By Bethany Larsen
I start by talking sweetly as I amble up to her in the pasture. She pricks her ears forward in response to my voice and allows me to slip the halter up on her nose and over her ears. Once on the cross ties in the barn, I relieve her of her fly mask and scratch along the underside of her jaw to her chin. She responds by stretching her neck out and twitching her upper lip from side to side in satisfaction of finally having this unreachable spot itched. After a thorough curry (where more lip twitching occurs as I discover her itchy spots under her belly and between the legs), I flick her clean of dirt and loose hair with a long bristled brush. Using the wooden end of the brush, I run it back and forth along the underside of her belly with pressure causing her to lift her back and stretch her spine. She positively responds in her aforementioned way. After I clear her feet of debris, I drop the cross ties with a carrot in hand and step to one side of her. She begins to turn her head and neck toward me. I encourage her to take her time with the stretch. Slowly she reaches back toward her flank and is occasionally rewarded with the sound of stuck vertebrae loosening. I appreciate how she doesn’t rush this process, as those of you who stretch before exercise can attest: one cannot reach the full range of motion in the first attempt but goes partway, pauses, and as the muscles loosen can reach even farther. By doing this she is able to stretch not just her neck, but all the way along her back and into her hips. Once both sides are stretched and the carrot is exhausted, I saddle her.
As soon as I am donned to ride with boots on and helmet fastened, the final stage of our pre-mount routine is bridling. Dropping the cross ties once again I loop the reins over her neck and take off the halter. She takes advantage of this post-halter pre-bridle freedom and usually throws in a few yawns to stretch out her jaw before the inevitable bit-in-mouth and snug cavesson. Again, I give her all the time she needs. Once she is satisfied with herself she takes the bit and stands quietly for me to get all the buckles and straps to snuff. Once mounted, we take a hack around the farm and down the drive on a loose rein to slowly warm up her muscles. After a sufficient trot and canter warm-up consisting of long leg-yields, trot stretching, transitions, and sometimes cavaletti, I give her another free walk before the workout truly begins.
Peppering the ride with frequent yet business-like walks and numerous pats for good performance, we end our under-saddle portion with another hack around the farm. Back in the barn and free of tack, we repeat our carrot stretching routine- taking advantage of the gained warmth and looseness of her muscles to gain a deep stretch. After a thorough brushing or hosing as the case may be, I lead her back out to the pasture where she is left to her own devices- typically consisting of covering herself again in mud.
This is my daily routine every time I ride. Aforementioned was with my mare, Lola, who in 3 short years has gone from unbroken to schooling 4th level Dressage and feeling fabulous. This gets repeated with every other horse I ride. Now, I know the feeling of being crunched for time and wanting to just throw the tack on, hop up, ride, and be done with that task for the day. After a long day of work and too many things left on the to-do-list, it can be tempting to squeeze this sometimes inconvenient task of working a horse into the schedule. With a horse that is not stall bound it would be better to just skip the ride then to rush through and work a horse with cold, tight muscles. This would be doing more harm than good. Horses that live in stalls require a daily exhibition to stay as healthy as possible. If pressed for time, I would recommend not skimping on the pre or post-workout routine but shortening or even skipping the hard work portion of the ride, and rather leaving it with a long and low warm-up and free walk.
I stress this because riding is a relationship between the horse and rider. There are above stated physical benefits to proper stretching and warm-up routines, but you will notice a better emotional connection as well. Slowing down to take the time to develop this relationship with the horse will ultimately improve your riding and how well in-tune you are to the horse physically and otherwise. The horse will associate pleasantness with his rider and enjoy the time he spends with her as she scratches his itches, loosens his tightness, and increasingly makes him physically stronger and straighter.
Now, I know you all have family and friends. How much time do you devote to developing those friendships and relationships? Taking the time to make a phone call, pen a note, bake some cookies, meet for coffee, etc. can go a long way to deepening and acknowledging a friendship. As I write this I am sitting beside my friend in the hospital who just underwent surgery. Though she is currently sleeping and her stay has been for a few weeks, I have carved out time in my busy farm schedule to spend a few hours with her every day. She brightens as I walk in the room and just knowing that she has a visitor makes her feel much better. I will be the first to admit that I have struggled with taking initiative to keep relationships active. I secretly hope that the other person will reach out to me. This is not selfless love.
I am amazed at how much horses have taught me. Dwelling upon my routine and why I do what I do with them everyday has revealed to me the importance of doing this with everybody. Why do I do it with animals and yet fail to do it with humans? I have a friend in need…. the grass can wait.
Bethany Larsen is co-owner and head trainer at Topline Dressage in Powhatan, VA accepting horses for boarding and training and students for lessons. She is a USDF Bronze and Silver Medalist and holds national breed titles at varying levels in the sport.