Warming Up Your Horse
By Jeff Spencer
One problem we are constantly confronted with at Spencer Training is riders who mount their horses without considering if their horse
is mentally or physically ready to go to work. Results vary from a long head-butting session with the horse or injury to horse, rider, or
both. The following is a detailed description of the warm-up program we use on every horse we ride, regardless of age, ability or
experience. Within this program you will find many of the foundation exercises necessary to perform most of the maneuvers you will
ask your horse later in your ride. It also ensures mental stability for the horse that may be fractious or high energy on a given day. If
you are riding with a long-shanked, advanced curb bit, or a mechanical hackamore, you will not be able to complete all of these
exercises, which should indicate to you that you have too much bit anyway. Snaffle bit or hackamore is recommended
A. Lateral Flexion Exercise
1.As soon as you are in the saddle, you naturally will have access to the left rein first. Hold that rein
in a predetermined, fixed position on your thigh or on the front of the saddle where it is comfortable as long as it doesn't make you hunch over. At this point, don't use any leg.
2.Let your horse do what he needs to do with the rein pulled back. If he wants to throw his head, back up, turn circles, etc.-- let him work it out until he has decided on his own to stand flat-footed
and give you his head so that the rein is loose. At that point, and only at that point, release the rein.
During this flexion exercise, the opposite rein plays no role. This is a multifaceted exercise.
We want the horse to frame up mentally and physically.
3.Once a horse is standing flat-footed giving his head using the left rein, obtain the same feel using
the right rein. If the horse is unusually fractious, you may want to do the same side several times in a
row before switching sides. It is absolutely imperative that you do nothing to propel the horse
forward, sideways or backwards. All you do is hold the rein. If the horse moves in any direction he needs to research the effects of
that on his own. "Where you release is what you teach." " The point in time that you release the rein is the point in time that you tell
the horse that everything he is doing is correct". Again, if you release when the horse is moving his feet, that is what you teach. Since
you did not ask for the feet to move, that is not what you want to teach. By the same token, don't try to block the horse's movement
if he feels he needs to move. Simply hold and wait. The feet must be quiet and head soft, then release.
4.Only after you've achieved a redundancy in lateral flexion should you begin vertical flexion.
B. Vertical Flexion
5.Hold both reins in the same fixed manner as you held one rein. Wait for the horse to stop moving his feet and is giving his head in
the exact manner you would like to have him tuck his head for later maneuvers. (Remember, "Where you release is what you teach".)
Whatever frame you release in, your horse will try to re-enact when you complete this warm-up program and move on. Once the
horse has stopped moving his feet, tucked his head and given himself a loose rein, release. It is important that we start with lateral
flexion first, and then go to vertical flexion because if he is frisky or excited, it allows him to circle himself, in effect, punishing him for
disrespect. You are not asking for foot movement, simply asking for flexion of the head and neck. Once vertical flexion has become
redundant, create a combination of lateral and vertical. Ask the horse to give his head to one side as you achieve lateral flexion, hold a
little longer and pick up the opposite rein asking for the combination. The horse should be nicely tucked laterally and vertically at the
same time. Ask in a manner that is all the way to both sides and all positions in between. This will open up a great line of
communication for later maneuvers with impulsion. This is a pivot point. Some horses' at this point in time will decide to be submissive
. You may now wish to continue on with your training program.
C. Breaking down the corners (Lateral flexion with impulsion)
6.Now it is time for flexion with impulsion. Ask for lateral flexion left. As soon as the horse gives his head softly and submissively,
apply your left leg, moving the horse in a circle to the left, bending the horse around your leg. It is important to keep moving forward
with the horse bending around your leg, keeping the head bent slightly back to you, on the left, in the same manner as lateral flexion
when you were standing still. You will feel a tension on the reins since the horse is moving. As soon as you feel the horse make a
move to find relief, by bending a little more and giving his head a little more, release both hand and leg. If the horse has become
exceptionally submissive, you may want to release the rein and leg and walk half a dozen steps before asking again. If the horse is still
fractious and excited, only release enough to afford a release, maybe one or two steps, then ask again. It is important that this
exercise be done on the same side several times in a row before changing sides. If during the exercise the horse starts to act up or
spook, simply move your leg back into a slight turn on the forehand while maintaining slight forward movement. This disengages the
hindquarters, in effect, the horse's engine. Never, never, never release the rein at a moment of fractiousness or spooking. Remember,
"Where you release is what you teach". You can actually teach a horse to be afraid or nervous simply by releasing the rein at an
inappropriate time. The more the horse acts up, the more you may want to issue the leg still only releasing the face at the ultimate
softness. There is no time limit on this program, as it is based on the horse's mental state and former training. However, once used a
few times in a row, it only takes a few minutes to complete the program from beginning to end. At any time you may want to drop
back and redo any or part of it as the need arises.
D. Vertical flexion with impulsion
7.Now your horse is ready to walk in a straight line around the arena. Try as much as possible to walk on a loose rein. Next, pick up
both reins, ask for his head vertically, driving him forward with your legs. One or two steps only after he flexes. Then big release. As
with the former exercise with impulsion, the number of steps you allow the horse to take while on a loose rein will depend on the
horse's state of mind. The number of steps during flexion does not change depending on the horse's state of mind. Once you have
achieved extreme softness with one or two steps, increase the length of time of flexion with impulsion to more steps in a row before
releasing. Each time releasing until you are asking 10 or 15 steps in a row between releases. Most horses by this time are ready for
almost anything. At any time that the horse becomes dangerous or loses his concentration, ask for some type of flexion maneuver. If
the horse is scaring you or extremely dangerous, use one rein, an inside leg, disengaging the horse's hind quarters, until you feel him
calm a little and then push him right back out into what you were doing before.
8. It is impossible to work this program and ride defensively. "In the absence of clearly defined goals from the rider, the horse by nature feels compelled to choose his own."
Two of the problems I see the most, are:
1) horses that are ridden without goals and in a non-descript way,
2) horses that are pushed into a frame too quickly. "Don't be goal oriented to the end result, be goal oriented to the process."
Develop several intermediate goals and work them to the end result instead of starting close to the end result to begin with. In our
barn, we call moving too quickly into a given program, "eating the elephant all at once". The result is always indigestion.