Given the choice, I prefer cooler weather to warmer when it comes to riding. You can always add more layers, but you can only take so many off. The downside to that, is once it starts getting really cold, everything slooooooows dooooooown and takes so much longer. No matter how many layers you pile on, your muscles just need that extra time to prepare themselves for the day’s work. The same applies to your horse. They’ve probably been standing quietly, not moving around a whole lot, when you decide it’s time to go to work. Does your winter riding routine differ from your summer/warmer weather routine? Maybe it should!
Since becoming more familiar with yoga, I’ve developed the opinion that it’s sort of like dressage for humans. Even though you may not do yoga formally, or you may not ride dressage in the traditional sense, you can still pull from those elements in ways that suit you and your horse, to help you both loosen up and be more effective, as well as lessening the opportunity for injury. I’ve never ridden dressage, but have often used some of it’s basic elements (and probably couldn’t even name them) to help warm up my horses. Using some of the lateral techniques at the walk and trot, softened up their shoulders and hips. Flexing their necks from side to side, produced a more relaxed headset.
You probably start your day with some manner of casual stretching, but horses may not necessarily. So, before your next “cold start,” consider taking a few minutes for each of you, and see if it doesn’t give you a better result.
What I’ve learned about yoga and stretching, is that during the course of our day to day activities, things tend to compress. This is especially pertinent to those of us who ride desk chairs during the day. Sometimes, I actually feel shorter when I leave the office, after my spine has smushed down like a bendy straw. When you’re doing yoga and stretching, you’re putting space back in the places where it’s been mashed out. It warms muscles and joints up slowly, which is the ideal, so they’re better prepared for their next task. Think about your spine, and your major joints, like hips and shoulders, those are the big hitters in both your body and your horses.
For yourself, here are some basic standing yoga poses (since lying on cold ground or a barn aisle probably isn’t super appealing right now). The beauty of yoga poses, is once you understand the basic concept, you can tweak it out to suit you and your needs. Slowly rolling your head side to side, rotating your arms in their sockets, and your wrists… Gentle twists with feet planted, reaching arms high overhead, then alternating left and right to take the stretches further to the side… Hinging at the hip to reach for the ground, or as low as you’re able to, then rolling back up to a standing position, one bone at a time… All of this only takes a few minutes, but you’ll be surprised how much more prepared you feel for a ride once you’re done.
For your horse, assuming they’ll stand quietly and allow you to manipulate them, the same ideas still work. You might need a treat to encourage them at first, but once they see how good it feels, you’ll probably be able to work out your own cues. Ask them to stretch their necks forward, reaching out, up, and down. If they’ll allow you, try asking them to curl their noses around to each side, like they’re scratching their ribs. You can even ask them for a “downward facing pony” pose, which also looks like a bow, where they’ll stretch their front legs out, and tuck their nose in between. This all helps their spine, from nose to tail. You can also take each leg and pull it gently out in front or behind, doing small circles in each direction. Your horse will tell you what they can and can’t do, what feels good, and what hurts, so when you’re doing this, especially for the first time, pay close attention to their responses.
Once you’re riding, you can spend a little more time asking them to bend and flex. Adding side movement to your routine is great for their large joints, as well as their minds. Horses like to learn new things, especially when they’re things that please you.
The main point to remember is to take as much time as you need. Every body is different, especially ones that have been injured. Develop a warm-up routine that caters to you and your horse specifically, and don’t be afraid to try new things. If something feels especially good, it’s okay to hold it a stretch or pose a little longer, or create a circuit so you’re doing a number of things a few times, as a whole warm-up. If you’re feeling particularly stiff, look around the barn for helping tools, like a bale of hay or a bucket that you can use as a prop. If you’re doing something that requires balance, even being able to put one finger down on something can be all you need to steady yourself, or finding a focal point to look at while you balance. Learning to trust your body and your horse, to tell you when things feel okay or not, will help you put your best foot forward!