Western Dressage Exercise – Controlled Wandering

Riders and trainers alike sometimes blur together the loosening up and warming up phases of their sessions. Except for horses that live only in pasture, these two phases of a workout must exist distinctly. Even horses that live in small paddocks or daytime turnout spent most of their days at rest. Physiologically, a horse at rest cannot perform well without first increasing muscle temperature and circulation.

Studies show that at rest only 15 percent of horse’s blood flows to his skeletal muscles, the ones responsible for moving his limbs and creating movement. During exercise, that percentage shifts to roughly 85 percent as blood moves from organs and metabolic functions and postural muscles out to these larger muscles. This is what nourishes and powers them, but it takes several minutes of warming the body for this shift in circulation to occur. Hopefully with this information you can see why you should not jump into immediate activity with a horse that has been mostly idle for the last 24 hours.

He needs to first loosen up, a phase during which the emphasis on slow and gentle movements increases circulation of blood, water, joint fluids. Then he needs to warm up, a phase of active and sustained exercise aimed at raising body temperature and creating pliability. Note that these two phases are separate. Your warm up can and should be plenty active—brisk jogging, lope transitions, circling, transitions. But it should be preceded by five to eight minutes of loosening up, which consists primarily in slow and easy walking and calisthenics (backing up, carrot stretches, stepping  over ground poles). This is outlined below by a phase of what I call Controlled Wandering.

Your horse’s body will remain far more pliable, comfortable, and injury free if you follow this system for loosening up first and then follow it up with active warming up. It also benefits your horse psychologically because it gives him a period of being at ease without jumping immediately in to training or active movement. This will allows his neurosensory system to remain relaxed, rather than tense and reactive. This translates to his mind being in a happier state, which in turn leads to a body that is less tense and rigid.

Controlled Wandering

  1. Mount up and give your horse a loose rein. Ride “on the buckle” as you walk around the arena.
  2.  Now wander around the arena in creative loops and turns. Stretch your imagination to ride figures and patterns that you do not ordinarily ride in your schooling. For instance, I wander back and forth in the middle of the arena, from side rail to side rail because this is not a figure I ride in regular schooling.
  3. Use only your seat and legs to guide your horse. Use as little guidance from reins as possible.
  4. Don’t worry how the horse carries himself or whether he is “on the bit.” Just let him saunter.
  5. Give him as few cues as possible walking from point to point. Sit relaxed and deep in the saddle.
  6. Set the clock for seven minutes. Go.

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