training.
The equine equivalent would be anything that gets the horse’s heart rate above 150 to 160 — short bursts of speed or high intensity trotting. Human coaches also recommend incorporating warm-up activities that are similar to what will be involved in the show or competition.
Do some turns on the haunches or forehand, collected dressage movements or pop a few jumps. The warm-up should be close enough to the competition that the horse does not cool off completely. In addition to loosening up the muscles and getting blood flowing, these warm-ups also prepare the horse’s muscles biochemically to work.
All things being equal, warm-ups decrease the risk of injury. However, they may need to be modified for horses with known problem areas. For example, if the horse has hock issues, incorporate passive flexion by picking up the leg and gently flexing 10 to 12 times before your warm-up and before your competition. Keep the joint warm and flexible by use of liniments or Neoprene wraps. Reduce or eliminate warm-up activities, like longeing, that will strain the joint.