Patterns for the Weekend: 4-Step Warm Up Prep

Warming up is important — but so is preparing for the warm up!

This four-step warm up prep is exactly what it sounds like — a warm up to your warm up. I have always done this routine and when I worked for Craig Cameron he showed me great ways to build on it. This warm up exercise is simple, yet so effective and fun! When I’m starting horses I always start with ground work and build up to working under saddle. The great thing about these exercises is that they are great to do from either the ground or in the saddle. Today I’ll be explaining my routine that I do from on their back and from a standstill. So let’s get started!

Photo by K-Lenea Photography

The goal of these prep exercises is to get your horse’s mind focused and their body softened before you get down to work.

Step 1: Lateral flexion.

I like to get my horses soft throughout their entire bodies, so I like to start my warm up by getting them soft laterally. I start with the right side, not jerking or pulling, just applying as little pressure as possible to get them to bend their head around. To ask my horse to bend, I slightly pick up my right hand, pulling it up and slightly back to my pocket and holding until they give. I may need to “wiggle” my fingers a bit or apply a small amount of additional pressure if they are having a hard time giving.

Now before I continue, I want to clarify what I mean by “giving.” When I say I’m waiting for a horse to give, I’m waiting for them to soften their head and neck and give in to the pressure. Once they give, I instantly drop my hand and release the pressure. The release is the reward. You’ll have to use your most important tool to know when to give back to them — your feel.

Photo courtesy of Hailey Sinon

Pay close attention and feel the give in your hands, it may be very noticeable or ever so slight, so use your instincts. Most of the time you’ll notice that they will give a little head bob towards you when they soften — that is your horse giving to that pressure. I do this about three times, each side. If they’re really soft and giving nicely I’ll only do it once or twice. You don’t want to bend your horses around so much that you get them over bending like a pool noodle. We just want softness through their head and neck.

Photo courtesy of Grace Billotte

Step 2: Yielding the hind quarters.

This exercise may be a little hard for your horse to understand at first, so before you try this from a standstill, try disengaging their hind end with some forward motion and get that hip moving off your leg. Once you’ve established that your horse can move off your leg, get to the exercise. From a standstill I’ll slightly move my right leg back and apply pressure to get my horse’s hip stepping to the left while the front feet stay in place. I’m only going to ask for one step, not moving their hip in an entire circle, but just one step yielding to my leg. I do this on both sides, just once each side. I don’t really do a much with my hands, I just keep them low. I may need to pick up my hands if they go to walk off, but other than that my hands stay on their neck. This exercise is a building block for a side pass, backing in a circle or even just moving out of the way of an object. And remember to take away the leg pressure as soon as they step over. When they give you give.

Step 3: Moving the forehand.

We won’t be doing full turnarounds, but this is a great way to start to teach a turnaround. I slightly pick up my left hand, pulling it just slightly out to the side to widen my hands and guide the horse’s nose and then I lay my right rein across their neck to step over. Your reins are just guidelines, the cue comes from your legs. So with my left rein guiding, my right rein applying slight pressure on their neck and my right leg being slightly more forward by my cinch, I apply leg pressure and ask for them to step over. Once again I only want one step, we don’t need to go all the way around in the warm up. I do this both directions, so to go to the right you use your right rein to guide, left rein against their neck and left leg for the cue.

Step 4: Vertical flexion.

This one is really fun to me because I like to see how little it takes for my horse to soften. I start by picking up my hands just slightly and simultaneously squeezing both my legs together on the horse’s sides to ask my horse to soften at the poll and drop its head. I use my legs to round out the horse’s back so it becomes balanced. Putting just their head down is fine — they’re softening at the poll — but when you get their head down when you have forward motion, it’s not really doing anything without the horse’s back also being rounded and everything being balanced. Your horse may be a little confused at first — It may try to back up or have some resistance with its head. If either of these things occur, don’t get into a fight with your horse — just reset and ask again. If your horse wants to throw its head or try to evade the bit, just keep steady light contact on your reins until the horse softens. When your horse softens, release your leg pressure and drop your hands.

Photo courtesy of Grace Billotte

All these exercises have endless benefits on the ground and under saddle and make great stepping stones to teach your horse new things, such as side passing, turnarounds and collection. This warm up can be done anywhere not just in an arena. I like to do it in my¬† barn driveway before I even head to the arena or to hit the trail. It can be used by anyone and is beneficial to everyone, especially your horse! It’s important for your horse to know how to be soft and use all parts of their body.


Grace Billotte is a dedicated horsewoman and leatherworker. Her horse training program focuses on creating good-minded and well-rounded horses. She offers colt starting services in addition to general training, but maintains that no horse will be asked to do more than it can mentally or physically handle. You can find out more about her program as well as her leather working at GBHorsemanship.com.

Photo by K-Lenea Photography