Friday, 28 November 2014

c• Dr. Cook: Warming Up • © HORSES For LIFE™ Magazine

An open letter to the FEI about the role of the dressage steward

Robert Cook FRCVS, PhD

25 February 2010


Overbending, by whatever name, is inhumane. Whether it is produced by force or - as some would claim - without force, it frightens and hurts a horse, unbalances him, limits his vision, partially suffocates, prematurely tires and makes it painful for him to move. Overbending, defined as any position of the head behind the vertical, if practiced at any stage in a horse’s lifetime, transgresses the FEI Code of Conduct and Dressage Rules. Overbending is a welfare scandal, a disgrace to dressage, and - for as long as its rules are not enforced - a blot on the escutcheon of the FEI.


The purpose of a warm-up for an athlete, whether human or horse, is to prepare him for the performance, both physically and mentally. The preparation should be peaceful, gradually progressive and painless. The athlete (two athletes in the case of dressage) should be happy and it should be fun ... after all, this is a sport. A suitable motto might be train without pain; ‘dress’ without distress.

The physical and mental preparations proceed in unison. Physiologically, the warm-up transitions a horse from a standing (stalled) metabolism to a flight metabolism. It shifts a horse from a status in which eating-and-resting are dominant (parasympathetic nervous system) to a status in which alertness-and-action are dominant (sympathetic nervous system). Hormonally, it is a shift towards adrenaline. Shakespeare’s Henry V gives good warm-up advice to a standing army:

• Imitate the action of a tiger,

• set the teeth and stretch the nostril wide

• stiffen the sinews

• summon up the blood

Shakespeare invokes all the major bodily systems required for action: nervous, respiratory, musculoskeletal and cardiovascular.

It is especially appropriate that an exercising horse should ‘summon up the blood.’ A horse has a large spleen that acts as

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