Memorial Day Sale! Shop now  

FREE SHIPPING BOTH WAYS: Applies to USA orders over $75 | excluding HI, PR, AK
Horze Guide

How to have a winning dressage warm-up!

By Heather Bender

Many dressage tests are lost in the warm-up ring. Often with the right preparation and planning you can avoid many of the “warm-up traps” that can unravel you and your horse. It’s frustrating to ride a test which does not reflect you and your horse’s talents and abilities. The goal of this article is to give you some solid tips that will enable you and your horse to successful and demonstrate your best possible performance during your test. When a rider and horse accomplish performing at their best, the endless hours of training and preparation feel worthwhile and rewarding!

What Are Our Goals For The Warm-Up?

Okay, first let us talk about the obvious. We would like to have our horses over their back, round to the contact, in front of our legs, light to our aids, right? While we’re at it, let’s add supple, happy, demonstrating wonderful engagement with great carry power along with perfect impulsion and pushing power not to mention perfect rhythm. And, of course, we are sitting gracefully in the saddle with an independent seat using our invisible aids and perfect equitation! Did I forget anything? (Maybe to buy a lotto ticket that day if we got all that together) Okay, back to reality. Even for the seasoned professional, it takes a lot of thought, organization, planning, and the ability to read the situation. Probably one of the most important traits of a successful competitor is to have the flexibility in their plan to deal with the unexpected. I hope to share some hard-earned experience to help you be better prepared and more flexible with your plan. Preparation is key to minimizing the stress that can cause you and your horse to feel nervous, rushed or disorganized. Anticipate the obvious in making your plan with the knowledge and experience you have with yourself and your horse is your starting point to make an educated guess on what will work. After the show you will be able to add new ideas and make changes for the next shows with the experience gained. In the end experience is the best teacher. My goal here is to help you avoid many negative experiences that will trap you into a poor warm-up and a worse test.

At home, try to create some of the same stress you will encounter at the show. This will give you more information for your successful warm-up plan. At your home arena, you could change up the surroundings by adding colorful blankets that look like banners, new flower arrangements, maybe a radio that sounds like the announcer by the ring. Try to recreate a similar judge’s box at C with a table and people sitting at it. If you have not taken your horse off your property for a while, try going to a new location without a show. This could be an opportunity to have a chance to ride out of your home comfort zone. It is helpful to know how sensitive your horse is to these changes. Remember if you have not already worn all your show cloths be sure to try them before you go. Do not wait to the show day to find out your breeches are slippery or your boots are not broken in properly; even try riding with your show gloves. All these little details can really make a difference. Clothes that don’t fit properly can be a disaster. Any of us who grew up showing have at least one funny disastrous story to tell on making that mistake!

For more tips on proper clothing, boots, helmets etc., look for my blog dressing for the show ring tips.

What do I need to consider in making my warm-up plan?

When I prepare for a show, first I must make some very important decisions about time management. One of my most important decisions will be how long I will allow for my warm-up. The factors that I will consider to make this plan are:

  1. When will I fit in grooming, braiding?
  2. How does that time of day affect my horse’s attitude?
    1. Is it during a feeding time?
    2. What is the weather going to be like?
    3. How crowded or stressful will the show grounds and warm-up be at that time?
  3. How many tests am I riding, how many days?
  4. Should I lunge before my warm-up or maybe earlier so my horse can relax and I don’t become rushed?
  5. What do I anticipate my horses tension level to be or will he be a bit too lazy?
  6. How much help will I have, and how competent is my help?

Time of day; yes, this can be a big deal. My experiences -the greener the horse, often the bigger the deal it can be. We all have times we would probably prefer to ride. Our goal is do our best with the time we have been scheduled. I must say it is a wonderful thing to have a time you really are going to show. If you started in other disciplines than dressage, you will really understand the hurry up and wait syndrome of showing. In Dressage we have the time right in front of us, so taking into consideration the factors I have listed, we can make adjustments accordingly.

Here are some things to think about while you make your plan:

Let’s start with what time you have been scheduled to show. Look at it; now start thinking backwards from that time. Let’s first consider something important to your horse, his food. If your horse is a ‘chow hound’ and feeding times are VERY important part of the day, you will want to consider how to split up the feedings. If your ride time is right at his dinnertime and he will be missing his dinner, his inner time clock will not be happy, which can lead to him feeling anxious. This can be a bad start right to your warm-up. Of course, feed is their fuel, so for horses that are working very hard and need to last for three days of competition, their feed, hydration and supplement program is a science for keeping energy levels even. Feeding the right program can be an important key to keeping horses happy and content under a stressful time. Consider how you can make it easier on your horse by planning ahead for their meals and necessary supplements. For more information on feeding for the competition ring, I have asked an expert, Martin Adams, PhD, Pas, Equine Nutritionist from Southern States. He has been a huge help to me with guiding my feed program. I use Triple Crown feed products that fit my diverse training group of horses. At Treasure Coast Farms we feed differently taking in consideration: breed, age, level of training, and any challenges a particular horse may have specifically, At Treasure Coast Dressage we have Warm-bloods’, Lusitanos, PREs, Draft crosses, Quarter horses and Thoroughbreds. If you would like to read more about feed, please read my question and answer blog with Southern State feed’s expert Martin Adams, ‘Planning a successful show by using your horses feed program wisely.’ Keep your eyes out for my blog on approved USEF and FEI legal and healthy supplements for improving you horse show experience.

This is a great time for you to think about you! What are you planning to eat and drink before and throughout the event? Successful riders are athletes, and you have to treat yourself with as much care as you do for your horse. You will need to seriously think about your diet and hydration as a very important part of a successful puzzle. I am in awe when I see someone sitting down with a big chili cheese burger and fries before their ride!? Or the opposite end of that problem, not eating, which is often even worse! Now as you can imagine, this is a huge subject for a blog of its own. Here are few tips that I will expand upon in my blogs on this subject. First, I am a big believer that you pack your food and bring it with you. Eating food you do not normally eat is a big risk that you will not feel your best. I do not like to rely on horse show food, unless there are food stands that are known for having very healthy choices with easily digestible protein. (I would still suggest bringing your own food and adding this in as a treat) In the end I would prefer to pack my lunch and snacks that are right for me. I always try to keep it quick and easy to eat; my mind will be on other things, and I will struggle to find ten minutes to sit down and eat. If I am traveling, I would prefer to hit the best grocery store I can find and buy appropriate fixings I can make vs. eating fast food, mediocre food, or too rich food. Keep it simple and get it done, which is my motto. Now with that said I love food and a great glass of wine but keep it all in moderation and remember to drink a lot of water throughout the day before you become dehydrated. Soft drinks do not hydrate you properly. Getting dehydrated on the first day in your warm-up could ruin your whole show. You will get headaches, muscle soreness and your body will feel slow to respond. These symptoms will vary depending on the degree of dehydration.

A very important thing to consider is weather. Heat, cold, wind, and rain etc. can really change your plans. If you plan for all the possibilities you can make it a bit more bearable and less distracting with good preparation. If it is hot, you can bring a small cooler to the ring with ice water and some rubbing alcohol added. I will bring a large cooler with lots of ice to add to the smaller cooler that can be carried to the warm-up ring. You can refresh your smaller cooler throughout the day. You will also need a sponge and a hand towel soaking in the cold water. I will fold the towel so that I can place it behind his ears (if he will tolerate it) while we sponge him on the neck, back of the hamstrings and legs. Even hoofs will greatly benefit from the cold water.

If you are heat sensitive, another good trick for the rider is to use something cool around your own neck to help keep your temperature down. Many different products are available for this. If you have several by the ring in your cooler, you can alternate between them as needed. Also, if your show helmet is too hot, wear a vented lighter schooling helmet and then change right before you go into the ring.

If the weather is cold or wet you may need to bring a quarter blanket that fits over your horse’s hips and loins to start your warm-up and then full wool cooler for when you finish your test. In Southern Florida, a rain sheet for your horse is an essential piece of show equipment. A well- fitted plastic clear jacket is allowed for you to wear even in the show ring. You can also find a clear plastic cover for most helmets if yours is not rain resistant.

If you are riding multiple tests over multiple days, you will be adjusting your plan throughout the show so the first class will give you a lot more information for the next classes. I will plan my first warm-up longer than my second in the same day. This is where flexibility is important. I adjust my time on how well the first class went. If I am riding one class a day, I will have to consider if I want to ride only before my class or possibly split my warm-up into two sections. You will need to account for ‘what time of day does your horse work the best.’ If your horse is used to being ridden first thing in the morning and your ride time is 4:00 pm, you may want to consider breaking your warm up into two sections; one in the morning so he is not nervously waiting his turn, and a second warm-up before your class.

If your horse or you tire easily, or if it is very hot, that can be another good reason for splitting your warm-up into two shorter sessions. If you think your horse is much fitter than you, it may be wise to have an early lunge session and then you may get on to hack and let your horse sight see while you get a little loosened up before your real warm-up. If your horse is hot and nervous and has been used to at home, a controlled proper lunging routine can be very helpful at the show. You will need to check at the horse show office for where the designated lunging area is located. I would like to remind you that often the hot horse travels on adrenaline and will need several opportunities to settle.

Do not try to accomplish it all at once. Your risk for injury or ‘over doing it’ will greatly increase. I would recommend working him and then letting him settle and seeing if you need to do more vs. over doing one session. Often riders in the FEI prefer to split their warm-up into two shorter sessions so they will not what we call ‘leave their horse in the warm-up.’ They will calculate their time trying to make sure their horse will have plenty of energy to perform his best in the demanding test ahead. It is important to know and really think about your horse’s fitness, mental state and general personality. If he is lazy and runs out of energy you will have to keep that in mind and adjust accordingly.

When I am stabling at the show, I try to get my horse out of the stall for a hand walk and grazing period around the show grounds to help them settle. It is important to do this several times a day along with all your warm-up plans; this is especially if your horse is usually in a paddock for hours a day and not a stable. It is always good bonding time for you both if you manage it well and keep the sessions calm and relaxing as possible. If your horse is nervous keep him close to his mates; ask an experienced horse and rider team to walk with you and your horse. Give your horse a chance to settle. Don’t over expose them to the surroundings right away. Sometimes too much too fast can really start you on the wrong path. Try to read your horse and make your walks calm and bonding.

Getting to the warm-up with all you will need

We spend so much time, effort, thought, and money to show. Your experience, joy, and success will greatly improve with help from a groom; preferably someone you pay so that they take the job seriously, and they are truly there to help you. If that is not possible, then second best is a knowledgeable, committed friend to assist you at the ring. It is a very tough for those who have no one there to help them with all the little and big things that come up.

How you organize your stuff and having a plan for what you will need before you start to the arena is very important. First of all, do not forget your number; you can be disqualified for riding without it. The rule is that you must have a number on your horse anytime he is out of his stall; so keep one number on his halter and one on his bridle. Some shows are very strict about around the stable, some are not; but, it is the rule, so better to follow it and stay out of trouble.

Next, I would highly recommend a grooming tote. I would suggest you include in your grooming tote: dry towel and several small damp towels, one for the really dirty work and a cleaner one, a drink for you, test copy with ring diagram, brush, boot shining sponge (works great on boots bridles and nose bands touch- ups), tail brush, saddle wax for slipping, braiding rubber bands (can be like duct tape to solve many different problems), hoof pick, safety pins, treats. Remember to keep treats simple like sugar or green apple cut up; never bring anything that may have red, like some horse cookies or peppermints because it could be mistaken for blood. I will keep my tote all set up for this and just add the things that cannot stay in it between shows.

You will need to think about if you are going to warm-up in your coat or put it on later. Who is bringing it to the ring? If you fold it with the lining out you may not have to bring coat bag to keep it clean. If you are planning to use wraps or boots on your horse during the warm-up make sure you use wraps or boots that stand out so that they will be noticed and taken off before. I would suggest white boots for black legs as an example or black boots for white legs. Also, assign someone to be responsible for removing them before you go in. Probably not a good idea to count on your trainer for this job; their concentration will be on your ride, not your horse’s boots. Ask my students; I fail to remember the boots rule. This is why grooms are so important and so helpful! Horse’s boots are easy to forget when things get hectic.

Before you even head to the ring, you will want to have checked the official show time with your watch and your grooms watch. You will want to have checked that no schedule changes have been made. Shows are allowed to change times if they do it 24 hours ahead of your time and post it. My experience is show management will try not to change a schedule and will try hard to reach you. They are required to reach you if the change is within 24 hours. If weather creates a delay or you missed the message, in the end it will be you that will be frustrated, so make it your responsibility to check. Weather can cause problems so be aware. Mobil phones have helped with management reaching riders so remember to put on the number where you will be most easily reached on your entries. Then don’t forget to check your phone.

Another important trick to staying on time and keeping your helpers organized is to post in a clear, easy to see area in your stable or at your trailer. First write down the time you are supposed to be putting your foot in the stirrup, then next to it, put down your show time. On that same paper I follow my time with a column for which ring I am showing in, then which test. I also have which horse, since I often ride multiple horses. If everyone is focused on the mounting time, not the show time, it helps you to stay on your plan and not be late. You will determine that time with your backwards look from the time you are showing. Remember to consider if you have a long walk to the practice ring in your time calculation.

I am a very strong believer that you must take a walk to the arena you will be showing in before you get on; make a run through visualizing riding your test. Sometimes I will take a friend with me and tell them the test and even discuss problem areas and what I will need to be thinking at that moment in the test. I like to go with my students and talk them through what will be the most important thing in each moment to remember, even if it is a common theme throughout the test. This is also a great opportunity to notice any possible distraction areas for my horse or me. By visualizing the test I will ride next, it helps me to feel confident and not go off course. I often will be riding many tests a day, from training level to Grand Prix. I find it extremely helpful to only focus on the next test I will ride. If I need to look at several at one time, I will always make sure I go over the next test I will ride last, so it is clear in my mind.

While I am looking at the ring and going over my test, it is a great opportunity to get a feel for the surroundings. Take this opportunity to plan how you will enter the ring and what direction you will go. Look for things you may want to show your horse, judge’s boxes, new flowers, flags, banners, etc. You will not have much time, so decide how to use it wisely. I want to get the most of my 45 seconds, once the whistle or bell is rung. This is a good place for me to remind you that you can enter the outside of the arena as soon as the person before you has done their final salute. Do remember you cannot enter the outside of the arena if the judges and secretaries are not in their places. As long as everyone is in their box, it is usually acceptable to enter the outside of the ring a few minutes before your time. But when you start around the ring the judge can ring the bell when they choose. Often judges will appreciate you being prompt and will possibly give you a moment before they ring the bell or whistle.

Now let’s discuss our actual riding plan. How I anticipate possible problems and plan solutions, how effectively I organize my riding time, how well I tune into what exercises my horse and I need to work on to get ready to ride the best test possible in the show ring. These are the key factors to being and feeling successful and less stressed.

How to decide how much time you need

How experienced is your horse? Do you expect him to be hot and nervous, possibly tight, or a bit lazy and distracted the day of the show? If I know my horse isn’t a seasoned competitor or can be edgy and nervous, I like to arrive the day before the competition. I have found that the opportunity to ride around the grounds and in the show ring the day before the show is a very valuable tool for both horse and rider. I do not expect that the day before will be a good day to try to train my horse but, instead, I reinforce our basics and allow him to gain some confidence about his new surroundings. I know that, in most cases, he won’t be at his best. He may find it difficult to concentrate. My experience has taught me that if I am patient and consistent, it will pay off.

I will focus my efforts in getting him listening to my legs and seat. I want to develop a good ‘gas pedal’ and a clear half halt. I will work on these goals by use of many bending exercises and transitions. My overall goals don’t change if I’m riding a Training Level horse or a Grand Prix horse. Sometimes I will find the use of a running martingale, correctly adjusted in the warm-up can be very helpful with horses that like to get excited raising their heads and focusing out of the ring gazing to the distance. You can legally use this at a USEF regulated show, but it will have to be removed before you go to the show ring. Of course, my expectations for each horse would be different but thoroughness is key.

If I do find it possible to run through my test, I will be forgiving regarding brilliance and rather, strive for a relaxed, supple frame. I’ll plan to add the extra ‘pizzazz’ on the show day. I don’t want to have the ride of my life in the practice ring. Save it for the show ring! Riding the day before will give you a lot of insight on what to expect on the show day and indicate how much time to plan for your warm-up. When you are riding, make a mental note on how much time it took you both to feel comfortable. You can use this valuable experience in deciding how much time and what exercises are going to really help you before your class.

If you decide that your horse would benefit from a controlled lunge on the show day, remember to ask the show management where there is a safe place you can lunge during show. Make sure you know which warm-up is for your class and where your ring Stewart will be so you can check- in when you enter the warm-up. Have there been changes in the schedule? Also try to get a feel for how crowded the warm-up ring is going to be. If it tends to be very crowded, will there be somewhere else you can begin your warm-up? Other questions are: are they planning to drag and water the warm-up ring near your time? How long will that take? With that information, you can allow for time to plan your warm-up accordingly.

If you don’t have the luxury of riding the day before the show, then you will have to estimate the time you need based on your past experiences. Remember that, in most cases, you are better off with too much time than not enough. If you realize that you have more time than you need, take more walk breaks. Get off your horse, and if it is hot, find a nice shady spot to hang out. Use this waiting time to go back over your test, remembering what you are going to do in each movement. Avoid the trap of having a great warm-up, then taking a break and standing around while you mentally run through your test, get cleaned up and then riding straight into the show ring. Most horses won’t be as sharp as they were before you took the break. I’ll always stop to cleanup and review my test, then go back into the warm-up area, get a good rhythm and balance, then go into the show ring.

Make Your Time in the Warm-up Ring Count

Remember, when you’re choosing exercises for your warm-up, that you want to stay focused on what will be required in the test you are riding next! Tailor your work to be exactly what you and your horse need on this day. Think about your hard pieces and how you could ride a few exercises that were not exactly the test move to build your horses confidence and to prepare him for the movement in the test. For example, if you have to trot change at X from the left lead to the right lead and your horse has a tendency to rush on the diagonal, add in your warm-up a figure eight on diagonal at X 10’ to 12’ meter circles at X . Ride the circles at the trot, adding walk transitions through your change of direction. When your horse feels calm and better balanced, pickup your canter on your right circle and continue through your diagonal. You may not even get to the actual trot change in the warm up but instead school the waiting change so when you enter the ring he is expecting to wait at ‘X’ instead of thinking he gains bigger points for being the fastest dressage horse on the diagonal. In other words, be a little flexible with your plan. Think of helpful gymnastics like the diagonal exercise I just suggested. Your goal is your work promotes the right effect to your aids on that day.

We all see the poor rider who thinks they have it all figured out before they get to the warm-up, only to find out the other member of the team did not get the same plan. I’ll give you an example. You arrive at the ring and your normally obedient horse that likes to go around on the bit at a fairly steady tempo is traveling around with his head straight up, calling back to his friends at the barn as if he just came out of a Wild West movie. You may need to reconsider the original plan. For more plans on how to save the moment please look for my blog on: How to regain your horse’s attention.

You can see it’s important to be flexible with your ideas. Successful riders are not so surprised by things not going exactly as planned, and they are able to make deviations without getting rattled by the changes. But it’s a wise idea to have a plan, even if the plan has to be changed a bit. Usually, you can get back to it after a few distractions.

Keep in mind that your attitude will be a key factor in motivating your horse to work with you …or against you.

Stay Patient, take breaks if you are getting tense, and make your corrections clear and fair. Another common mistake in the ‘warm-up’: when things aren’t going as planned be accountable to how you might be using your aids. Ask yourself how can I use my seat more effectively? Try to enjoy yourself and your riding. Remember to reward your horse often. It’s important to keep in mind that your attitude will be a key factor in motivating your horse to work with you or against you.

You will need a well thought out and executed plan to include:

Preparation: Choosing the right combination of feed, lunging, pre-ride hand walking to acquaint your horse with his new environment. Your ability to choose your needed time wisely. You must know your test and plan your show ride before you enter the warm-up. It is important to remember what equipment you will need taking into consideration weather, and your horses personality.

Groom and trainers assistants: Knowing how much assistance will be available and being realistic on what they will be able to do to help you. Planning according to that will help you make decisions on how much responsibility you will have on your shoulders to pick exercises and deal with time management.

The ability not to panic when things do not go as planned: No matter how hard you try; often something will change your plan. To be successful you must ride the horse that shows up to that warm-up and be flexible in your strategy to adjust your plan to fit that moment. Stay cool and calm; something I often have to remind my students is to ‘breath.’ Of course that sounds ridiculous but it is true. You need to breath to the bottom of your lungs which in return will help you to stay in the moment and remain calm. Frustration will only harm you and your horse’s performance, not to mention his overall experience of the event.

Adjust your exercises to fit the horse that arrives at the warm-up that moment

Pack your sense of humor and determination, you may need them both!

When you complete your show day, go back over how things went, while it’s fresh in your mind. Look for how you can make it better next time. Keep a notebook; write down what worked and what did not. I know that will help you to be successful. If you use your experience wisely, the warm-up will become easier and a lot less stressful! Remember, the most important thing for you and your horse is to have fun and make the whole experience a learning day that you will build on!