My Most Used Warm Up Routine

I am often asked the best way to warm up your horse for the training session ahead and this is something that I used to struggle with myself.  Exactly what is it I am trying to achieve, and how?

I have a number of routines that I use depending on the horse and what sort of work is planned but nine times out of ten I follow the same path, which not only helps me ensure that I am warming up my horse correctly but also helps to settle my horse if she is in a different environment.  Vertical 2Doing the same old warm up routine she does every session at home is familiar and well within her comfort zone (and mine!)

The other benefit is that when you are used to a specific routine you can become very proficient at it and can make adjustments to get you back on track if and when required in a strange environment, like at a competition.

The routine I use the most has a two pronged approach, firstly I am assessing how my horse feels physically and secondly I am assessing her psychological state.   AK is a very forward thinking horse these days so I don’t have to worry about ‘geeing her up’.  Was a time I would get up in half seat and have a canter but now more often than not, it’s about keeping her focus on me and my questions, so that she doesn’t get spooky.

Pre Warm Up!

Warm UpI have got into the habit of walking my horse around my arena for one lap, in hand.  Her stable is virtually next door to the arena so this allows me to see if she has come out of the box sound but more importantly it allows me to assess her attitude.  If she gives me grief during the walk around, perhaps gets a little ‘jig joggy’; spooks at the woodland she sees every day or nudges me, I know the sort of ride I am in for!

After checking the girth, I will mount and spend half a lap adjusting my breeches, stretching my legs, getting my position, by which time we have arrived at the mirrors where AK likes to stand for a minute or two admiring herself.  By this time I will know for sure whether I have worn my sports underwear!

The Walk Phase

Then we are onto the warm up ‘proper’ and getting AK’s circulation going with a good 7-10 minute walk on a long rein in a long and low outline.  Most of the time in this walk I will ride in a shoulder-fore position, often riding a 10m circle at A,E,C and B as I go large around the arena.  This way I can see if there is any resistance or stiffness when I ask for the bends.

I am thinking about the rhythm of the walk, particularly when I ask her to move off the track onto the circle or to go straight from the shoulder-fore position.  The goal is not to lose the rhythm of the walk and for the walk to have real purpose.  Occasionally I will give her a nudge and she will go into a half trot, this is needed to get some energy into the walk.

The second goal of the walk work is relaxation.  So my walk phase is about rhythm and relaxation, establishing the aids for bending and moving AK easily around the arena in a flowing motion.

I drop the reins and allow her to put herself wherever she wants to be.  Normally she will just drop her head lower but again, when I drop the rein I try to kee
p her with me with my seat so that the rhythm is not lost.  I also don’t really like her to look to the outside unless I’m asking for a counter flexion.

If you feel safe, you could slip your feet out of the stirrups whilst doing the walk work and really try to feel your seat-bones whilst you’re working.  I find this helps me to sit deeper and really feel what is going on underneath me.

Getting Warmer

To increase your horse’s circulation you need to increase his pulse and respiratory rate, so let’s pick up the trot.  Staying in a long and low frame, my first trot transitions are usually a quick, tap up into trot, checking that the move up came from behind, immediately back to walk and up into trot for a stride for two and back to walk.  I do this for a lap of the arena concentrating on getting the transitions in and out of trot/walk correct and immediate.

In the trot I will flex AK to the outside on a 20m circle, or ride a 20m figure of eight without changing bend so that the flex to the outside becomes easier on half of the figure of eight.  This flexing helps the muscles on either side of the spine and poll to flex, strengthen and stretch.

On the next log side I will ask for canter for about 5 strides and back to trot.  Trot the short side and ask for canter the next long side, concentrating heavily on the quality of the transitions.  Canter allows far more movement in your horse’s back muscles and abdominals than the trot so I try to canter a few large 20m circles on both reins.  This will help to elongate and strengthen the top-line muscles and get her prepared for when I pick up the contact later in the session.

Time to drop the reins again and allow her to adjust her body and stretch her neck further.  She can have a breather and I can think about how she is responding to me; how laterally supple (or not) she feels which leads me nicely into the lateral work.  Shoulder-in and Travers.

Clearly there is a greater range of joint movement required by your horse for these movements so I usually begin in walk, begin shoulder-in on one long side, into a 10m circle and travers out of the circle continuing down the long side.  Same on the other rein.  Drop the rein and allow a stretch.  This is important after the lateral work.

In the trot I will do a full long side of shoulder-in and travers and in canter it is just a shoulder-fore and travers.

  • A good way to keep you focussed and enable you to remember what to do is to work in 3 minute intervals.
  • It is important to return to a forward and down neck outline to give your horse a break.
  • Drop the rein periodically as and when needed.

All Warmed Up

FWarm upinally, now AK’s muscles and joints are warmed up, it’s time think about positioning her frame for the work.   By now she will be switched on, in front of my aids, with plenty of activity and ready to work.  This is when I begin to think a little more about my position, my heel/hip/shoulder/ear alignment.  I may stand up straight in the stirrups to check my lower leg position is correct and as I begin to take up the contact I think “tall, taller, tallest”, stretching my frame as I do.  This is a 3 phase way of me saying to myself, “ok, my frame is upright but it could be better, even better and best”.  I feel AK respond to this with a drop of the head and a lightening of the back as she stretches it up to meet my seat as it lightens.

Don’t skimp on your warm-up, it is a crucial part of your work and has multiple benefits for both you and your horse.  The walk should be 7-10 mins then a further 9-12 mins trot/canter/laterals and you should be good and ready for your workout, which might be 15-20 mins and a further 5 mins for your warm down.

Do you do anything that might help your fellow dressage enthusiasts in your warm up? Share in the comments.

Best wishes as ever,

Patricia – The Dressage Tipster

12 Responses

  1. My typical warm up is constantly adapting to how Scottie feels and how busy the yard/show is.

    He has been known to be cold backed. So I spend time at the mounting block pushing weight into the saddle, testing his reactions before getting on. Once on I sit quietly for a moment, again judging how his back feels before asking him to walk forwards. If we get 3 strides without a reaction we are good to go. If I feel his bum coming up I sit back, hold tight and hope for the best! (although to give him credit he has only bucked twice and thought about bucking maybe 5 times in 2 and half years!)

    Once walking we have a walk on a long rein with virtually no contact, just letting him stretch and warm up. If he has been out in the field all day or if he is being particularly spooky/forward I will probably only do 3 or 4 laps, if he has been in all day I like to do at least 4-5 mins just walking on a long rein.

    I then ask him to trot on, again with very little contact. Just encouraging him to relax and warm his muscles up. normally do about 4-5 laps of trot on each rein including some 20m and/or figures of eight.

    Depending on how easy he is being, I will choose to carry on it trot or go back to walk to start asking more of him. I pick up a contact and start to ask him to carry himself better and ask for bend and transitions.

    Because canter has been our issue for a long time and Scottie still worries about it occasionally, we do a lot of trot work before asking for canter. This is so that he hopefully relaxes and focuses before he has to do it. And also so that if it does become particularly dramatic, once we get the right leg, or a nice transition, or a nice canter (whatever it is we are struggling with) he can just cool off and finish without ‘having achieved anything’.

    If the canter isn’t a drama, I try to do a little bit more on it each ride. We are currently working on getting a better contact and outline in the canter. Despite having a nice steady canter, we still have our head and neck set to racehorse! Although he is starting to drop his nose for a stride or two at a time, so we are getting there!

    After canter work we tend to have a good walk on a long rein as a reward before picking up the trot again and work on our transitions or lateral work for 5-10 mins before a good walk off.

      1. No he hasn’t. I have considered having research done into kissing spines, purely because he raced and we really struggled with canter leads and bend. But actually he’s muscled up and these problems have all gone away.

        But he has regular physio, chiro and visits from equine body workers and none of them think there is an underlying issue since they don’t really pick up any pain spots while looking at his back and it’s so rare we have an uncomfortable moment. (Maybe once every 30+ rides!)

        1. I’m sure with such attentive care you’ve also scrutinized saddle fit. I will add that recently ourvtwice a year fitter added flocking to the middle of our saddle and the change for us both was so much more lovely contact! I could feel him under my seat and now have full contact. Even my trainer commented on the change he felt and saw. He also added that he’d never given a saddle any flock attention but saw how logical it is. Good your horse has you!

  2. Excellent protocol I’ll enjoy trying. I recently resumed ground work to begin, and will add this between handwalk and saddle. It’s how I check him out physically and mentally before getting in the saddle where I’m less comfortable finding out what is greater disconnect than I want to manage from his back. My Taye is a very willing worker. But recently when released from a period of stall life (with daily turnout) instead of his usual pasture, I was glad for this ritual. He actual crow hopped with joy on the longe line:) I then let him run free in a large arena for much exuberance before asking him to focus on work. It was much more fair to him and safer for us both as well.

  3. Hello

    Could someone give me a lesson plan or something as im struggling to fill the hour i ride 3 times a week. Im on an ex polo horse who is very obiedient and does everything. I would like to improve his flexibility as he is quite stiff and also getting him on the right canter lead. I usually warm up in walk and trot and them canter circles but this is getting a bit dull. Are there any cool exercises i could try and in what order etc ?



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