The right way to warm up

The right way to warm up

Make sure you and your horse are ready to perform at your best, with tips and advice from our experts.

The warm-up is a vital part of any routine, and skipping it could put both you and your horse at risk of injury. We speak to experts who share their rider and horse warm-up routines.

Why a warm-up is important for the rider

Equestrian pilates teacher Laura Carter feels strongly that without a warm-up, we load further stiffness onto our bodies and place our musculoskeletal system under undue pressure. ‘This can leave your muscles feeling short and tight, and your lower back stiffer than usual,’ she says. ‘As our horses also tend to mirror our tensions, a stiff, unfit rider can lead to a stiff horse.’

When riders plan their warm-up routine, they should first consider mental relaxation. ‘We all have a tendency to bring our mental stress to the yard, tack up and get straight on,’ says Laura. ‘Instead, think of your warm-up as a body-awareness check to help release stress before getting in the saddle.’

To help riders warm up physically, Laura suggests the following exercises: 

1. Tennis ball shoulder muscle release

Lay on your back with your knees bent, sinking your feet into the ground (knees and feet hip width apart). Place a tennis ball under your back in between the right shoulder blade and spine (not directly on the spine). Float your arm up and down, across the body and out to the side, then lift the arm and circle from the shoulder joint. Repeat with the other arm.

Watch our video to find out how to perform the tennis ball shoulder muscle release exercise.

2. Tennis ball muscle release for lower back and glutes

In the same lying position, place the ball under your glutes (buttocks) on the right side. It may feel uncomfortable, but this is how you find where the tension is being held. Place your knees, feet and inner thighs together and rock the knees over onto the ball and back to centre. Repeat 10 times on both sides.

Watch our video to find out how to perform the tennis ball muscle release exercise for the lower back and glutes.

3. Standing roll down

Stand feet hip width apart and then lengthen the spine upwards, with shoulders and arms relaxed by your sides. Take an inhale breath through your nose. Exhale through your mouth and begin to roll down through the spine, gently dropping your head down towards the floor from a standing position and folding from the waist. Tuck your chin to your chest, bend the neck, fold the ribs over, draw your abdominal muscles in towards the navel, and drop all the way until you can’t go any further. Repeat the inhale breath and, as you exhale, begin to gently roll back up to an upright position. Repeat three to five times.

Watch our video to find out how to perform the standing roll down exercise.

4. Side bend

Stand sideways to a stable or door, with your left arm closest to the door, making sure there’s something secure to hold with your left hand. Inhale your breath as you bring your right arm up and over your head, taking hold of the door. Allow your body to gently fall away into a side bend to feel a deep stretch down the right-hand side of your body. Breathe and hold for several seconds. Repeat twice on each side.

Watch our video to find out how to perform the side bend exercise.

5. In the saddle

While your horse is loosening up, and if you feel confident enough, take your feet out of the stirrups. This allows freedom of movement in the pelvis, relaxes the hip flexor muscles and helps lengthen your leg from the hip. When you place your feet back into the stirrups, you will feel more depth in your seat and an improved leg length and position. Remember to consider your breathing, too – your horse taps into your breathing pattern.

Watch our video to find out how to perform the saddle exercise.

Why a warm-up is important for the horse

An appropriate warm-up isn’t just for riders – it’s vital for horses, too, says McTimoney animal chiropractor and sports therapist Liz Harris. ‘A good warm-up gradually raises the horse’s heart rate, increases the amount of oxygen circulating in the bloodstream, flexes the joints and increases the elasticity of muscles,’ she says. ‘Skip the warm-up and your horse is at increased risk of injury, particularly overstretch injuries and joint injuries. It’s also unlikely that your horse will be able to reach their full athletic potential if they are stiff and tight.’

Liz recommends thinking of your horse’s warm-up routine as being split into three stages: loosen, warm and supple, remembering to tailor the length of your warm-up to your horse’s individual needs. ‘Think about your horse’s age, fitness, training and temperament in addition to the weather conditions and type of activity you’re warming up for.’

Horse warm-up exercises 

Here, Liz describes three warm-up steps for horses:

1. Loosen

A basic warm-up should begin with 10 minutes of active walk on a long rein. Encourage your horse to stretch their topline ‘long and low’, which helps them relax, engages their core and warms up their back muscles. Horses working with a raised head are more likely to be tense through their back. If you’re trying to warm up in a busy competition environment, consider completing this step by gently hacking around the venue instead of working in the arena. If your horse is very fresh, an in-hand walk may be more appropriate.

2. Warm

Now you can pick up a relaxed contact and start adding some transitions to trot on both reins, then start to work in some canter transitions. The aim of this step is to prepare your horse’s body for exercise, to increase their heart rate and allow the bloodstream to carry more oxygen to the muscles and organs. This phase should last another five to 10 minutes. Some horses have a strong preference for trot or canter, with some trotting better after a canter rather than vice-versa. It is best to use the gait in which your horse is most balanced and comfortable.

3. Supple

Once your horse is warm, you can start to work on suppleness. This should be progressive, with exercises gradually increasing in difficulty. Keep your horse thinking by asking for transitions, changes of bend, varying sizes of circles, lateral work and figures of eight and serpentines, depending on your horse’s level of training. Pole work can encourage greater joint flexion, cadence, rhythm and precision. You can also ask for more collection and start working on dressage manoeuvres and practice fences. Don’t over-jump during your warm-up – most showjumpers agree that four to 10 jumping efforts the same height as those in the class you’re competing in, is sufficient. Ensure you work evenly on both reins, and don’t overdo it!

Horse cool-down 

Cooling down your horse is just as important as warming up.

‘When cooling down after strenuous exercise, avoid sudden changes in gait or direction, as horses are much more prone to injury when muscles are fatigued,’ says Petplan Equine vet Juliette Edmonds. ‘A short period in a “long and low” trot will allow the horse to stretch the topline muscles and reduce tension – tense muscles are prone to damage and will not develop in size and strength as desired.’

This is also why regular periods of stretching are advised during any schooling session. 

‘Returning to walk and allowing the breathing to return to normal is advised to reduce muscle cramping and stiffness,’ adds Juliette. ‘If the horse has worked particularly hard, then it may be better to walk the horse in-hand rather than mounted. The fitter the horse, the quicker the heart rate and breathing will return to a resting rate. It is a good idea to loosen the girth as the horse is walked in-hand to reduce pressure on the chest if the horse is blowing hard.’ 

Once you and your horse are fully warmed up, you’re both ready to perform at your best. Don’t forget to cool down after exercise to help prevent stiffness.