The best way to have a wreck with a horse is to saddle up, get on and go without getting warmed up.
“No matter if just going for a ride or getting ready to show, warm-up exercises are essential to get your horse soft and supple,” according to professional trainer Traci Johnting.
“When I ride a horse, I want him supple from his nose through his hips,” Johnting said. “I want to move my foot or my hand and have my horse move his hip, rib or shoulder.”
The counter-bend and turn on the forehand are warm-up exercises used by Johnting on every horse every day.
“They’re routine serving a lot of purposes,” Johnting said.
“These exercises help my horse become more supple, stretch his body and get him in a working mind-set,” she explained.
While Johnting uses the exercises as a speed warm-up, they help every horse get more supple. “The exercises improve the connection between horse and rider,” Johnting insisted.
“Before I begin the counter-bend, I make sure my own mind is in the right place to ride,” Johnting said. “I’m sitting in the center of my horse and am focused on him.”
Then, she starts the horse in a large circle at the walk. With two hands, she slowly bends his rib cage into an arc with her foot.
“In a circle to the left, my left foot is at the girth, supporting,” she explained. “My outside foot is slightly behind the girth to encourage forward motion and the bend. His nose and neck should be on the arc of the circle.”
When Johnting is sure her mount is following his nose, she’ll slowly ask his nose to bend the other direction.
“Start off walking your horse in a circle to the left, tipping his nose to the left,” Johnting explained. “From there, move your left leg away from your horse’s body and straighten your left arm.
“This will give your horse an open space to move through. While maintaining your horse’s suppleness keep his nose tipped right, and push his body to the left,” Johnting continued.
“When I come out of the counter-bend, I put my horse back onto the circle to the left,” she said. “I might ask him to continue forward into a pivot on the hindquarters.”
This exercise loosens up the shoulders, neck and face. “Start slowly and be patient with your horse as he learns how to do it,” Johnting said. “Remember that he might be stiff when you start and only able to do it for a couple of strides.”
As the horse gets more supple, the rider can ask for more strides and a smaller circle. “Be sure to do it in both directions,” Johnting reminded.
“I do this every day with my horses, and they know to expect it. They get better with it the more they do it. I start at the walk and progress to the trot,” Johnting said.
The exercise can be done before a show when everyone else is trotting around. “Just counter-bend the horse for a few steps and then let him relax and trot with the other horses,” Johnting said. “It doesn’t disrupt the flow of traffic, and it helps the horse stretch physically and get ready mentally.”
Horses are also warmed up by turning on their forehands in order to move their hips around.
Sometimes in barrel racing, horses will drop a hip behind a barrel, knocking it over as they’re leaving. “If I have practiced this exercise, I can just put my foot behind the girth and move the hip over,” Johnting said.
The exercise is started from a stop. “Using my hands to keep my horse steady in front, I move his hip around with my leg,” Johnting said. “He may be resistant at first, but we work on it a few steps at a time until it is easy. I do it every day both directions.
“I want my horse to move every part of his body where and how I want, whenever I need it,” Johnting said. “I find that a lot of horses are stiffer to one side than the other, so that’s the side I work the most.
“I like these exercises because you don’t need any special equipment. I trail ride a lot, and these exercises can actually be worked on in the woods,” Johnting said. “When I go back to the arena, my horses know what I want them to do. It comes easy to them, and we have fun at the same time.”