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. Doing 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!
I 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.
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
Finally, 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