Is Simple Still Interesting Enough for Equestrians?

BY McKrell Baier

Here Are Some Steps for Warming Up to the Idea! 

When the question is posed, “why are our modern riders so lacking in the basics,” some will point to a lack of horsemanship, or grit and grind, or time spent in the stable rather than solely in the saddle. While all of the above are most likely true, it seems that there is something far simpler underlying the issue at hand.

Could it be that the root cause of a lack of grassroots riders is simply due to the the same force which drives every aspect of consumerism today? Every industry relies on fashion to keep selling, keep supporting, keep afloat its ravenous machine, and the fact of the matter is— we are all involved.

While we may not be able to put the brakes on buying more horses or more products to protect them, we can stop simply following in the footsteps of those currently seen to be “at the top,” of our sport without ever taking the time required to understand the simple structure behind what allows any horse human pair to perform harmoniously, over long periods of time. 

While every bit of welfare literature will remind us to put the horse first, we ride horses, we drive horses, we stable horses, for our benefit, not theirs. With this being said, it would seem to put even more of the onus on us, the humans driving this interaction, to be the most fair and most unobtrusive we can possibly be whenever we are in the horses’ company.

For any training session in any discipline to meet a standard of welfare, the warmup phase of the work is critical, and while it need not be so rigid as not to allow for individual idiosyncrasies, it should certainly check all the boxes for what every ridden horse does require: 

1. A forward thinking, regular rhythm in all three gaits (without the rider’s constant support to maintain it) 

2. A supple body, wiling and able to stretch forward and downward with the head and neck to engage the abdominal muscles (without the force of the rider’s rein or any ancillary device)

3. A relaxed mind (illustrated by an alert but calm facial expression and a swinging—not swishing— tail) 

4. The ability to go faster and slower without tension (achieved by the rider’s ability to follow the sage advice of masters— leg without hand, hand without leg) 

A warmup routine should be simple, as should the rider’s thought process be, because a horses’ reaction to what their riders ask will always be simple. If it feels complicated to understand how your horse is reacting to your riding, you will need to assess: 

1. Your position and balance on the horse’s back 

2. Your application of and ability to release your aids in a way which sends clear messages

3. Your horses’ comfort  

The world is awash with information about all these things, but the key to successfully implement any of them is to have a simple system that you work within. This system should be based in fact and time-tested, but it should also always remain open to adjustment based on new data which evolving methods of measure and study allow us to utilize.

Being blind to new information is just as ignorant as refusing to see the merit in information which has been available and successfully implemented for literally thousands of years. If you’re unsure how to create your own warmup routine which will allow you to fully prepare your horse for whatever training you intend, here’s one example you can try: 

1. Brisk hand walk for minimum of 10 minutes- this allows the horse to become attuned to the aids without the burden of the rider as well as the handler to develop awareness of the horses’ responses (note that the handler should stay between the horse’s shoulder and head for safety while leading, never dragging the horse behind them) 

2. In hand, halt and rein-back several times- this uses muscles not otherwise engaged in forward riding (never asking the horse for more steps in a row than they are comfortable to perform, this will increase over time) 

3. Mount gently- either from the ground without twisting the saddle across the horse’s spine, or otherwise mount safely, ensuring that you take both stirrups before lowering yourself softly into the saddle (never dropping into the saddle without taking your stirrups first) 

4. In walk, check that your horse responds to the forward driving aids (do not push with the seat as it creates a hollow horse due to discomfort) 

5. Go directly to canter in light seat- data now shows that canter is the gentlest gait for horses to warm up in, without the riders’ weight in the saddle  

6. Change direction in canter through a simple or flying change of lead (depending on your combined level of training) 

7. Transition to working trot rising (if possible, only by using your weight aids and straightening your position without touching your seat to the saddle) 

8. Stay on a 20m or larger circle in rising trot (maintaining a precise circle track is integral as it helps your horse maintain balance)  

9. On the circle, lightly flex your horse to the inside, releasing pressure when the horse responds and allow the neck to stretch (don’t restrict stretching by keeping the outside rein too tight, and never allow your hand to drop below the level of the horse’s mouth to avoid making pressure on the sensitive bars) 

10. When your horse is consistently stretching on the circle in trot, test the level of relaxation by tracking straight ahead- this requires more balance from the horse and if relaxation is lost, flex the horse lightly to the inside as you continue straight ahead and release as before on the circle (if relaxation cannot be achieved on the straight ahead track go back on the circle until it is regained and then try again straight ahead) 

11. Change direction across the diagonal and repeat in the opposite direction (depending on stamina you may need a walk break after you have concluded the suppling trot work in both directions) 

12. Repeat the suppling work in canter on the circle and check for relaxation straight ahead as in the trot 

13. Once your horse is relaxed straight ahead in canter, begin lengthening the strides and change to light seat at any point that the full seat position becomes uncomfortable for you or your horse (use light inside flexion to maintain the horse’s relaxation as you accelerate)

14. Come back on the circle staying in light seat and gradually shorten the horse’s stride in canter while staying out of the saddle (do this by straightening your upper body, like a wind sail opening up on a sail boat, you may also need to shorten your rein to maintain contact with the horse’s mouth as he raises his neck to help him balance in the shorter stride) 

15. Change direction across the diagonal (with a simple or flying change) and repeat in the other direction 

16. Finish the warmup by allowing your horse to transition to working trot rising and trot forward both directions in a long and deep frame before taking a final walk break prior to the work of your session.

This warmup may sound long in explanation, but once your thinking is simple, your horses are responsive to the aids, and both you and they are relaxed as you sit on their backs, this simple routine can be completed in as few as 15 minutes. If you stick with simple techniques your horses will reward you by trusting you and performing their best— a reward far more generous than any passing fashion trend could ever provide.