No matter what horse-showing discipline you compete in, these warm-up exercises will get your horse soft and supple before your class.
Performing turns on the forehand encourages your horse to move his hips and loosen up his body. Jean Abernethy illustration
By AQHA Professional Horsewoman Traci Johnting in The American Quarter Horse Journal
When I ride a horse, I want him supple from his nose through his hips. I want to be able to move my foot or lightly lift my hand and have my horse instantly move his hip, rib cage, or shoulder.
I teach these two warm-up exercises to my horses and use them every day so that they’re part of the routine. They serve a lot of purposes: They help my horse become more supple, they stretch his body and, since they’re part of his routine, they help me get him in the mind-set where he’s ready to listen to me and work hard.
In speed events, we’re going really fast, and I need a fast response from my horse to my lightest cue. When I’m going into a barrel, if it looks like I’m too close to a barrel and might hit it, I can pick up my horse and move him away without a lot of excessive motion. I don’t have to jerk; I can just touch. These exercises make it a lot easier for me to communicate with my horse.
I use these exercises as a speed warm-up, but they will help any horse get supple and loose in the shoulders, rib cage and hips. They will improve the connection between horse and rider.
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The first exercise is the counter-bend. Before I begin the counter-bend, I make sure my own mind is in the right place to ride. I’m sitting in the center of my horse and am focused on him. Then I start my horse in a large circle at the walk, using two hands and slowly bending his rib cage into an arc with my foot. In a circle to the left, my inside (or left) foot is at the girth, supporting; my outside (or right) foot is slightly behind the girth to encourage forward motion and the bend. His nose and neck should be on the arc of the circle.
When I’m sure he is following his nose in the direction of the circle, I’ll slowly ask his nose to bend the other direction – to the right – while he continues to circle left.
If you’ve ever twisted your own body one way and your head the other, you know that stretch can feel good. It can feel good to your horse to stretch, too, but he’s not going to know how to do it himself. You will have to guide him.
Start off walking your horse in a circle to the left, tipping his nose to the left and getting his body supple. From there, move your left leg away from your horse’s body and straighten your left arm. This will give your horse an open space to move through. While maintaining your horse’s suppleness and keeping his nose tipped to the right, continue to push his body to the left using your right rein and outside leg.
Sometimes, you’ll need to move your outside leg back a bit on the rib cage to move the hip.
Then, when I come out of the counter-bend, I put my horse back onto the circle to the left. I might ask him to continue forward into a spin/pivot on the hindquarters.
This exercise loosens up the shoulders, neck and face. Start slowly and be patient with your horse as he learns how to do it. Remember that he might be stiff when you start and only able to do it for a couple of strides on a large circle. As he gets more supple, you’ll be able to ask him to do this for more strides and on a gradually smaller circle. Be sure to do it in both directions.
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I do this every day with my horses, and they know to expect it. They get better with it the more they do it. I start at the walk and progress to the trot. It’s an easy exercise to do in a warm-up arena at a show when everyone is trotting around. Just counter-bend the horse for a few steps and then let him relax and trot with the other horses. It doesn’t disrupt the flow of traffic, and it helps the horse stretch physically and get ready mentally.
Turn on the Forehand
The other thing I like to ask my horses to do is turn on their forehands to move their hips around. The maneuver is called for a lot in horsemanship patterns, and you might not often think of it as a good warm-up exercise, but it is.
Sometimes in barrel racing, horses will drop a hip behind a barrel, knocking it over as they’re leaving. If I have practiced this exercise with my horse, I can just put my foot behind the girth and move the hip over.
I start from a stop. Using my hands to keep my horse steady in front, I move his hip around with my leg. He may be resistant at first, but we work on it a few steps at a time until it is easy and comes quickly. I do it every day both directions.
Again, I want my horse to move every part of his body where and how I want whenever I need it. I find that a lot of horses are stiffer to one side or the other, so that’s the side I work the most – the one that needs it.
I like these exercises because you don’t need any special equipment. I trail ride a lot, and these exercises can actually be worked on in the woods. As I’m riding through the trees, I will ask my horse to move away from my leg and follow his nose. By doing this, he learns to lift his shoulders, move his rib cage and keep his hips standing up straight. When I go back to the arena, my horses have a general idea of what I want them to do, and it comes easy to them. And we have fun at the same time!