Just like human athletes, horses benefit from a gentle warm-up before a strenuous athletic activity like carrying a rider over a jumps course or through a rodeo events pattern. Warming up horses is important to help large muscle groups activate and get the blood flow moving before working muscles.
In this article you’ll learn:
- 4 simple exercises to warm up horse and rider at the beginning of a ride
- ways to translate these warm-up activities to make them fun for kids
Both horses and humans benefit from a pre-workout warm-up at the beginning of a riding lesson or training session. 5 to 15 minutes spent gently moving and stretching can lead to a more pleasant ride for both the horse and the rider – plus, good warm-ups can prevent muscle soreness following a strenuous training session or riding lesson.
The problem: warm-ups can be boring
Many of us who are a little older in the saddle appreciate the mindful, slower pace of warm ups and cool-downs, but for young riders and those just starting to learn how to ride a horse, warming up a horse can feel boring. In this article, I’ve collected a few tips from my own horseback riding lesson teaching that I use to keep young riders and active horses entertained, engaged, and having a blast doing warm-up exercises while gaining the benefits of horseback riding which include improved emotional regulation, according to researchers.
4 fun horse warm-ups to try
Here are four of my favorite warm-ups for getting horses and riders stretched and ready to train:
1. Get Low – Stretching Forward
Working in a long and low frame stretches the back and helps both horses and riders relax – it is a great warm up for anxious horses and nervous riders because it asks both to slow and lengthen. Through keeping the horse moving forward with head low but still collected, the horse has the opportunity to warm up the large muscles of the back. This exercise is best for intermediate riders or advanced-beginner riders on seasoned horses.
How to Make it Fun
Keep it interesting by playing music during this warm-up, by choosing music with a slower tempo you can help horses and riders settle into a slower rhythm. You can even play musical chairs in a group lesson using traffic cones (just emphasize, for the sake of safety, that riders shouldn’t rush to a cone, but rather, the person farthest from a cone when the music stops is automatically “out”)
2. Warming up through gait transitions
Gait transitions help a horse pay attention and really tune in. When you’re shifting gaits back and forth, a horse can’t tune out as easily as when you are set in one gait. Working on transitions in your warm up time can help build the critical muscles needed for smooth effortless-looking transitions in the show ring. Practice walk to trot, trot and canter, canter to trot, trot to walking, etc. Intermediate riders can practice halt to trot transitions and canter/walk transitions.
How to make it fun
Gait transitions can be more fun for kids and riding lessons by making it into a game. Consider making a spinner board or a set of dice with transition names and frequency – for example, a rider might spend and “win”, “3 laps with 3 trot/walk transitions” or “1 lap with a trot/canter/trot gait pattern”
3. Warming up with poles
Poles are an external way to lengthen and shorten a horse’s stride. Polls place a little closer than standard shorten a stride while poles placed further apart can stretch a horse to make it gait a little longer – the stretching the large muscles of the haunches and shoulders.
How to make it fun
Often, riding over poles is intrinsically interesting for the first few lessons, especially if either horse or rider is inexperienced. Horses will often attempt to jump poles, even if they’re laying on the ground, the first few times they encounter them so riders should be prepared and experienced enough to handle unexpected leaps.
4. Spiralling in and Out
Circles help horses bend and stretch large abdominal and neck muscles, but they’re pretty boring. Spirals- progressively smaller circles, can help make bending and circle work a little more interesting. Circles, like any exercise involving bending, should be consistently repeated with even repetitions on each side in order to keep horses’ muscle development balanced.
How to make it fun
Spirals and circles in horse warm-ups can be made more fun through the narration of a great riding instructor. Instead of making boring circles in a boring arena, a playful riding instructor might narrate a role-play of “descending a spiral trail into a trail into a pristine and unexplored canyon” or another fantastical trail ride that can be taken in an arena with only a bit of imagination.
Many trainers emphasize how important warm-ups are, and I realized how true this was when I first started riding an older horse. Warming up all horses is really important, but for horses who are older or sometimes experience stiffness, warming up before riding is especially important.
To keep warm-up exercises for horses fun, be sure to vary your routine, if you do circles one ride, do serpentines, poles, or gait extensions the next. Record in your horseback riding lesson journal how particular warm-ups impact your overall ride, to maximize the benefits and make connections to recognize what works best for your horse. A great riding instructor is competent, efficient, but also playful and encouraging – helping kids maximize the benefits of horseback riding on body image.