Warming Up A Horse

Today I want to talk about the “warm up” thing. Over the past several clinics the subject of warming up a horse has come up several times. I have even seen it discussed on some other trainers sites lately about the importance of stretching and warming up a correctly. I get the impression that warming up a horse is often done because people hear they are suppose to do it and have very little understanding of why or when it is important and when it is irrelevant.

Let me say that doing warm up exercise is never going to do harm. There is no reason to believe that it is a bad thing. But for most of us it probably does not offer many advantages.

The purpose of performing warming up exercises is to increase blood flow to muscle beds. Muscles are moving machines. They have muscle fibres that pass across the surface of each other during contraction through chemical reactions. This takes energy which is derived from oxygen and nutrients that are supplied by blood to the site where the work is being done. In addition the mechanical work of the muscle fibres produces metabolic waste products and heat that need to be shunted away from the site and dealt with largely by the kidneys, lungs and liver. So the idea of warming up a horse is to increase the flow of blood to the muscle beds in preparation for the increased amount of work they will perform during exercise. For most people warming a horse up consists of either mild exercise or stretches or both.

I should say that the way the body distributes blood flow to various parts of the body is dynamic. It constantly changes. Because the flow is driven by the nervous system in response to the bodies needs, changes happen very quickly. Think about the times when you have tried to stand up quickly and felt dizzy but didn’t fall. The postural change in standing up left a deficit in blood pressure that supplied blood to the brain. But within a second or so the body was alerted to the problem and fixed it so that you only suffered light-headedness. It is because the body can compensate so quickly to increases in demand for blood flow where it is needed that lengthy warming up of our horses is redundant for most of us.

But most people misunderstand “warming up.” They think that by riding their horse or lunging their horse they are asking a horse to do strenuous exercise. In reality most horses are sufficiently prepared for the work most riders will ask of their horse just by walking them from the paddock to the arena. The majority of horses do not go from being saddled to instant strenuous exercise without some walking either from the paddock or to the mounting block or to walking to adjust the girth before mounting etc. The importance of warming up a horse is most urgent when a horse is asked for explosive exercise like racing horses or horses jumping very large obstacles. But most of only ask a horse to perform moderate exercise and jump modest jumps (1.5m or less)

Yet I see so many riders spend 15min or so walking their horse around in order to warm it up for a 30min session of walk, trot and canter in the arena. I came across a web site today that described 30mins of warm up exercises for 20mins of training. Even a racehorse is only lightly walked before having to perform perhaps the most physically strenuous exercise any horse is asked.

But let me get onto the topic that is most bothering me about the aspect of the warming up process that some people use. A lot of people have told me they like to warm up their horse for several minutes before beginning to work with their horse. By work they have meant, “asking anything of their horse.”

I have said many times that training is all about directing a horse’s thought. And I want to stress that a horse’s brain is not a muscle. A brain does not have moving parts. Even when it is working its hardest the brain does not need warming up. I don’t remember when I sat exams at university that the first few questions were not part of the test because the professor just offered them as “warm up” questions. If I ask a person their 3 times multiplication table do I need to warm their brain up with the 2 times table first? I don’t think so.

Therefore, it’s not okay to let a horse lose focus or be distracted or not be soft and responsive to your aids just because you are warming it up and have not yet begun the “proper work.” Yet more than once in the past few weeks I have heard from riders that they are just warming their horse up before they starting the session. When I pointed out some things about their horse that I felt needed addressing, it seemed less important to the rider than warming their horse up. A lady was lunging her horse at a clinic and it was very counter balanced. When I brought this to her attention she said, “Yeah I know, but I’m just warming her up first.” To me this is a completely bizarre concept. How does a horse know that it’s okay to ignore a rider and straightness doesn’t matter during the warm up, but know to get it’s act together when the real training begins? Where does this idea come from?

As I said, it’s okay if you want to physically warm up your horse with light exercise and stretches before starting the more strenuous aspect of a workout – if that’s what you want. Most horses don’t need it, but it does no harm. But it’s not okay to let the mental and emotional part of the training fall apart just because a person wants to physically warm a horse up.

Last year in Minnesota I showed the type of stretching exercises I get to do at several clinics.

flying Ross


Crazy Riding

This video seriously bothers me from a horse welfare perspective.


Dressage Is For Every Horse

At the clinic in Wollert a friend brought a horse that has showed real improvement over recent months and is going to make a really nice that she’ll be proud to say is hers.

While talking to her I heard a story that just riles me to the point of critically high blood pressure. She told me she had taken the horse to a clinic or workshop held by a lady who claimed to be an expert on performance, conformation and things related to structure and function with horses. The clinician told my friend that her horse would not be suitable for dressage because it had a long back and several other conformation faults. I hear this sort of rubbish from time to time and it makes me despair at how such people could call themselves ‘professional’ for such nonsense. I know a trainer in South Australia who has also handed out similar advice to people on his web site who have written to him asking for advice. It’s time these people were made to account for their Neanderthal ideas.

Dressage is for every horse and every rider – end of argument.

Dressage is not for just for the high priced Warmblood or imported Baroque horse. Dressage is not just for horses over 16.3hh. Dressage is not just for the people who have the money to afford expensive horses and expensive coaches. Dressage is not for just the people who have ambition to compete at Grand Prix level. Dressage is not just for the people who want to compete.

Dressage is for any horse where balance, straightness, softness, strength and mental and emotional fitness are important to a rider. Dressage is for any breed of horse from Shetland to Standardbred, from Arab to Akhal Teke , from Cob to Cleveland Bay and from Fjord to Foxtrotter – and every breed in between. Dressage is for horses from pony to Shire size. Dressage is for any rider who enjoys helping their horse become more athletic and maximize their chance of a lifetime of soundness. Dressage is for people who like to potter around on their horse in the paddock or have ambition to compete internationally. Dressage is for people who want to ride dressage, barrel racing, reining, jumping, eventing, roping, pleasure, hunting, liberty etc.

Dressage is not about ribbons, rosettes, medals and prize money. Dressage is not about owning the right type of horse or the right type of saddle, bridle, jodhpurs, hat or bit. None of these things matter.

Dressage is about building a solid foundation of good basic work that is the pre-requisite of anything you might want to do with your horse. Good dressage builds balance, straightness and softness – something that every discipline requires of every horse. I have said before I think every horse should have a solid understanding of the basics of good dressage before they are trained for any other discipline. Every horse should be a dressage horse before they are a roper, ranch horse, hunter, polo pony, jumper or whatever.

And every rider should have a good understanding of dressage so they know how to keep their horse correct, balanced and strong, which will make a huge positive difference to every horse’s long-term soundness.

The people who tell others that a certain horse is not meant for dressage don’t understand the principles of dressage. For sure not every horse is meant to compete at a high level or perform high school movements with devastating brilliance. But every horse can gain and should gain the benefits that good dressage has to offer. To label a horse as unsuitable for dressage is just pure ignorance of the purpose of dressage. If you don’t believe me take it up with some of the old masters that understood this principle very well.

I will now politely step down from my soap box.


Can A Horse Be Brave

I think this is a really poor study and it seems to me the conclusions are not supported by the study without making some very big assumptions about what is bravery, the relationship between stress and heart rate, the variability of temperament etc.


Changing The Thought

This post sort of relates to my article of March 21 about having a horse’s thoughts with me to help him to stand still when I a person attempts to mount.

I have mentioned previously on several occasions that when we ask something of our horse we need to get a change. If things don’t change what is the point of asking in the first place? We only teach our horse to ignore us by nagging him to do something without evoking a change inside him. But the only change worth getting is a change of thought. A change of thought is about getting deep inside a horse to evoke a change of feelings. Anything else is just wallpaper – it’s superficial and brief.

The majority of riders I meet are looking for a change in what the horse is doing and that is the yardstick they use to measure the effectiveness of their work. But lots of times a horse will respond with his feet while still trying to do something else. This is because he is thinking about something else. He drifts closer to the gate on is turns. He calls out to his friends. He goes faster too fast riding towards home and too slow riding away from home.

Without changing his thinking, changing what he is doing will have resistance and is only half the job. Added to that, a horse will think about doing something before he actually does it – this is no different than you or me. Once a horse has mentally decided to do something he is already committed to doing it. By waiting until he actually moves his feet before releasing the pressure a person’s timing is late. The time to release was when the horse made the mental commitment to following the feel offered by the rider or handler. Waiting until the idea reaches all the way to the feet is going to make our release late every time.

But what I have noticed a lot in past years is how people are unaware of when a horse changes his thought. People assume that because their horse did what he was asked that he changed his mind. But have you ever been told to do something that you didn’t want to do, yet did it anyway? Was the fact that you actually did as you were asked convincing proof that you wanted to do it? Can you assume that every person sitting at their desk filling in their tax return every year does it because there is nothing better they would rather be doing?

Just because you pick up both reins and your horse stops, can you assume he had the mental thought to stop before you applied the brakes enough to get his feet to stop moving forward? Just because a horse did as you asked does not mean his mind was not thinking about doing something else.

When you pick up the reins and your horses pushes through them and instead of stopping he leans on the reins and drags himself to an eventual stop, you might firm up on the reins to make the stop snappier and more responsive. But if you do that and the stop is more responsive and snappier, how do you know you got a change of thought? That’s the question people that struggle with most. The better stop response does not automatically mean there was a change of thought. Your horse might still be pushing forward with his thought and if that is happening you can be certain his response is not as good as it could be or should be.

So how do you know if the snappier response was due to the increase braking power you applied with the reins or a change of thought by your horse?

The easiest way I know to check if there was a change of thought is to repeat the exercise. Ask your horse to stop or turn or go forward or yield to your inside leg or whatever again. If your horse responds with less pressure from your aids and gives a better and softer reply then you can be certain he had a change of thought – even if just for a moment. But if instead you still need to apply the same or even more pressure to achieve the reaction you wanted from your horse, then there was no change of thought and reduction in resistance. This is a really important principle because if you don’t achieve a change of thought then the horse has not learned anything positive from the exercise. It means you will always have to use far more pressure than necessary to get the response you want.

Why does this matter?

It matters because by not getting a change of thought you will forever be firming up on a horse to ensure the feet are doing what you want. The result is that your horse will have to be burdened with much more pressure than he is comfortable with every time you ask for something that he is not already thinking about. Your attempts to interrupting his thought will constantly cause him some degree of anguish (small or large) and your relationship will suffer for it. He will hold back from trying his best because of the trouble inside him.

In my view the easiest way to avoid the issue of directing the feet without getting a change in what a horse is feeling and thinking is to always ask him again to do what you just asked him. Once you get a response that is softer and better and more like the one you had in mind, then move onto what was the next thing you were going to ask your horse to do. However, if it is not softer and better then keep repeating the exercise until you get something much closer to what you had in mind. It doesn’t matter how many times you might have to repeat the exercise to ensure you got a change in his thinking. It’s only then you can be sure that you don’t enter the pitfall of just working at the surface level of your horse and dooming him to a life of resisting your every command.

The photo is of a pushmepullme. An animal whose thought to go forward was also his thought to go backward.

Dr Dolittle - PushmePullme