Whenever I ride my horses, I have a program that I ride each and every time, especially the warm-up. Having a warm-up the horse can count on provides reassurance and routine. What exactly is a warm-up? Yes, it gives the horse the opportunity to stretch, move his body, and "get the juices flowing," but I feel it is much more than that. I want to make certain, first and foremost, my horse is sound to work, both in his mind and his body. I want to check that he's listening to my leg, my seat, my rein aids, etc. Each horse is a little bit different, depending on the body type, physical and psychological characteristics and level of training.
For example, when I get on Junior, I always begin with free walk for an extended amount of time (10 minutes or so). I go to posting trot with a long neck, sometimes a bit deep depending on whether he feels worried or unsure of what the day may bring. Right from the beginning we do changes of tempo within the trot and walk to trot transitions from various tempos. I do them in both directions and in different places in the arena so that I'm certain he's paying attention and wondering secretly what's coming. I may ask for leg-yields or haunches-in to check his lateral quickness and vary his neck position to check malleability over his topline. All of this is done within a 10-15 minute time frame.
If the trot feels OK, I jump to canter. I go through a similar routine in canter by varying his neck position while riding constant changes in tempo. Junior's hind legs tend to be too slow in the canter, so I'll often go to a few steps of quick trot back to canter to get his legs busy. After a few bits of half-pass in both directions to move laterally, I'm ready to train. In general, my warm-up is 20-25 minutes, not including the free walk. I'll train for 15 minutes, stretch and be done. I rarely ride more than 50 minutes.
Basically, Junior knows this is how it's going to go. Because of this, he can come out relaxed, knowing what to expect. Sometimes, I might ad poles to the warm-up, something Junior enjoys, but if I'm working with poles, I do not ad a training segment to the work day.
Wheels is very different. As I've said in the past, I'll often put him on the longe to get him moving forward before I get on. It depends on how he seems while I'm grooming him and also on his turnout schedule. If I'm not lunging, I'll walk for the same amount of time as Junior, but have to work to get him in front of my leg during the free walk. I don't really pick up my reins once I go to trot and let Wheels do what he wants, encouraging him to move forward and loosen his muscles in his own way. If I stress him too much, he simply refuses to work and will stop, stamp his feet and may even try to buck me off. As long as I allow him to move in his own way for a bit, I'll suddenly feel his muscles relax and it's like a spring suddenly lets go. Once I get the feeling he's good to go, I move right to my training piece. This may all take 10 minutes, it may take 2 hours, but I let Wheels do what he needs to do to get to the point where I can train successfully. If I don't get there, but run out of time or energy, I'll put him away and bring him back out later. He's a tricky one.
I"m bringing all this up because I have a client who's having issues with her warm-up routine. Michelle has not had her new horse, Jack, for very long. She's trying to form a routine that works for the two of them. We've discovered that she needs to let go through her own body in order to let Jack work through his. Jack knows his job, Michelle needs to learn his language and skills...that takes a certain amount of confidence in him and me to help her through these hurdles. First off, Michelle needs to do a free walk that is quiet in her own brain and body. She has the tendency to press him forward which causes tension to build in his body and makes him jig and invert his neck. We've found that if she sits quietly and feels his back swing, follows with her hands and just enjoys the walk, things get better.
Jack is very strong on the left and lacks connection on the right. It's important for Michelle to establish the right rein, which is very hard for her to remember. "He's so strong on the left!" Bend, bend, bend...ugh! "If I do this, he does that. If I do that, he does this...why is he so strong?" My answer, "I don't care that he's so strong on the left...you don't have a right rein!!" "But when I did this yesterday, that happened, and the other day when I did that, this happened, and I think I should try this today."
"Michelle, maybe if you do it the same way every day, it won't seem so hard." Allow him to stretch in both directions after your walk. Pick up the trot and pick up your right rein until you have contact on the right, even if you have wrong bend. Once you have established a "right rein," go ahead and take and release on the left rein to soften the strong left side. I asked Michelle, as she trotted around round, soft and preparing to work, "why do you try all these different things when you know this is what works and it's easy?" Her answer..."I guess I just forget."
I promised Michelle I would write about this tonight, so I hope she comments!!