Relax and Warm Up - Before You Get On

By Sharon Dillon

Frozen hoof prints litter the pastures. The sun glares as biting winds sting your cheeks and icy droplets cling to steaming wet muzzles. Once again the wintertime is upon us, the season that is perhaps the most challenging for the horse enthusiast.

This is the time of year when your bed feels extra warm and chores are extra hard. Sometimes it's difficult to be motivated---even riding your beloved horse can feel more like a duty than a joy.

Fortunately, there are a few steps that can be taken to ease the chilly transition from the stable to the arena. Here is a pre-ride warm up that will rid your horse of some of those wintry morning kinks before you start your work out. Remember: every good ride starts with a good warm up!

Bearing in mind that your horse needs to stay warm as you prepare for your ride, make sure that you always cover your horse with a heavy cooler on cold days. Warm muscles are relaxed muscles. Rearrange the cooler as you groom, keeping your horse covered as much as possible. I personally prefer wool coolers to fleece, as fleece tends to conduct static electricity (making your little session much more shocking than relaxing.)

After grooming, stand facing your horse. Lay both of your hands upon his forehead. Stop. Close your eyes. Let this moment be just between you and your horse. Feel your horse's breathing and allow your breath to become synchronized with his. Transmit good feelings from your heart and stomach area through your hands to your horse's heart. Run your hands slowly down across his closed eyes and up across his ears. Many horses will respond by putting their heads into your chest. Say, "thank you" and enjoy the moment.

Next, keeping your left hand on your horse's head, follow with your right hand down the left side of his crest to where the neck meets the shoulder. Now bring your left hand around to meet the right. Just below the wither at this junction, you can be sure to find some tension---I find it similar to the tension that most people carry, where the neck and upper back meet the shoulder blade. I like to start in this area. I feel that it's not too invasive, and that many horses respond well to this approach.Massage

Standing with a straight right arm, and supporting with the left, use your right hand to work in circles down the shoulder blade. Feel the valley between your horse's neck muscles and his shoulder. There really is no recipe for how long you work on an area or how deep. Your horse will tell you. Use good judgement. If it's painful, the horse will back off, throw his head or make faces. When he enjoys it, he will lean into your pressure and drop his neck. Be aware of his body language and never go deeper than your horse will permit.

Once your horse begins to relax bring your left hand up to his poll, forming a triangle with your right hand at his shoulder and your body in the middle. Establish a rhythm as this helps to relax a horse. Rhythm is created by pushing your horse away in little rocking motions and letting the weight of his body bring him back again. Don't drop him, be supportive. Your horse will depend on the consistency of the motion and this rhythm will relax him. The rocking can be very subtle at first, becoming more pronounced as your horse lets go of his tension.

When your horse is relaxed further, you can take the halter in your left hand and ask him to bring his head in. When he brings his head in toward you, you will feel the muscles of his neck soften. Now feel free to work the neck, maintaining this rocking rhythm, to some degree, throughout the rest of your session. Follow from the neck into the shoulder, leg and the chest. Many horses with tension in the under side of their neck will have sore chests, girth areas and stomachs.

When you feel satisfied with the left side of the neck, travel to the right side of the neck and repeat in the same manner. I prefer working each body part as opposed to doing one side of the animal, then the other. I think it feels more balancing.

Move next to the back of your horse. Fold the cooler down and hold the withers with your thumb on one side and your fingers on the other. Draw your other hand from the withers down the back. Using the natural weight of your hand, lay it to cover both sides of the spine. Try to slowly drag the one hand against the weight of the other on the withers, stretching as far as your arms will comfortably allow. Never put pressure directly down onto the spine. Watch for twitching, head throwing, back dropping and tail swishing. Be sensitive, and be careful. Even the most reliable horse can kick out if you hit something painful. If there is a lot of resistance, just keep your hands still. Holding is a good way to desensitize the area. Wait until you get the O.K. to continue. This may be a sigh, a slouch, a yawn or a neck drop. Again---watching body language is key.

Start your rhythm going again. Use your fingers to stretch his muscle gently away from the spine. Start lightly: stretching with one hand following the other in deliberate, rhythmic patterns. Follow the pattern of hair growth around the horse's barrel and under the stomach. Many horses are sensitive around this area, so holding may be in order. Move to his opposite side and repeat. When you're ready to do the hindquarters, fold the cooler up from the rear. Be very cautious while doing this. If your horse has a lot of soreness he may be resentful. Keeping one fist with a straight arm on the stifle, you should be able to redirect any quick flying feet. With your other hand work the visible muscles of the hindquarters. Many will rest a foot and let you go a bit deeper. Follow all the way down the hind leg and repeat on the other side.

Don't forget the tail. Many horses carry a lot of tension in the tail, and it should not be neglected. If trustworthy, stand directly behind the horse and start at the top of the tail. It should feel like a series of loose hinges. Hold the tail in both hands and push in with your thumbs, then pull out with your fingers. In a rhythmic pattern, push in and pull out, bending the vertebrae backwards and forwards. If you get to a place that feels stuck, just hold it for a moment. When you get to the bottom of the tailbone, go back to the top and firmly but gently pull the tail straight out. The horse may enjoy this immensely, perhaps leaning away and pulling to stretch his tail out. Be very sure to release him very slowly and gently as not to jar his spine.

To finish up, ask for some stretching. Carefully take each leg. Stretch it first under the stomach, supporting the knee or hock. Next bring the leg out, stretching away from the body. Always wait until the horse releases his leg to you. When you get the O.K. gently bring the leg forward and upward as far as the horse will permit. Never demand more than you are given.

Finally, with the horse on a lead, you may ask the horse to stretch his neck. First put one hand on the poll and use the other to get his head down as far as it will go. Feel free to use bribery. Bringing his head back up, stand to the left side facing in the same direction as your horse. Take his head in your left hand and hold him steady with the right, trying to get him to rest his head firmly in your arms. Then ask for a stretch, bringing his head and neck around you and to the horse's left. Repeat this on the other side. Be sure your horse is relaxed when you stretch him. Forcing a horse will not only cause tension and possible damage; it can also ruin the trust you have just established.

Keep in mind that if your horse is very resistant or resentful, he may have some issues. If you see that the horse's vertebrae are protruding or if he has trouble turning his head, you may want to call a chiropractor. Another sign is obvious height differences between his two sides. Look at him from behind. Are his hips at the same level? How about when he's moving? Always check tendons and joints as you draw your hands down the legs. Check for heat, swelling and cuts. If your horse is uncomfortable, check his temperature. If you are concerned, certainly be sure to call your vet.

Overall, massage therapy can be used as a great way to start and finish your training sessions. Not only does a massage help to warm up both you and your horse's muscles, but also it gives you an opportunity for a special kind of bonding session before and after each ride. Keep a journal and study your horse's progress. You may be surprised at how well massage serves to enhance your relationship. With some practice, you'll soon have your own routine together. Be creative and patient. Have fun and enjoy your horse's contentment!

Sharon Dillon is a certified Equine Massage Therapist as well as a C.M.T. She holds a Riding Master IV degree from Meredith Manor Equestrian College. While there, she studied Classical Dressage under Bodo Hangen, apprentice to Willi Schultheis of the Spanish Riding School. Equitherapy is a technique developed by Sharon which incorporates Equine Massage Therapy with stretching under saddle, on the lunge and over cavalletti. Her farm is located in Bucks County, PA.

For information on training, boarding, lessons and Equitherapy, please call: 215-675-7406 or write: 301 Meetinghouse Road Horsham, PA 19044

e-mail: Indnspring@aol.com