William Micklem: Fit to Do the Job, Part 5 – Warm Up and Warm Down

If you haven’t been reading William Micklem’s series on fitness, you are seriously missing out! In case you missed it: Part 1 – So Much More Than Canter SetsPart 2 – Keeping You and Your Horse Safe and Part 3 – It’s All About Balance, Part 4 – Fit to Train and Fit to Compete. Many thanks to William for writing, and thanks for reading. Go Eventing.

“I do not think there are any shortcuts to fitness. Physical fitness takes a long time to develop, and it involves a great deal of effort. At the same time, if you make the effort, I promise you will never feel such a sense of pride and satisfaction as when your horse completes the cross country at your destination and pulls up obviously thinking, is that all you got?” – Jimmy Wofford | Photo by Samantha Clark

I have a specific performance philosophy that travels with me in my life. This philosophy is ‘under promise and over deliver’…in other words always give added value. So this article is the added value to my ten key points from the earlier articles, and in the sense of paying it forward it is my gift to you.

Are you serious?

In return the big question I have to ask all event riders, trainers and coaches is ‘are you serious about fitness?’ As well as fatigue killing a willing attitude it can also kill horses and riders. As JP King, one of our outstanding Irish Team vets says, “Fatigue in the galloping animal is a major risk factor for musculoskeletal injury to the horse and more pertinently, falling. The risk imposed to rider safety by a sub-optimally fit horse running cross-country should never be underestimated.” And as I said at the start of this series fitness is so much more than just about canter sets.

Even following Michael Jung’s or Philip Dutton’s canter programme exactly will not necessarily produce the right result, as the fitness recipe for each horse will be different, sometimes to a small degree and sometimes hugely.

This is because we have to take in to account so many variable factors, including the horse’s age, type and personality, their fitness history and their way of going. Not forgetting their aches and pains and past injuries, the facilities you can use and the ground conditions, and of course your competition program and your riding weight! Then having done all this and got a horse fit for a competition we need to know how to warm up in order to make best use of this fitness.

Warm Up

When at Galway Downs CCI in 2015 I was so impressed. Superb organisation, wonderful courses and good riding…but the one thing that did not impress was the cross-country warm up. I sat on the bank and watched most of the 1* and 2* competitors and I was surprised by what I saw, although obviously there were exceptions. In general horses were neither warmed up for long enough nor given the right type of work to make full use of their aerobic capacity on the track, and the jumping was often more like preparing for show jumping rather than cross country.

What we have to recognise is that the change from long format events to short format events has put so much more emphasis on the warm up for the cross country and it’s important to do it well, as an effective warm up has the dual benefits of enhancing performance and reducing the risk of injury.

The biggest weakness at Galway Downs was competitors not doing enough work to get the aerobic (with oxygen) system fully up and running before bounding out on the cross country at ¾ speed. As a result these horses must have been in a state of oxygen debt to some degree for approximately the first two minutes of the track.

Therefore the anaerobic system would have had to play a part in providing the energy requirement, and as a result the muscle clogging lactic acid produced would have hindered their performance to some extent over the rest of the track. This simply shouldn’t happen. So a better warm up programme is needed.

If you are going across country late in the day in a three-day-event, it is useful to take them out for a 30 to 45 minute ridden leg stretch in the morning. This works particularly well if you have an older horse that may be a little stiff, and all horses probably benefit mentally. Include 10 to 15 minutes of easy trotting and cantering with the aim of just loosening and suppling.

But whether or not you do this, as a rule of thumb you will still need to get up on your horse between 40 to 50 minutes before the cross country. (At a one day event I would reduce this by half to 20 to 25 minutes, because you will have usually done your dressage and show jumping shortly before the cross country.) In very cold weather you will need a few more minutes and in hot weather a few minutes less.

I divide the warm up into three periods: The first 15 to 20 minutes is just walk. Then the second 15 to 20 minutes is when you do individually tailored active flat and jumping work to prepare each horse for the track ahead. For example older horses may need very little jumping, while novice ones often need both a little more time and jumping. Excitable horses may also need more time but less jumping, and tense riders may need extra jumping to get their flow and calm focus going.

Good active flat work is required, with an emphasis on collecting and extending the canter, and then confidence building jumping to suit individual needs. The aim is to be ‘in gear’ jumping solid cross-country fences rather than show jumps. Get added value by jumping diagonally across fences, and at the sides of fences rather than the middle, and jump fences at different speeds, say 350m/m and 450m/m.

But the key requirement is to ensure the aerobic system is fully up and running at the end of this period. If your horse is laid back it is not sufficient to just slow canter to achieve this, instead the horse will need to work hard enough in order to take the heart rate up high enough to cause the spleen to contract and put an increased amount of red blood cells into the circulation. This increases the horse’s ability to carry oxygen to the muscles. However if the horse is excited this will happen automatically and the work done can be easier.

As JP King says, “The main purpose of both the pre-competition fitness work and the cross-country warm up should be more than just an exercise in getting the animal from the start box to the finish in the time allowed. Rather we should be capitalising on the enormous aerobic capability of the horse to ensure they are sufficiently fit to prolong the onset of fatique to complete the cross country safely.”

The third and final period is the 5 to 10 minutes before starting, when grease may be put on the front of the legs. This will leave 4 to 9 minutes of peace to walk around and focus on the course ahead, with less time for the laid back horse and more time for the excitable horse, before entering the start box confident that your horse has been well warmed up and is ready for the challenge.

Warm Down

After the cross country you should pull up slowly and ideally spend 5 minutes in trot, like a racehorse coming back to the paddock. Few do this but the research shows that active cooling is more beneficial than just standing still or walking because it allows a more gradual redistribution of blood flow. Suddenly stopping movement with a rapid decrease in heart rate may make your horse feel dizzy. In hot weather rapid applications and removals of cold water will be the most effective way of lowering temperature, followed by 15 minutes of walk.

During the first hour after cross country the legs can be iced in the traditional way for 15 to 20 minutes but after this is when the wonderful invention the Horseware Ice-Vibe Boots come into their own. At this time it is vital to maintain blood flow to the tendons.

As Ice-Vibe inventor Louisa Williams explains, At this time we need to shift our primary focus away from reducing inflammation and focus on healing and blood supply of our horse’s legs. We need to remember the fundamentals of recovery and that is allowing a good supply of blood flow and oxygen to assist recovery and repair of tendons. We need to understand that standing horses in ice for long periods at this stage can actually compromise healing and cause further damage.

“Although inflammation is problematic if it gets out of control it is an essential part of the healing process and a marker for the body to flag a problem. Therefore we need to keep in mind that whatever way we choose to look after our horse’s legs we must not inhibit blood flow and therefore compromise the body’s own ability to heal.

“When using the Ice-Vibe boots for recovery we recommend waiting until the horse is cooled off and then using the boots with cold packs with the vibration on setting two. This can then be repeated another two or three times with an hour’s gap in between each use. Combining cold and massage prevents making the legs too cold and causing further damage, whilst also allowing blood flow to help tired tendons recover, and prevent congestion and puffiness in the legs by stimulating the lymph system via massage.”

The final stage of leg care is then compression using bandages and leg wraps but being very careful that there are no uneven areas to cause pressure points and no risk of slipping and tightening.

Are we serious about fitness?

As children in Cornwall, in the West of England, it was not unusual when going hunting for us to hack an hour or two to the meet at 11am, then hunt all day and hack home arriving at approximately 6pm. I now marvel at how fit our ponies were and how much work they were capable of. But if we are going to be serious about fitness we should change our perceptions about what is possible and give a higher priority to fitness.

NEXT TIME – Part 6 – Feeding for fitness