Training in the Right Way: The Components of an Effective Warmup

 This week’s article discusses the purpose and parts of an effective warmup routine as well as some of the variations necessary for each horse.

Dressage training is supposed to be the process of training ANY horse to be a better riding horse. The more the horse learns, in theory, the easier they are to communicate with and therefore complete more complex tasks with. Although competition dressage training often is more focused on training for the dressage test, that is not what the original intention (and original judging requirements) were for competitive dressage. Initially, it was designed to give riders and trainers a way to determine how their training measured up to the theoretical ideal of the training process. That said, it is critically important to understand the meanings and reasons for some of the terms we use to describe dressage training and what to look for when observing training and competition (and videos and photos), regardless of whether you intend to compete or just train your horse to be a better whatever you do with him. That, ultimately, is the main purpose of my articles. To provide education and knowledge for riders to understand and improve their eye and understanding of what dressage training is supposed to be. While there will always be some differences in practice and theory, good horse training is always recognizable to the educated eye. That said, it absolutely is necessary that we remember and understand that limited knowledge is limited judgment.

Whether I am teaching a rider new to riding, or working with an established Grand Prix rider, I find that most riders are uncertain with how to best warm up their horse. Most of the time riders understand that they are supposed to warm their horse up in the beginning part of their ride, but they often have contradictory information about how to go about it. Thus the aim of this week’s article is to hopefully bring some clarity to the process. To begin, there are two main things to remember:

1. the basics of the warmup remain the same from Training Level to Grand Prix
2. the specifics of your horse’s warm up will be individual and will evolve over time

The general purpose of the warmup is to prepare the horse for the rest of the ride. This applies to both the horse’s physical preparation and to present your expectations of his behavior and actions throughout the ride. It is a misunderstanding that the warmup is unstructured time where the horse does what he pleases or does not have to be on the aids. On the other hand, while it is meant to prepare the horse for exertion, it should not consist of the hardest exercises in the training session. Nor can it consist of training horses to do something they have never done before. Additionally, the warmup is not always ridden, sometimes it is started on the longe line.

Sometimes warm up begins on the longe line. Photo courtesy of Gwyneth McPherson.

There is no one proper way to warm up a horse. For example, you may have read that all horses need to walk on a loose rein for 10-15 minutes before you can pick up contact and trot. This is a very good way to start. Ideally, horses should be able to walk on a loose rein, but anyone who has ridden a hot, young, or untrained horse will tell you that while they agree that is an appropriate expectation, it is not always realistic. Some of you may have a horse that will absolutely not be able to walk on a loose rein until the end of his ride.  In other words, the horse’s fitness and previous education have everything to do with how he is to be warmed up for his training session.

There is also no one specific time limit for how long you must warm up your horse for. Again, this relates greatly to the individual animal, his level of training and fitness, and what will be required of him on the rest of the ride. A very green horse’s whole ride is basically just warm up and will last somewhere between 15 and 25 minutes. A Grand Prix horse will most likely need his warmup to be about 10-20 minutes (close to one quarter of his total working time).

Whether you have to longe your horse first, or you can get on right away, the general basics of a good warm up program include the following gaits and exercises:

Walking – Most warmups start with walking the horse on a long or loose rein (whichever is safer at that horse’s level of training and psychological state). This is the ideal, as it allows the horse, especially one that has been in his stall, to start to loosen up his muscles and joints in a gentle way before increasing his activity. Although it is the ideal, there are times when a horse simply won’t walk quietly on the longe or under saddle (yet) and may need to go directly to trotting. Preferably, this is a horse that should be turned out before being worked so that he has an opportunity to loosen himself up before being trained. Of course this is not always possible either as some horses must be worked before being turned out so they won’t run around and injure themselves. The point is that no matter what, you will have to tailor your training to the animal you have.

A four year old being allowed to walk on a long rein in the beginning of the warm up for a Training Level test. Photo courtesy of Gwyneth McPherson.

Posting trot – Once your horse has walked, it is time to develop the posting trot. Posting is preferable to sitting as the horse needs to have the opportunity to loosen up his back without the rider’s weight being consistently in the saddle. Almost all horses will feel slightly different from one diagonal to the other in the first trot set. You may need to canter before you feel the posting diagonals start to feel the same. Be sure to ride in both directions during your trot warm up. Making certain that the horse uses his body with both bends and turning in both directions is a critical part of making the horse supple in both directions.

Canter — Some horses actually do better, both mentally and physically, cantering before the trot. Or at least only trotting a circle or two and then cantering. Canter is an asymmetrical gait, so riding both leads it also very important in the warmup. Giving the horse time to canter on each lead allows the horse to work both side of his body equally, much like trotting in both directions does.

A five year old warming up in the canter. Photo courtesy of Gwyneth McPherson.

Stretching – Ideally the horse should be encouraged to stretch down and forward during the warmup. This is not always possible immediately and should be done in intervals, not constantly (remember we are preparing the horse for the rest of his work session so some of the warmup must also be spent on contact). Stretching in the walk is usually the easiest to achieve. Stretching the trot on a 20m circle is a necessary skill to develop for your warmup (and your dressage test). Stretching in the canter should generally be avoided. The reason for this is that due to the rhythm of the canter (the front legs getting loaded at the end of the stride cycle) a small trip can become a catastrophic rotational fall. Even the most balanced horses can fall while stretching in the canter. It is definitely ok to ride the horse in a longer frame in the canter warm up, and encourage a longer neck, just avoid stretching down and forward as much as is usually seen in the trot and walk.

A 4-year-old PRE warming up in a stretchy trot. Photo by Morgane Schmidt

Circles, curves, changes of direction and straight lines – All your previously mentioned work should be getting performed on circles, straight lines, curves, and with changes of direction. While your warmup does not need to be exactly, equally symmetrical, it should have the element of symmetry to it. Some horses will need more time in one direction or the other. Maybe more canter circles one way than the other, for instance. But in all cases, both directions need curves and circles that are larger than or equal to the size curves and circles found at the horse’s highest level of training. Grand Prix horses can warm up with 10m circles, but Training Level horses must only do 20m circles, for instance. Straight lines are necessary, but most horses need more gentle curves and circles than straight lines in their warmup.

Transitions – Riding horses in a longer frame (or in the case of upper level horses, in less collection) during basic transitions helps the horse be prepared and supple enough for the more complex transitions it will have to perform later in the ride. When horses are ridden through and balanced during their transitions, transitions are in fact suppling exercises. For a training level horse walk-trot, trot-walk transitions are the less complex transitions than trot-halt and halt-trot, for instance. Canter-trot-canter-trot transitions are fabulous for helping the horse become more on the aids and more through. One very important thing to remember is that there should be enough strides of any gait to establish the rhythm of that gait, before performing a transition. Often a trained horse will need approximately 10 strides of walk between transitions to really develop a true clear four-beat rhythm. A young horse should do about one circle of trot or canter before doing a transition to the other gait.

“Easy” lateral work – For horses that have enough previous training, leg yielding, turn on the forehand and maybe some shoulder-in is appropriate to add to the warmup. Haunches-in, half-pass and pirouettes need to be added after the horse already warmed up and ready for the rest of his work.

A young New Forest pony in a leg yield. Photo by Morgane Schmidt.

Development of lengthening – Adding small, easy lengthening helps develop impulsion in the warmup. For horses that do not have a lengthening yet, this is not an appropriate warm up exercise. For FEI level horses, small mediums are appropriate.

To recap, the basic requirements of a warmup is that the horse is allowed time to stretch and move his body in a structured environment that allows him to be prepared for the rest of his training session. The warmup should not be the hardest work he does and should not be so easy and unstructured that he is not ready for the rest of his ride. Additionally, it will evolve throughout the horse’s training life and will have new components added to it as he learns more skills and higher levels of collection.

While the process of training each day should be the progressive development of the horse’s education and physical strength and balance, similarly, the warmup phase of the ride should also be progressive, starting with the easier components of the horse’s work and adding more complexity and collection as the warmup progresses. The end of the warmup phase is when the horse is supple enough and on the aids enough to start the exercises that would be considered his highest level of training.

And, as a rule, having a general warm up plan before you get in the saddle, and having some ideas of what variations may help you if you run into trouble while warming up, will set you and your horse up for a more productive training session and potentially save you a lot of frustration later in the ride.

Remember: Limited knowledge is limited judgment.

Gwyneth and Flair in competition at Grand Prix. (c) flatlandsfoto.

Gwyneth McPherson has over 35 years experience competing, training, and teaching dressage.  She began her education in in the late 1970s, riding in her backyard on an 11 hh pony. Her first instructor introduced her to Lendon Gray (1980 and 1988 Olympian). who mentored Gwyneth for a decade during which she achieved her first National Championship in 1984, and her Team and Individual Young Rider Gold Medals in1987.

In 1990 Gwyneth began training with Carol Lavell (1992 Olympian) who further developed Gwyneth as an FEI rider and competitor. Gwyneth achieved a Team Bronze in 1991 and a Team Silver in 1992 in the North American Young Riders Championships, and trained her stallion G’Dur to do all the Grand Prix movements while riding with Carol.

In 2008, while Head Trainer at Pineland Farms, Gwyneth began training with Michael Poulin (Olympian 1992). Michael was trained by Franz Rochowansky (Chief Rider for the Spanish Riding School 1937-1955). Michael has shared much of Rochowansky’s knowledge and wisdom with Gwyneth, completing her education as a Grand Prix rider, trainer, and competitor.

Gwyneth’s teaching and training business, Forward Thinking Dressage,is based in Williston, FL. In addition to teaching riders and training, Gwyneth also loves sharing her knowledge of the sport and art of dressage as well as discussing relevant topics pertaining to the training itself and the current competitive landscape.