Some Thoughts On Warming Up

Today I want to give a few tips on warming up. Many riders don’t seem to give much thought to warming up, or they follow the same routine every day without reflecting on whether this is really the best possible structure of the training session.

In my youth we were taught a basic structure of a training session that consisted of 10 minutes walk on a long rein, followed by 20 minutes rising trot forward-downward, then 20 minutes sitting trot, perhaps 10 minutes canter work, and at the end cool down on a long rein at the walk.

This can work for some horses, but there are many horses for whom this structure is ineffective or even counter productive. For each individual horse, there is a unique structure that is most suitable so that he can develop and blossom. The rider should try to find this structure by experimenting with different formats.

The purpose of warming up is on the one hand to bring the horse into a mental and physical balance so that the horse is able to relax and the actual work can begin. On the other hand, the rider should tune the horse to the aids during the warmup, similar to the way musicians tune their instruments before playing, so that the horse is attentive to all aids and tries to give the right answer to all the questions the rider asks. What should be avoided at all costs is that the horse becomes tired and exhausted by the warmup, which you can unfortunately still see occasionally.

The formula I quoted above unfortunately often leads to riding around thoughtlessly and accumulating empty miles that support neither the horse’s physical nor mental development, but that only add wear and tear to the joints and tendons, and make the horse tired.

I want to give a little food for thought below for making the structure of the training sessions more effective and more pleasant for both horse and rider. My goal is whenever possible to prepare the horse before mounting so that he is as balanced and as soft to sit as possible. That is not only more pleasant for myself, but also for the horse, than if I had to trot and canter around on a stiff, hard horse, until he finally softens.
That’s why I started early on to warmup the horses through longeing and/or work in hand. The goal of longeing in this context is not to get rid of excess energy, but to bring the horse into a state of mental collection and balance.

There are horses that benefit from free longeing before the actual workout. Others benefit very much from longeing. You can incorporate ground poles or cavaletti into the longeing. With some horses, a combination of a few minutes of longeing and a few minutes of work in hand is very effective as a preparation for mounted work. Others respond very well to the double longe line. For some horses 15 minutes of long reining can be a great warmup.

Work in hand and long reining also have the advantage that they warm up the rider as well. This is a topic that is often swept under the rug. We ride better, too, when we are warmed up and stretched before getting on the horse.

By the way, there are horses for whom longeing has a negative effect, and there are horses that are too aggressive for work in hand.

You therefore have to try out different options and observe what works best for each horse so that horse and human are both in the optimal physical and mental shape when you get on.

Once you have found a structure that works well, it unfortunately doesn’t mean that it stays this way for the rest of the horse’s career. Horses are constantly changing, which means that we as riders and trainers of our horses have to take these changes into consideration and adjust the daily training to the new needs of our horses. This is a constant challenge.

Here is a list of the warmup options without rider. You can combine two or more of these options with each other to good effect:

Warmup Options Without Rider

  • Longeing
  • Double longeing
  • Work in hand
  • Long reining
  • Free longeing

Under the rider there are likewise several strategies that can be suitable, depending on the horse’s conformation, temperament, age, and training level. Generally speaking, we should proceed from simple to more complex exercises, and allow the training session to unfold.

Keep in mind the 3 phases of bending in motion:

  1. Bending and turning on a single track,
  2. Sidestepping while bending against the direction of travel,
  3. Sidestepping while bending into the direction of travel.

Many horses respond very well to a longer warmup at the walk with curved lines and lateral movements. Especially older horses and those suffering from arthritis or old tendon injuries can be prepared gently for the actual workout.

Once horses have started to learn the piaffe, you can use half steps during the warmup to good effect because it is a gentle movement.  

Some horses warmup especially well with trot - canter transitions, especially in combination with curved lines and many changes of direction. Some horses respond very well to long, calm trot reprises on an interesting variety of curved lines.

Transitions between walk, trot, and halt into the four legs are also very well suited to balance the horse and lead to relaxation.

Stirrup stepping sequences in the trot and canter can also enhance balance and relaxation.
In addition, you can include cavaletti work or a short trail ride.

An old prejudice that you can still encounter sometimes is that many riders believe that you should trot and canter on a single track and on large lines only until the horse has become relaxed, before you begin with lateral work. The reality is that most horses become supple and relaxed much faster with lateral work whereas trotting and cantering straight ahead on a stiff horse for long periods of time has a similar effect as when you cook an egg for a long time. Both the egg and the horse tend to become harder rather than softer.

Here is the list with warmup options under the rider:

Warmup Options Under The Rider

  • Simple to complex (3 phases of bending work)
  • Long, calm walk work with lateral movements
  • Half steps, piaffe
  • Trot - canter transitions
  • Longer, calm trot reprises on curved lines
  • Stirrup stepping sequences
  • Short trail ride
  • Cavaletti work

Experiment with a variety of options. You will get to know your horse better this way, and gain interesting insights into the subject matter as a whole.

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