Thoroughbred Logic: The Warm Up Arena

“Everyone wants a good warmup. Everyone wants a cooperative horse. But sometimes you just have to accept what you have and ride the horse you have that day. Sometimes a 20-minute warmup gets you where you need to be, and sometimes it simply doesn’t. Pushing past their brain’s cut off and over-riding rarely helps.”

Welcome to the next installment of Thoroughbred Logic. In this weekly series, Anthropologist and trainer Aubrey Graham, of Kivu Sport Horses, offers insight and training experience when it comes to working with Thoroughbreds (although much will apply to all breeds). This week ride along as Aubrey discusses surviving the warm up pen — and what NOT to do.

It is nearly Halloween, so let’s go for something really scary here: the dreaded warm-up arena… I’ll set the scene:

Dressage warmup. It is windy (of course it is…). There are horses schooling for their third level tests (so bending confusingly away from the direction of travel) as well as the Amoeba eventing kids on their ponies (some of whom are riding like drunk monkeys –fast, slow, left right, you never really know where you’ll encounter them), someone is wandering across the arena on their phone, and then there are the green horses that enter the ring with their backs up and their riders ready for a sand-dancing rodeo. Sound familiar?

A much younger Rhodie (Western Ridge) managing his first dressage warmup back in 2021. Yeah, yeah, yeah, my eyes should be up. Photo by Alexa Wegner.

While I cannot turn the warmup arena into a space of joy and proper, easy-going, well-directed traffic, I can offer a few suggestions to help deal with the Thoroughbreds (or otherwise more “up” creatures) when one steps into that notoriously “spooky” space.

Last week’s Retired Racehorse Project’s 2023 Thoroughbred Makeover and Symposium, presented by Thoroughbred Charities of America, provided excellent examples of well-run warm-ups and also what to do with hot horses. First, a quick shout-out to the RRP staff and volunteers for being outrageously awesome and making this Makeover even better organized than the last (and that’s a high bar). This show remains the happiest horse show around and my favorite competition of the year.

Rikki (Tiz So Fine) and I having a blast hanging out with fellow trainer, Shelby Varnum in warmup. Photo by Lauren Schuster.

Even with the supportive tenor of the show, the warm up arenas are always a little bit chaotic. I mean, of course they are. Combine a bunch of Thoroughbreds of all sorts of preparation, different disciplines, sometimes jumping fences, in the atmosphere of the Kentucky Horse Park, and things can get a bit… hectic. Honestly, this year, I didn’t really see anything too memorably hairy, but it is still worth writing up the following tips and tricks for managing Thoroughbreds in such environments.

To start, it bears repeating the old supposedly “known-by-all” rules that yes, yes, left shoulder to left shoulder is a thing. If you’re walking on a loose rein, get on the rail; avoid riding in chatty pairs (especially at the walk randomly through the arena), give ample space when passing (like enough so your horse cannot spin and connect a kick). Don’t block the in-gate; and if someone looks like they are struggling and their horse is a lit fuse, give them way more space than you think you need. For the love of all things holy, do not go running up on or zooming by that horse. And you know, keep your eyes up and ride like your life depends on it.

Wolf (Louisiana Moon) is always a little bit (read: a lot bit) amped in warmup. A half-seat and a forward ride helps. Photo by Lauren Schuster.

Now that we got all of that out of the way… When on a slightly more amped horse — anywhere from “a little tight” to full blown “powder-keg” — there are a handful of things that help manage the chaos and your horse simultaneously (and these apply at home just as well as they do in show warmup).

We’ll start with my favorite: Go forward. 

Anytime I ride through an in-gate into the warmup, my horses are pretty good at letting me know just how comfortable they are at any given gait. I don’t ask for a walk until they are ready; rather, I’ll just let them ease into a trot on the quarter line. If the trot is tight and they’re still more geared up than I’d like, I let them canter. If the canter is still tight and their back is still up and ready to buck, I’ll hop into a half-seat (even in a dressage saddle) and let them move quietly forward. The caveat, of course, is that you’re not allowed to lose control or let it get dangerous.

Rikki came out pretty hot-to-trot for her first spin in the Show Jumping warmup at the Makeover this year. So she just got to trot for a bit until she began to really focus. Photo by Lauren Schuster.

While it is customary to walk, then trot, then canter, if your horse is going to become explosive and needs to move, there is literally zero reason not to just go forward and let them take a breath. Convention only works some of the time and the warm up arena is the Wild West. You have to ride smart, but if you can’t improvise and break your own rules as needed, it is probably going to be hell for you and your horse.

I might let them keep moving forward for a while if I don’t feel like they are ready to focus yet. So, I’ll set a few simple, repeatable movements out there — big 30-meter circles or riding the quarter lines and avoiding the other folks on their circles. This isn’t about trying to exhaust them or ride them down (stay tuned for an upcoming article on this topic). Nope, it is giving fast-footed horses a chance to process how they process best: while their feet are moving.

Stakes race winner, Zoe’s Delight getting time to process in warmup schooling at the Makeover this year. Photo by Lauren Schuster.

Once I have their brain — and a half-halt — I slow down to the next workable gait… and eventually walk. Sometimes, we don’t have a walk until I’m in the test or the jump arena. Sometimes we don’t have a walk at all. And that’s OK. There’s no faster way to turn your horse into an explosive 1200 lb projectile than to hold them in walk when their brains aren’t there yet.

All of my three VERY GREEN rides at the Makeover made for excellent examples of this trend. Zoe’s Delight came out for dressage and was so jazzed about the whole warm-up arena scenario that he had my team (groom-extraordinaire, Lauren Schuster and Zoe’s owner, Laura Newell) chanting “I am stressed; I am fancy” in rhythm with his high knees and tight, but hella fancy trot. Zoe did not have a walk that day. He also did not have a halt. I tried once or twice, and the lock-up and explode made it clear that I pushed too far and we would do a quiet drive-by halt and salute in his test. Fine by me. So we went forward, and as we did, that big winning stakes horse took a breath and became willing to perform (and got his best scores to date).

Zoe showing off his “I am stressed; I am fancy” trot in dressage warmup on the schooling day at the Makeover. Photo by Lauren Schuster.

To manage horses like Zoe and the others, here are a few more tips (in addition to “go forward”) to help keep the warmup arena from being a truly terrifying experience:

  • Ride the quarter lines. These “away from the rail” spaces not only set up a rider to have to earn straight, but they give a horse and rider room to maneuver. And that maneuver means dealing with oncoming traffic as well as any scoots, leaps, bucks, or popped shoulders that the hotter horse might throw.
  • Ride predictable patterns. While asking a horse to settle, consistency is important. This can be hard in a crowded dressage arena, but I like to aim for repeatable, simple patterns. Big 20-30m circles are easy to claim and stay on when they are settling, but if they are amped, my go to is a big 2-3 loop serpentine or 20m figure-eight. The changes of direction require a half halt, and riding them over and over and over for a few minutes gives your horse the comfort of the familiar and allows them to do better with turning down the anxiety and turning up the focus. Add to this that these predictable patterns are recognizable to other riders and help them avoid you and whatever hot-mess-express you might be wrangling.

Rikki got to go canter some nice easy 20-30-meter circles to settle her brain on the repeated pattern in show jump warmup. Photo by Lauren Schuster.

  • Radical acceptance is… radical. Accepting what you have that day is huge — and it is tough. Everyone wants a good warmup. Everyone wants a cooperative horse. But sometimes you just have to accept what you have and ride the horse you have that day. Sometimes a 20-minute warmup gets you where you need to be, and sometimes it simply doesn’t. Pushing past their brain’s cut off and over-riding rarely helps. What does help is making smart decisions and having a sense of humor and the humility to know that horses have agency. Sometimes, just laughing at what you have and their antics will help both of you survive the warmup and — at best — go compete, or — at worst — live to fight another day.

Rikki and I surviving warmup, gamely. Photo by Lauren Schuster.

  • Practice At Home. Just like riding in the rain, if you don’t have experience at home, riding in inclement weather at a show is twice as hard. So, when your horse is up or “having a day” at home, don’t toss in the towel, feed some cookies, and turn them back out. Rather, do what you do at a show. Do you usually lunge first at a competition? OK, do that until you have their attention and focus (again, there is no lunging down a Thoroughbred). Then get on. Do you usually just ride through the antics with no ground work? OK, then go hop on and get more comfortable riding through things on a less than ideal day. The more a rider is comfortable with their horse’s version of “up,” the easier that electric warmup arena is going to feel.

Zoe’s Delight is a big, powerful horse. Riding through his stress and stride at home helps manage any antics that come up in the warmup. Photo by Alanah Giltmier.

  • Don’t Over Do It: If they are settled and being good, don’t push it. Do the moves you need to do, get all the gaits and find the relaxation. If jumping, I focus on getting quality flat work and when I do, I generally pop my horses over 3-10 fences in warmup total — 10 only if we’re having errors. Then I go into my course. Often, if you have their brain you don’t need to over-do it. Sometimes warm up arenas are just examples of that annoying military acronym KISS (Keep It Simple Stupid).

Wolf getting his brain together in Eventing Stadium Warmup at the RRP Makeover this year. Photo by Lauren Schuster.

Wolf (Louisiana Moon) for instance, entered show jumping warm up on the first day of competition and was tight at the trot, so I hopped in a half-seat and let him quietly canter both directions for a couple of minutes. He settled right down, got to jumping and popped five fences. He was as warmed up as he needed to be and went to the competition arena and jumped the best course he has. He has a long long long way to go in his training, but the ability to harness his brain in warmup and then have him go and not blast through any of the fences was a huge success and just one of the early miles in what I hope is his long competitive second career.

Wolf being very cooperative during his first schooling in the Walnut Arena at the RRP TB Makeover this year. Photo by Lauren Schuster.

I’m sure there’s oodles more to say about the warmup arena, but if nothing else, folks, go ride, go forward, and go enjoy the horse you have that day.