Use Your Head to Warm Up

Posted by in Blog, canter, nervous rider, trot, walk, warming up your horse, young horse on Dec 17, 2011

Most horses vary a little from one session to the next but some are worse than others. Is your horse different every time you get on? Ever thought it might be you?

You may think your warm up is a means to an end – the boring but necessary bit at the start of a session – but there’s more to it than that. The way you start every session sets the standard for your horse. It tells him how you’re feeling and what you’re going to accept. If you change your mind each time you ride how can he behave in exactly the same way?

It’s important to get warmed up properly especially at this time of year. Not only do you want to get your horse’s muscles stretched and loosened up you really do need to warm him up. A cold horse (or rider) can’t possibly concentrate or work correctly.

There’s a great warm up routine here – 

It gives you a set plan you can use every time you ride in the school. A nervous horse will settle quicker if you use the same routine. This means you won’t waste time trying to get him settled. Having a set pattern allows you to concentrate on what really matters– riding your horse forward into a steady hand.

Do you usually allow your horse time to trot round on a long or a loose rein? Why? The warm up is a time to generate energy. You want to get his hocks underneath him so he can drive himself forward. If there’s no contact the energy has nowhere to go – his strides will be flat and he’ll fall onto his shoulders.

Ideally you want to use all three paces. No one pace is more important than the next. Trot is the pace most riders spend hours in but don’t! Horses find it easier to set themselves in trot. It’sthe only pace in which they keep their head and neck still.

Canter uses muscles forward and over your horse’s back. The head nod makes it harder for him to set himself which explains why most horses feel better after a canter. Older, stiffer horses respond well to a period of canter at the start of a session.

However – sometimes canter is the last thing you want to do. Does it worry you? If it does it can spoil the whole session. Your horse will feel your tension and that won’t make it any easier.If canter worries you don’t do it. Replace the canter section in the warm up with walk. A good, active walk will get his muscles moving and it will do wonders for your confidence. It’s your hobby – make sure you enjoy it!

Tempting as it can be to get the canter out of the way with a young horse be patient. Give him a chance to relax and find his balance. The most important part of the warm up is getting his attention. Replace the canter section with transitions between walk and trot.Ride a set number of strides in each pace. Start with 20 and whittle it down to five. It’s enough to make him concentrate but not too difficult to upset him.

At a show everything changes. Warming up can often be more stressful than the actual class. Often you’re inside in a standard arena. Don’t be put off by other people. There are always going to be better riders than you– maybe your local professional. Don’t worry. They’ll be far too busy remembering what test they’re doing on which horse to be worried about you!

You have every right to be in the warm up arena but stick to the rules. Do that and most people will forgive you the odd mistake. Remember to pass left to left and move to the inside if someone is on the same rein as you but in a faster pace.  Looking where you’re going is a must! Don’t get in someone’s way just because you’re looking at the floor. THAT you won’t be forgiven for.

If you move up a level you could share the warm up with riders doing lateral movements. It can be unsettling but don’t panic. Look up and watch what’s going on. If it’s obvious someone is coming straight up the track in travers do the gracious thing and circle away –don’t hang onto the track because the rules say pass left to left!

Don’t make the mistake of trying to practise your test at the show. You don’t need to.  Get your horse going forward from your leg,working into both reins and moving straight. Use transitions – they’re important.Have you ever counted how many you ride in a test? A lot more than the serpentines or circles you have to do. They’ll get your horse on his hocks and that can only improve your score.

If you’re nervous about cantering amongst so many horses wait until you’re riding around the arena waiting for the bell.It is allowed and it will be far better for your horse than a short flurry of tense strides in the warm up.

Whether you’re at a show or at home your horse will benefit from consistency. Have a warm up plan and stick to it. Stay calm, avoid nervous situations and use your head. Keep things simple and the problems always take care of themselves.

Good luck and enjoy your schooling.

For help and useful tips on improving your dressage tests check out the Read to Succeed schooling guides in the shop!/shop/

No Comments


  1. Look Out! | School Your Horse - [...] the warm up at a show how you look up can make a big difference. Be careful you don’t…

Leave a Reply