How To Rider a Winning Warm Up

By Debby Lush - Written by List 1 Judge and renowned trainer

Do you wander around the warm up arena, not sure what to do with the time? Do you trot and canter around rather aimlessly, assuming that ‘warming up’ is just about getting warm? Or do you have a plan?
Getting your warm up spot on is the key to producing the best performance you and your horse are capable of at that time. Obviously, performance (and winning) are dependent on lots of factors, such as how established your training is at the level you are competing at, how confident you both feel on the day, and the quality of the other competitors. The most important thing, as any sports psychologist will tell you, is to manage those aspects you can influence (like how focussed you and your horse are on each other), and ignore those you can’t (like the opposition, or the judge).

Factors you can influence:
•    How well prepared you are
•    Planning your timings, including keeping tabs on how the class is running
•    Riding your horse the same as you do at home, with the same level of attention between you both
•    React to how your horse feels on the day, so you gain and hold his attention
Factors you can’t influence:
•    Your surroundings, in both the warm up and competition arenas – flowers, banners etc.
•    The other competitors
•    How the class runs to time
•    The judge
•    Spectators
Goals of the warm up
1.    To have everything prepared so you can achieve your best possible performance
2.    To have your horse and yourself physically and mentally prepared to perform, and to handle any misadventures that might occur
3.    To bring your horse’s muscles and joints up to working temperature, so they are at peak performance, and least prone to injury
4.    To achieve focus, both yours and your horse’s
5.    To hone your horse’s reactions
6.    To prepare the movements of the individual test

Prior to your warm up

Before you actually go to the warm up arena, there are things you should have in place, so you can settle down and not have anything preying on your mind while you do your warm up. These things include:
•    Knowing the layout of the venue – how long will it take to get from the warm up to the competition arena? Are there any obstacles en route that you might need help to get past?
•    Allow enough time to get dressed and tack up – tacking up is a prime time for creating tension in your horse if you hurry it, so don’t.
•    Making sure you have all your equipment organised before you mount up – jacket, gloves, spurs, whip, numbers. If you have help, then possibly also things like a water bottle, fly spray, polos etc.
•    KNOW YOUR TEST. Even if you are having your test read, you should always know where you are going – you can’t control things like external noise that might make it difficult to hear a reader, and, if your reader lags behind even a bit, you will lose the time needed to prepare movements properly.
•    Do you need to warm up before mounting? You might need to do some stretching exercises before riding.
Anatomy of an ideal warm up

Horses are individuals, and they have characters. Not all horses need the same warm up routine, but here is an outline that can be adapted to your own situation, if not stuck to rigidly.

The ideal warm up is divided into 3 sections:
1.    Loosening up and bringing muscles and joints up to an ideal working temperature, where they are most efficient and least prone to injury
2.    Putting together, also known as ‘putting on the aids’ or ‘connecting between hand and leg’
3.    Prepare specifics for the upcoming test
In an ideal world, a warm up takes between 30 and 40 minutes. Much more than that and you risk fatiguing your horse and losing performance.

So, splitting things up again:
1.    It takes (scientifically proven) 8 minutes walking for the horse’s muscles to reach ideal temperature. (Obviously this can be affected by ambient temperature – more on that later). You should then trot and canter in an easy (stretched but not floppy) outline, for roughly another 4 or 5 minutes – include large circles, lots of changes of direction, and possibly leg yields depending on the level of your horse. Take a short breather, check your girth.
2.    Take him back to either trot or canter, whichever works best for your individual, and start working patterns – smaller circles, lateral work, and transitions. Use some or all of these to bring your horse into a shorter outline by engaging his hindquarters and picking up the reins as he becomes shorter in the frame as a result of the exercises. Check his reactions, particularly in transitions, both between and within the paces. This phase might take around 8 - 10 minutes. Take another short breather, check girth again, have a drink if it’s hot.
3.    Pick him up again. In this last section, keep a close eye out for how the class is running – know which horse is going in ahead of you and notice when it begins its test. This is the time to run through any last-minute repeats of movements you think need tuning up – lateral steps, direct transitions (particularly halts), extensions etc., so your horse has them current in his mind and reactions when you go to the arena. Leave yourself enough time to get there without hurrying.  This phase is again about 10 minutes, possibly slightly less.
So that’s an outline to work from. If you work to a plan based around the above, you will have a fair chance of arriving at the arena ready to produce a good performance.
Adapting the warm up routine
Of course, things are never totally straightforward with horses. 
•    Some have a hotter temperament, and might need more time during the loosen up phase in trot and/or canter to calm them down a bit, and less in the connecting phase because they are already on the ball.
•    A lazy horse will need a shorter warm up to keep him fresher, with more focus on the reactions in phase no. 2
•    In hot weather, you can reduce the initial loosening up walk phase, as muscles will already be warmer when you start. You might need to take more frequent breaks for recovery and to drink water
•    In cold weather you might need to forego some of the walk at the beginning and start in slow trot, as you might both get even colder by walking around! Also, use a quarter sheet to help keep your horse’s muscles warmer until he is thoroughly warmed up.
•    There are also some variations on the warm up that work for individuals, such as the Iberian warm up, where you do all the initial work, including walk, in shoulder in, to engage one hind leg at a time. 

Other considerations would be: 
•    The age of the horse – younger horses will run out of steam much quicker, often needing a warm up of no more than 20 minutes in total. Older horses take longer to loosen up, but will probably need less time in the other phases due to greater experience
•    Whether he is stabled or field kept. From the field you may not need to do the same amount of loosening up
•    The length of the journey to the show – how long he has stood still
•    Conformation – a heavier muscled horse will warm up more slowly than a lightweight horse like a Thoroughbred
The important things are that you:
•    Are prepared
•    Know your individual horse
•    Have a clear plan
•    Can be flexible enough to adapt it if necessary, such as when a class runs unexpectedly late.
With horses that become stressed or anxious, the use of permitted calmers is a sensible tactic.
•    You will need to experiment to discover which calmer works best for your individual – few are effective on all horses
•    Make sure you have the dosage correct
•    Don’t forget to figure in the time scale – all calmers need some time to get into the system effectively
•    Make sure what you are using is legal under dressage rules
•    If YOU get anxious/stressed/nervous, consider using something yourself, like Bach’s RESCUE REMEDY (which can also be used on horses) 
•    There are numerous psychological techniques you can use to enhance your own relaxation and focus – if in doubt, a visit to a sports psychologist is a good idea.

Before the bell
Your warm up is not really complete until you enter the arena at A - it will also include what you do while waiting for the judge to ring the bell. Don’t just trot around aimlessly, these are the final moments of your tune up.
What you do, will depend on your individual horse. Many become anxious (horse and/or rider!) with the change of environment, and there are a variety of possible tactics to help overcome this, including:
•     Walking quietly around the arena, allowing your horse to relax
•    Trotting briskly around to keep him in front of your leg
•    Doing many transitions as you go around, to gain and hold his attention
•    Putting him in shoulder in as you go around, to turn his head away from things he feels anxious about yet still keep him going
•    Flexing his neck from side to side to break down the stiffness created by tension and regain movement in his whole body
•    Cantering is more effective with some horses, even if you will be entering in trot
•    Riding halts, (if that is the first movement of your test), to keep him focussed and obedient

You may have to experiment to discover which is the best approach for your individual horse, but whatever you do, don’t do nothing! Riding a winning warm up is not a matter of random luck, it comes out of understanding the process and using it to bring your horse to peak performance at exactly the right time. If you take this outline as your basis, you should be able to adapt it and come up with a final plan that works successfully for you.