A good schooling warm-up typically involves five to 10 minutes of a vigorous walk and maybe some slow trotting. In cool weather, warm-ups literally do ”warm up” the horse. They increase the blood supply to body areas that are typically vasoconstricted in the cold, such as the feet and tendons/ligaments of the lower leg.
Flexibility of the tendons and ligaments improves as a result. Improved blood flow to the feet increases sensation. As muscles are called into action, their blood vessels receive the message to dilate, delivering more oxygen and providing a pathway for flushing out waste products.
Warm-ups done on a loose rein also involve an element of stretching. As the horse works freely and rhythmically, minor kinks and stiffness in the large muscle groups of the neck, chest, shoulders back and rump are worked out.
It’s especially important for horses with old injuries of any type or arthritis. Scarred areas have less flexibility and blood supply than normal ones. A good warm-up can mean the difference between working comfortably and doing more damage. Arthritic joints also tend to stiffen up when not being actively used. You need to get the joint fluid pumping in and out of cartilage and make the supporting ligaments within and surrounding the joint more flexible.
Finally, you can use this time to decide how your horse is feeling today and change the agenda, if necessary.
Cool-downs are virtually identical to warm-ups but in reverse — at the end of work. Proper cooling out also is important for the horse’s muscles. By doing a good cool-down, rather than stopping abruptly and making the horse stand, you keep blood flowing freely to the horse’s muscles, supplying oxygen and carrying away lactate from areas where it is high. The lactate in turn is taken up by the liver as well as other muscles, where it can be recycled back into stored carbohydrate or to glucose. By helping this process proceed efficiently, you greatly reduce the risk of any muscular cramping.
But there’s more than just a physical aspect to proper starts and endings to your schooling session. During the warm-up, you can settle in, get in tune with the horse’s movements and start communicating with your horse while the horse looks around, responds to your presence and gets focused on the job at hand. You can assess where the horse is mentally and physically for the day and determine what you plan to accomplish during the session — or if it’s a better day to just go for a simple, relaxing hack.
Cool-downs are a good time to praise your horse and end on a positive note. But it’s important to send the message that while the intensity may have slowed, you’re still calling the shots.