A warm-up and a cool-down both involve doing exercises at a lower intensity and slower pace, which can improve athletic performance, prevent injuries, and help with recovery from exercise. Below we discuss the importance of each in a little more detail.
Whether you’re competing, having a lesson, or simply going for a hack, a thorough warm-up is important for your horse. A warm-up is used to increase blood flow to muscles and vital organs, increase flexibility, and stretch muscles, ligaments, and tendons.
Many horses spend a lot of their time in stables or a restricted area, where they have little opportunity to move around as they would in the wild. When we ask our horse to work under saddle, the level of work done is usually also of greater intensity than that which our horses would experience simply out in their paddock. Therefore, when we take them out for exercise, competition, or a training session, it is extremely important to warm them up and simply get their body moving.
Allowing the horse to begin warm up in a low intensity walk in a relaxed frame allows their body to ease into preparation for more intense work. The rider should encourage the horse to relax through its frame and use its entire body, they can then gradually increase the intensity of the warm-up. There isn’t a set time for how long to warm up a horse, a young horse with no musculoskeletal problems may find five minutes adequate, an older horse with some signs of arthritis might require 10 to 15 minutes of easy walking before increasing the intensity.
While a horse is exercising, it must release heat, and this is usually done through sweat and the respiratory tract. The release of internal heat reduces the potential to injure internal organs and soft tissue. The brain and central nervous system are especially sensitive to overheating. If you simply cease intense work with a horse, the circulation in its muscles slows, trapping heat within the large muscles and the core of the body, including the brain. This can cause problems such as tying up, and in more extreme situations, neurologic deficits, colic, heatstroke and metabolic collapse. Cooling down a horse allows the warm blood to be circulated away from the muscles to the skin and lungs where it is cooled, it is then circulated back to the muscles.
A cool-down allows a horse’s body to safely recover from the exertion of exercise while preventing possible problems like sore or pulled muscles. A proper cool down is simply the reverse of your warm-up where a horse’s body is eased down through a lower intensity of exercise such as walking. The aim of cool down is to: return pulse rate, respiration rate and body temperature to normal, improve blood circulation to reduce chance of inflammation, remove lactate from, and relax, the muscles. Essentially a cool down is designed to restore a horse’s heart rate and other vital signs to a normal range post-exercise.