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Warming up, cooling down…

You wouldn't think of stepping into a pilates studio or starting an aerobics class without warming up first – a muscle tear or similar injury could easily be the result, and the instructor simply wouldn't allow it! So why do so few of us warm up before we ride?

A thorough warm-up is essential, whether you're competing, having a lesson or simply going hacking. It increases blood flow to muscles and vital organs, stretches the muscles, ligaments and tendons, increases your flexibility, and focuses your mind on the job. Furthermore, riding uses virtually every main muscle group – the quadriceps, hamstrings, gluteal muscles, abdominals, shoulder, back and chest muscles – some of which may not have been used in the hours prior to riding. Failing to warm up sufficiently also affects a rider's interaction with their horse: "If you're stiff or it's early in the morning, the horse won't be as reactive," says osteopath John Harris, who works with a host of top riders. "But if you are flexible and primed, you'll be much more in tune with the horse."

Equally important, also just as frequently overlooked, is the warm-down. "Warming down draws lactic acid from the soft tissues and reduces inflammation," explains John. "The more dynamic the ride, the more important the warm-down." Try a brisk five-minute walk and some jogging on the spot, followed by gentle stretching (for both the warm-up and warm-down). But do make sure you never stretch cold.

Stretching and the warm-up and down is equally essential for the horse, whether you're planning dressage or fast work (both place the same amount of stress on the horse's body). "Warming up is very individual to horse and rider," says Ben Mayes, president of the British Equine Veterinary Association. "Some horses need a lot of exercise to prepare them mentally, others that get 'overcooked' quickly need less, but never be tempted to skimp."

Before you get down to work or competition, put your horse through the paces that will be required of him and pop a few jumps if need be. Make sure you warm down with plenty of walking, which cools the horse's body and allows it to recover without seizing up.

The following are great general stretches for your muscles, ligaments and joints. Some you can do in the yard, others you can practice on your horse, just before you ride.

Hip extensors, glutes and hamstrings

Stand with your feet slightly wider than shoulder-width apart, with your hands at your sides. Flex your knees and hips to lower your body as though you were sitting on a chair. When your thighs are parallel to the ground, slowly stand back up. Repeat 10 times.

Quads

Stand straight up, take one foot and hold against the buttock, bending the knee. Push the hips out. Hold for 5-10 seconds, repeat other side.

Hamstrings

Stand straight, bend the knees slightly and hang over to try to touch your toes. Hold for 5-10 seconds. Repeat three times.

Back

Sitting on the horse in the saddle, feet in the irons, place your right hand on the outside of the left calf and gently press. Hold for five seconds, repeat on the other side. Repeat the whole exercise three times.

Lower back

Hold onto the back of the saddle with both hands behind you, push the chest forwards to create an arch, and hold for 5 seconds. Relax, take your hands in front of the saddle and slump for 5 seconds, supporting your body with your arms.