When we approach our work with our horses, it is important to have a period of good warm up in the beginning of the work and one of cooling down at the end. These periods in the course of a riding or in-hand session helps develop a horse’s relaxed way of going and focus. A lot of the discussion about dressage training is about maximizing the efforts of the working session and how to develop athleticism through the use of movements and exercises that progressively make the horse more supple, strong and compliant. Other discussions emphasize the relationship between the horse and rider and general ideas about how to direct the work.
These are areas of great importance, but what gets lost sometimes is the context in which we do the work with our horses. This context includes how we approach our horses and how we leave them. We want our sessions to be relaxed and constructive; focused and energetic. These principles need to be practiced during the whole time we are with our horses.
Grooming and tacking up need to be done in a relatively quiet place where the rider is attentive to the tasks at hand and the horse stands quietly. There are many ways to warm up, and we use longeing and ground work quite often but not always. What we always want to do is allow the horse to spend some time in the free walk. We want to start the working session with our horses by setting a precedent for the rest of the session. Our horses should be able to walk around the arena or elsewhere on a long rein and maintain a relaxed good quality walk on their own without either too much driving forward or restriction on our part. If this is difficult for the horse, then taking the time to address it will pay off with dividends in the future.
The importance of this time in the free walk should not be overlooked, and we should also be able to come back to a free walk during the course of our work. If the free walk is rushed or hurried, then it often indicates there was some extra tension with our horses during the course of the work. If the free walk is too slow and not swinging, then it often means the horse has some stiffness or lack of motivation while he is working. Either of these expressions of the free walk need to be thoroughly and patiently addressed.
At the end of a working session it is equally important to spend some time allowing the horse to walk on a long rein until they are cooled down enough to return to their stall or pasture. If you are able to take a hack outside of the arena, then that can be refreshing and expansive for both horse and rider. This has the added benefit of exposing the horse to his surrounding environment and expands his context of the work that he does with us.
The physical and mental benefits of taking the time to have a good warm up and cool down period should not be glossed over as trivial but instead should be included in the greater context of all of the interactions we have with our horses.