Have you ever heard someone say that horses are good at training us? Well, every time you work with your horse, they learn something. Is your horse developing respect for your aids and a confidence for what you expect each time you head to the arena or is he learning that you eventually give up or won’t follow through with your requests?
The way that you warm your horse up really sets the boundaries for the rest of the ride. A good warm-up is not just physical, but it is a chance to awaken good mental responses that can greatly improve the remainder of your ride. How you warm your horse up is a very important element of the ride that is often overlooked. Every horse and rider combination are unique, but there are certain “non-negotiables” that we should all be working towards. Our horses should go forward from our leg aids, stop from our rein aids and should continue working until we ask otherwise. I am fairly positive that all riders would want their horses to do these things, but we can’t forget that there are a few things that we need to do as well. A horse will only be responsive to a rider that gives consistent aids and corrections. A horse can only work in a good rhythm under a rider that is well balanced. Your horses body can’t be supple if your body is stiff. There are many things that we need to do in order for our horses to work at their best. All of this starts during the warm-up and this week, we are going to focus on warming up with a purpose.
Intro/Training: Someone once asked me what they are supposed to warm-up, if all they are doing is a little bit of walking and trotting. It may sound silly, but I completely understand! When a horse and rider are just starting out in dressage, it can be very easy to get lost in all of the things that you can’t do yet, but there is so much that you can do!
One of the best habits you can start is making the most out of your warm-up every day. Go to the arena with a plan and use your warm-up to get you and your horse ready to accomplish that goal. If your goal is to work on your canter, focus on bringing energy and activity into your warm-up trot. If you are practicing for a Training Level test, focus on riding accurately around the arena during the warm-up portion of your ride (make your 20m circles round and fluid, use your corners, ride transitions at a specific letter every time…ect). If you make a habit of warming up with a purpose, this will help you get the most out of every ride all the way to Grand Prix.
For the horse: In the warm-up, you are explaining to your horse what your ride is going to be about. If you allow him/her to be crooked or unfocused during the warm-up, why would they do anything else during the rest of your ride? Remember that there is a difference between giving your horse time to warm-up their mind, body and reactions and letting your horse get away with sub par work. Think about allowing your horse to warm-up at 75% of their normal capacity, but only for the warm-up. The warm-up should be used to steadily bring their work quality up to 100%, so that you can stay there for the rest of your workout. Now it is important to be clear that I do not mean that your horse has to do his/her very best work every day. The 100% I am referring to is the feeling that your horse is fully warm-up and ready to get to work mentally and physically. You can still make improvements as the ride goes on, but being aware of just how warmed-up your horse is can be very important to the success of your rides. If you are not sure, use some of the exercises that we have done together to “read” your horse. Asking your horse to maintain connection with the bridle as you allow the reins to slide out and gather them back up is a great exercise to gauge where your horse is at in the warm-up process!
For the rider: During your warm-up, be sure to ride with clear aids and good focus. If you start your ride in a sloppy manner, you will most likely spend the rest of your ride trying to fix this issue. Of course, this IS the warm-up, but you are warming up little versions of what you are about to do in your ride. Focus on the basics: keeping even weight in your stirrups, aligning your ear-hip-ankle to keep yourself upright in the saddle, keeping your fingers closed on the reins to maintain your rein length, look where you want to go in the arena, give clear direction, correction and praise and, last but not least, breathe :)
First/Second: Horses working at First and Second Level are in sort of a transitional stage of training. Previously, everything was done on a straight line in one rhythm, but now that lateral work and transitions within gaits are required, your warm-up should become a little more complex. In addition to developing a solid rhythm and relaxation, your warm-up should address engagement in the hind leg and a steady connection in the bridle. Putting more emphasis on a proper warm-up will not only improve the work your horse is about to do, but will also prepare him/her for the introduction of more advanced exercises to come.
For the horse: Whether you are warming up for a competition or about to do a light schooling session, there are certain responses that your horse needs to develop as your warm-up progresses. Not many horses arrive at the arena ready to work and this is why we need to warm them up. There is no perfect warm-up recipe, but if there was, I am quite certain that this recipe would include lots of transitions! Upward transitions address your horses response to your forward aids and downward transitions address the degree of softness in the bridle. You can use these transitions to help find out where your horse is struggling and improve that area before progressing to more difficult movements. Well executed transitions between gaits will help develop good transitions within the gait (small trot to big trot, big canter to small canter…) and this leads to great lengthenings and mediums.
As your work with transitions help to develop a good response to your aids, start focusing on connecting the energy that is being created in your horses hind leg up into the bridle. Creating this connection will help improve your horses balance and will help to develop a steady topline. Play with this feel as your ride progresses. If you do not feel a solid connection, work towards it until you get it. Remember that there is a much better chance that the issue is behind you rather than in front of you! The better the activity in the hind leg, the more of a connection you can ask for. An active hind leg bringing energy up into the bridle is not only great feeling, but a great foundation for every movement to come.
For the rider: During these transitions, your balance and alignment is very important. It is quite common for the unbalance that a rider feels to be within themselves instead of with their horse. As you start asking your horse for bigger responses to your aids, you need to improve your own balance in order to remain aligned with the bigger response. Those uphill, engaged upward transitions we all want require a lot of balance from the rider. Each time your horse develops a better response, we need to develop an improved way of riding that response. Every time you warm your horse up, practice maintaining your own balance both side to side and back to front. Use your core to help steady yourself in the saddle and avoid holding tension in your neck and hips. Think about your body following your horses movement, instead of trying to stay steady on your own. I think we should all strive for steady hands, torsos, legs…. everything! But, steadiness through tension will only hinder your horses ability to relax, so focusing on following your horses movement in a balanced way is one of the best things to you can "warm-up" for you and your horse.
Third and Above: As a horse progresses up the levels, the movements require more balance, concentration and strength. These added requirements test a horse both mentally and physically and a proper warm-up can prevent injury and keep your horse happy during work. It is important to use the beginning of your warm-up to determine what type of day your horse is having… Does he/she feel stiff today? Are they starting off a little behind your leg? Is your horse feeling a little tense? The quicker you figure out what your horse is feeling like today, the quicker you can focus your warm-up on improving those aspects of your horses way of going. There is no perfect warm-up that will work for every horse every day, but there are certain goals that you should have for every warm-up.
For the horse: At this level, an honest response to your forward aids is a must, so begin each ride by warming up this response. Transitions, both in and out of gait and within the gait, are a a great way to check and improve your horses forward response. This is something that needs to be 100% before moving on and is always worth spending time on to achieve. If your horse is not honest to the aids and in front of your leg, everything else will suffer throughout your ride. Once you get a good feeling from your forward aids, begin checking the response to your lateral aids. This does not need to be done in a specific lateral movement, but can be done by spiralling circles and riding deep corners. It can be easy to forget just how useful a simple leg yield or shoulder-fore is in building proper response. Just because your horse may be capable of executing a four track shoulder-in or half-pass, does not mean that they should do so every day.
If you are happy with your horses response to your leg, check the suppleness in the jaw by varying the length and position of your horses frame. This is something that can be done every day, regardless of what you are planning to do with the rest of your ride. Don’t think of your only options as being your competition frame or a stretch… you can ride a high, medium and low competition frame, long stretch, low stretch… there any many options! Use them to develop and improve the flexion in your horses jaw. Once you have a good response to the leg and a supple jaw, you can take your ride wherever you want it to go.
For the rider: As your horse advances up the level, what, when and how you do things in the saddle become more and more important. It is a big responsibility, but with good repetition, these things can become second nature to you as a rider. During your warm-up, be aware of how warmed-up you are compared to your horse. For example, a rider that has one horse will most likely be warming up at the same rate as their horse, but a rider with several horses may be fully warmed-up as they start riding one of their horses. This is important, because you may feel ready to get right to work, but your horse may not be there yet. As you begin the warm-up process, focus on keeping good control of your aids. Only applying the leg when you want a response, maintaining your rein length with closed, steady hands and being consistent with both corrections and rewards are all elements that a great rider should strive for every day.