BY JENNY ROLFE
Constructive time spent warming-up is the key to encouraging the natural gymnastic ability of the horse. The purpose of training is to enhance the natural ability and confidence of the horse. Without this, training will lack purpose and the ability to demonstrate harmony and art. Loose work, lungeing and work in hand have significant roles as part of a warming up program.
Have you ever been to the gymnasium for a work out? What exercises were you given in preparation for the more strenuous athletic movements? Initially, you are taught to control your breathing and work through some gentle, stretching exercises in rhythm with your deeper inhalation and exhalation. When the body is more relaxed and mobilized, then more ambitious exercises can commence.
Any exercises, whether for human or horse, requires that muscles are warmed up and loosened before work can begin. Only the muscles which have been allowed sufficient time to warm up, will be capable of stretching sufficiently, to protect the joints during exercise. Cold weather or stress can tighten these muscles. Injury, stiffness and pain may be caused if these concepts are not fully understood.
The time we allow for effective warming up, will ensure that the session of training can progress with more empathy and less resistance. If this time is not rushed or forced, the more demanding work later in the session will be more harmonious.
We are aiming to achieve suppleness, rhythm and straightness in all three paces, with a submissive and attentive attitude from our horse.
Goals for Warming-up
- To work with an attentive horse who enjoys his work.
- To increase circulation, mobility and activity.
- To encourage energetic movement within a relaxed frame.
- To encourage relaxation of the jaw and poll to allow a natural submission within the frame.
- To enhance both forward and vertical impulsion.
- To encourage engagement of the hind limbs to facilitate natural self carriage, so the horse may be comfortable to carry the rider.
A Focus on Breathing Enhances
In our teaching, we will be trying to communicate a desire for forward movement. Unless there is sufficient energy created from the hind limbs, the horse cannot work through his back and relax in the poll. Although visually the energy is being produced by the hind limbs, the source of energy created is from the horse’s mind. We are trying to encourage our horse to enjoy his movement and become a confident athlete.
Our horses enjoy movement as we can see, if we take the time to observe mares and young stock in the field. They love to chase each other, playing and running freely. You can watch them developing games together, just for the joy of expressing free movement.
Exercise on the Circle
There is a very useful exercise on the circle, which helps the horse to take a correct contact into the outside rein. To ride this exercise, walk forward on a fifteen or twenty metre circle, then position your shoulders and upper torso slightly into the circle. With your inside leg placed slightly behind the girth, encourage the horse to move his quarters away from your leg. The horse should ‘melt’ away from your inside aids and take more connection with your outside hand and leg. His body will move over towards your outside leg which will support and contain the movement. The flexion of the neck is away from the direction of the movement. If you are yielding to the left, his neck flexion is to the right.
For just a few strides, feel the horse working into the outside rein and moving away from your inside hand and leg. Encourage the horse with focus on your breathing as this will enable your core to follow more freely with the sideways motion of the horse.
Practice this exercise for just a few strides then continue to walk forward on the circle. Your shoulders will help to guide the movement of the horse. The inside hand (wrist) should be turned slightly inward (towards the rider’s abdomen) when positioning the neck of the horse. This is an action of asking with a squeezing of the fingers to encourage the inside flexion. We do not want a constant connection. We can ask, then when we receive, we can give.
When this submissive feel is established, take a breath inward and on the deeper outward breath, move forward into trot. Encourage the first strides to be energetic, using the whip to reinforce if necessary. Maintain the contact into the outside rein and leg , allowing the horse to work more deeply and submissively into the lengthened rein. It is vital the horse learns quickly that in training he needs to be energetic and responsive and not lazy.
If at any stage the horse falls back heavily against your inside aids, then repeat this exercise in leg-yielding, in walk, until he re-establishes the connection, working into the outside hand and leg. It is easier for a horse to understand what is required if we stop the movement when things go wrong. When moving forwards into trot, allow a longer rein to encourage the horse to lengthen and lift his spine working with both looseness and submission.
Exercises to Supple and Strengthen
Lateral exercises at walk help to develop lightness by engaging the correct use of the hind limbs and encouraging freedom and elasticity in the shoulders. These exercises can be worked steadily, on a loose rein, building the connection through engagement of the hind limbs rather than a restrictive contact with the reins.
Exercises such as shoulder-in, leg-yielding, turn on the forehand and the walk pirouette, can be used on both reins within a steady cadenced walk.
The lateral work at walk will help to supple the horse, then refresh with an energetic trot forwards to re-energise the horse physically and mentally. If you can ride forward on a loose rein and the horse reaches forward and down, stretching and relaxing his neck, the lateral work has been beneficial.
Unless there is sufficient energy created from the hind limbs, the horse cannot work through his back and relax in the poll. Although visually the energy is being produced by the hind limbs, the source of energy created is from the horse’s mind.
Important Guidelines for Lateral Exercises in Walk
- PREPARE WELL before the exercise.
- Keep the walk STEADY but with ENERGY.
- After a few strides, WORK STRAIGHT.
- REWARD OFTEN with a LOOSE REIN at walk.
- Aim to work your horses in BALANCE and LIGHTNESS.
- After LATERAL exercises, refresh the work with FORWARD PACES.
From Calmness Comes Positive
Our methods do not seek to pull the horse into a ‘frame’, we should remember the words of Nuno Oliveira, “the hands belong to the horse.” The horse should be encouraged forward on a long rein and gradually encouraged to work in a long and low frame. We are aiming for an elastic feel, where he is not ‘pulling’ at the hand or bearing down with his head and neck.
The feel should be one of mutual ‘giving’ between the horse and the hands of the rider.
Our influence on the horse should be to try to settle him if he is rushing or to create more energy if he is being lazy. Many transitions will help to make the horse more attentive and enhance both balance and engagement, thus, achieving more lightness. Training is about finding ways to ask the horse to work with us. Dancing partners are in tune and the best dancers share a flow of harmony, energy and rhythm. This is also the aim of classical horsemanship.
At the end of every training session, time should be given to relax the horse in a similar manner to the warming-up, allowing the horse to take the rein and stretch his neck in a lowered, forward frame at a quiet walk.
The horse at the end of training should have a relaxed look about his face with a contented facial expression. You can see this by looking at his alert twitching ears, his eye and relaxed nostrils. His mouth should be moist with a relaxed jaw gently chomping on the bit.
The art of successfully warming-up will slowly evolve with dedication and practice. The most important lesson will always be to listen to the horse. He is our greatest teacher!
READ MORE ABOUT AUTHOR JENNY ROLFE