by Courtney Capps
Have you ever hopped on your horse in the middle of winter ready for a good ride and noticed your horse seems hunched-up and is taking small steps?
Horses need to warm up before exercise–just like people do–in order to avoid soreness and injury. This is especially true during the cold winter months, when the muscles and joints are more stiff. Here are a few steps to help you and your horse have a healthier and safer ride.
1) After properly grooming and tacking up your horse, leave the girth a little bit loose and lead your horse around for a few minutes prior to getting on. This will give him a chance to stretch his legs without your added weight and without the extra tightness of the girth.
2) If you have a wool cooler, put this over him like a blanket to help keep him warm. The wool cooler is better than a regular blanket because it allows any moisture to escape from your horse, while keeping the heat in. When you feel he is walking comfortably, tighten the girth and slowly get into the saddle, being careful not to land too hard in the saddle as your horse's back muscles are still cold.
3) Once you are on your horse, start walking, making sure to give him plenty of rein to lower his head so he can stretch his neck muscles. While walking, you can even leave the cooler on, wrapping it around your legs (to keep them warm, too) while still helping to keep your horse's body heat in.
4) Especially during the winter months, it is a good idea to walk your horse for about 10-15 minutes or until you feel he is limbering up. Once your horse is walking freely and feels more relaxed, you can remove the cooler and begin your ride. You will notice that as you ride, his stride will get longer and he will not be as hunched up as when you started out. This means his muscles are warming up, and he is therefore more comfortable.
5) Equally important as warming up is cooling down. After you finish your ride, especially if it has been a vigorous workout, it is a good idea to again walk your horse for 10-15 minutes, allowing him to slow his breathing and cool down. Put the cooler back on if you have one.
6) After you untack your horse, use water (warm water, if it is available) to sponge off the areas that have become sweaty – the saddle area, chest, and behind the tail are the areas where your horse is most likely to sweat. Be sure and scrape off any excess water using a sweat scraper, and make your horse as dry as possible. If your horse is still breathing heavily, you should hand walk him until his breathing has returned completely to normal.
These steps will help to keep your horse from getting chilled and possibly getting sick. Remember to never put a blanket (other than a wool cooler) on your horse while he is wet; this will only trap the moisture and actually make him colder.
Taking a few extra minutes to warm up and cool down your horse properly will make a more enjoyable riding experience for you and your horse while helping to avoid soreness and injury.