Horses need to be warmed up before they are worked hard, but I see a lot of confusion in dressage riders about how to set about warming their horses. If you are in this same boat, the 9 tips given below should help you get things right when it comes to warming up your horse.
Your objective in putting your horse through a warm-up drill is to work the kinks out of his body. It could last for as little as 10 minutes, or it could go much beyond that, right into your actual ride.
1. Presumably you have just taken your horse out of his stall after a night’s rest, after mounting, use the first 5 to 10 minutes to leisurely walking him around.
2. Once you are done with walking take up contact to start the warm-up.
3. Concentrate on the three initial ingredients of the training scale – Rhythm, Suppleness, Connection. I usually start working my horse out on these three factors in a large circle. Once things are well under way, I’ll expand to a larger area within the arena.
4. Rhythm: As you put your horse through walks, trots and canters, make sure the rhythm is constant and regular and the tempo is not faster or slower than it should be.
5. Suppleness: Take just as much time as you judge right, getting your horse suppled and relaxed both physically and mentally. Effort accompanied by physical or mental tension is not going to bear fruit. By suppling your horse, you get him physically relaxed. When he’s relaxed physically, he will also relax mentally.
Supple the horse by bending his neck about 7 inches to inside of neutral (neutral occurs when the horse’s nose is lined up with the crease middling his chest); as you do so you should also be closing your leg on this same side.
Do a 3-supple set, meaning you bend him and immediately straighten him out three times, smooth and fast. After about 8 strides are gone by, repeat the 3-supple set.
6. Connection: Use a connecting half halt and get the horse on the bit. This half halt is a version of the primary half halt (momentarily closing the seat and the legs and hands) that you use to put a horse on the bit.
Close both legs for 3 steady seconds like you want a lengthening, then make a fist of the outside hand to capture the energy and recycle it back to your horse’s rear legs. Give him 3 or 4 small inside rein vibrations or squeezes to keep his neck straight. Your connecting half halt should stretch over three seconds approximately, during which period you “Add, add and add” the hind legs through the closed outer hand while keeping up poll flexion to the inside.
While warming up, I connect the horse. I ride him long and low, but if he seems heavy on the forehand, I ride the “horizontal balance”, when his topline parallels the ground.
7. If things should fail to work out right, simply go back right to the start of your training scale. Re-establish a regular rhythm to begin with and supple the horse next. Make a request for connection finally.
8. When you are doing the rhythm, suppleness, connection routine, you should get any horse at the initial training level to do elementary figures such as circles, shallow loops and serpentines.
Horses at the first or second levels can also do school figures, leg-yields as well as rubber band workouts like soft lengthening before returning to working gait.
9. A lot of riders get their dressage horses to do gait to gait transitions while warming up. My own opinion is that the horse must be well warmed up before you put him through transitions. I therefore save transition schooling for the second phase of the work out, when the warming up is done.