Wednesday, Apr. 17, 2024

Win The Test, Not The Warm-Up

Make sure your horse is prepared, relaxed and ready to win with these warm-up tips from top riders.

Your horse’s every movement feels effortless. He responds to aids as light as a feather. You’re in perfect harmony, and each movement seems to flow from one to the next. The only problem? Your ride time is still 30 minutes away.


Make sure your horse is prepared, relaxed and ready to win with these warm-up tips from top riders.

Your horse’s every movement feels effortless. He responds to aids as light as a feather. You’re in perfect harmony, and each movement seems to flow from one to the next. The only problem? Your ride time is still 30 minutes away.

Judges don’t give scores or ribbons for performances in the warm-up ring. “I definitely don’t like to be the winner of the test…in the warm-up. That’s the worst thing,” said Olympic veteran Carol Lavell.

The few minutes you have in front of the judge can be made or broken in the warm-up.

It doesn’t matter if you’ve glided across the warm-up ring in the perfect extended trot 10 times, you have to replicate that perfection in the ring, in front of the judge, to get that good score.

You know what you want to achieve in the warm-up ring. “Every horse gives you a different feeling, but it’s the feeling that he’s in between your aids, and that he could do any request you might ask at any moment,” said Grand Prix rider and trainer Courtney King.

“You give a little half-halt—he’s ready to halt. You put your leg on—he’s ready to extend. You want that concentrated sensitivity. The last thing, for me, for the upper-level horses, is that I want the horse to be showing off by the time he’s ready to go into the ring. That’s something everyone can work toward, even if it’s not there with training or first level horses. It’s something you develop in the horses, and I think it’s an important trait for a horse to adopt.”

But the warm-up ring can be a hotbed of nerves for riders and horses. You’re in there with 10 other horses trotting in all directions. You’re trying to look your best, sit up and show off. Your horse might be a bit googly-eyed and on the muscle with all the commotion. What’s a rider to do?

“There’s a real art to warming horses up and presenting them 100 percent right for that test. But the warm-up is really all based on the months of lead-up work,” said FEI-level rider and trainer Jeremy Steinberg.

It’s All About The Routine

Lavell, Steinberg and King have all spent years honing their warm-up techniques to get the best out of their horses. They all agree that the key to a good warm-up—and therefore a good test—starts long before you set foot on the showgrounds.

“The routine is, for me, what absolutely establishes the horse. A schedule, a feeling of familiarity, things that you and the horse do together every single day should be repeated at the show. Horses are animals of routine, and they like to stick to it,” said Lavell.

What If?

You have a plan in your mind, and you’re calm and centered as you head to the warm-up ring. But you’re wondering if somehow you opened the wrong stall door and tacked up someone else’s horse instead of yours. The placid, sane creature you know so well is now a fire-breathing dragon with springs on his toes.

“The first thing people tend to do when they feel a horse light up is to panic a little bit. They think, ‘Oh my God, my test is coming up. I don’t have enough time, and he’s not relaxed.’ That’s the worst thing you can do, because the horses pick up on that energy,” Jeremy Steinberg said.

When Steinberg sits on a horse like that, he returns to the basics in the warm-up.

“I trust that the training I did at home is good and will carry through in the test, and I try and get them settled with simple exercises and transitions,” he said.

Sticking to your routine is also important. If your horse’s brain isn’t firing on all of its cylinders, the last thing you want to do is throw something new at him. The exercises he knows well and is confident doing will help settle him.

But, of course, there are times when it’s best to consider stepping back and regrouping.

“For most people who are showing, that one show isn’t a once-in-a-lifetime experience,” Courtney King pointed out. “If your horse is new to showing, it’s probably the beginning of many shows.”

She advised simply making the day a good experience for the horse.


“If you get on the horse, and he’s a nervous wreck and not listening to you, and you have 25 minutes before your ride time, my preference would be to not show him,” she said. “Spend all the time you need getting him comfortable and confident in the show environment. Then, the next day, or the next time you take him to a show, he might be more calm and confident, instead of being forced into the ring and having a bad experience.”

“If you stick to the routine of your warm-up exercises the first time you come out—the way you do it at home—it really gives a lot of tranquility and security to the rider and the horse. You want to do your homework, so you know what exercises work for your horse, how strongly you should do them and for how long,” she continued.

Treat each riding session at home as if it’s a show situation. Find out which exercises work best to get your horse loose, forward and attentive, and then establish a consistent progression of those exercises.

“Some of my horses, the longer I warm-up, the more excited and anxious they get. Some get relaxed, some get tired. That’s something you have to gauge in your horse at home,” King said.

“If you have a really strong, hot horse who gets more worked up as you ride him, then you ride him for a very short time, or ride him twice,” she added. “If you have a horse who gets tired easily, shorten up your warm-up. You really have to base that on how the horse works at home. As you show more often, keep a mental log of how the horse feels from the beginning of the ride to the end of the ride.”

Keep in mind, however, that knowing your horse includes allowing for maturation and experience. You’ll need to continually re-evaluate your routine depending on your horse’s training and how he feels on the day. Have your set of exercises established, but also be prepared to wing it.

“It’s something that you’re always fine-tuning,” said Steinberg. “I don’t know anyone out there who isn’t making little adjustments in their routine from show to show. Maybe the horses feel a little different, but also maybe because you tried something that really worked at the last show.”

Going Out Again?

One tool that Lavell, Steinberg and King all use is the multiple-ride approach.

“Some horses get more wound up the longer they’re out, and those are the horses that benefit from multiple rides,” Lavell said. “Even walking out around the showgrounds helps—exposure does marvelous things for horses and gets the edge off.”

Steinberg rides his horses in the morning before the show begins. “I know not everyone likes to do that because you can wear a horse out pretty easily, so you have to be careful,” he said. “One of the best expressions someone told me was, ‘If you warm-up too much, you can’t take it back.’

“I like to get on them in the morning and get a read on how they’re feeling that day,” he continued. “If they’re fresh, I have time to work them, and if they’re not, I do a little stretching and loosening, so that when I get back on later, before the test, I know what I have already, and they’re nice and supple.”

Lavell is a firm proponent of scheduling. “It’s wise to choose a warm-up where you do go over the more difficult things and school them 3 or 31⁄2 hours before you ride your test,” she said.

A Few Important Tips

•    “Don’t wander aimlessly through the ride,” said Carol Lavell. “What’s better for you and the horse is the expectation that, ‘After I do these circles, I start the half-halts, and then I go on to bigger-smaller circles, and then I work on transitions, and then the collection, and the canter, and so on.’ ”

•    “I always recommend getting there the day before you show,” Courtney King advised. “If your horse is a totally different horse the day he arrives, you have that day to figure it out. I’ve been in the situation plenty of times when I get on a horse the first day of the show, and he’s a totally different horse and a bit bonkers. I get off and longe him, put him back in the stall, and get back on him later and see how he is. Make sure you give yourself plenty of time and don’t feel like you’re stuck to a game plan. If things aren’t going well, change your tactics.”

•    “You can’t get any training done at a horse show—you have to rely on the training you’ve done at home. That’s one of the biggest myths—that you’re going to get into the warm-up ring at a show and actually fix something that wasn’t working at home to begin with,” cautioned Jeremy Steinberg.

You should work backward from your ride time, portioning out a block of time for your final warm-up and primping before entering the ring, a block of time for your horse to relax in his stall between warm-ups and a block for the initial warm-up. Knowing your horse is key for determining how long each of those blocks should be, and doing the math will tell you when you need to swing a leg over the first time.

“I’ve found that the horses come out rested for that second ride before the test. They don’t take a long time to warm back up, and if the horse is ready 10 minutes after you’ve gotten on for that last warm-up, you can just hang out, and the preparation doesn’t go away,” said Lavell.

If your final warm-up is going well, don’t be afraid to take a break. “If I’ve gotten to the point where the horse is totally warmed up, I might walk out of the warm-up ring, take a walk around the barn or grounds and then go back into the arena. You don’t want the horse’s mind to get sick of the work in the ring,” King said.

Keep Riding!

So far, it’s been all about the horse. But what about you? What if the thought of turning at A brings butterflies to life in the pit of your stomach?


“Most of the time, rider nerves make you stop riding,” King said. “It’s just like the horses with nerves. You have to keep concentrated on the task at hand.”

King noted that the concept of showing off the horse really helps take the pressure off of the rider. She reminds her students that it’s a horse show, not a rider show. If the rider can take the focus off herself and concentrate on the horse, that will help her ride better.

Just as your warm-up routine soothed your horse, since he knew what to expect, it can also help calm your nerves.

“When I teach, I give my students an absolute orderly schedule. It helps take a very nervous rider and put some confidence in them,” Lavell said.

And sometimes having a friend is a huge help. “One of the best things you can do is have help, especially at bigger competitions,” Steinberg noted. “It’s great to have someone on the ground who can talk you through it. It’s a soothing influence. It has to be somebody you respect enough, so that if they tell you it looks good, they’re not just saying it. But it should be someone who won’t tell you something that will make you panic or worry. I look to my friends to be that for me in the warm-up.”

How Much Is Too Much?

Should you practice your test movements in the warm-up? Well, the jury is out on that one.

Carol Lavell believes that you don’t have to.

“Normally, when you go to the warm-up ring you find someone who’s doing every single thing that’s in the test. As you get more confident and on a more trained horse, you think to yourself, ‘He can do that, he can do that—what I need to do is this,’ ” she said.

But Courtney King likes to throw in the movements, although not necessarily practicing the test as a whole.

“I do try to do as many of the test movements in my warm-up as possible,” she said.

“For instance, with a training level or first level horse, if you know you have to leg-yield, you can practice the leg-yield in the warm-up—not necessarily just the way it is in the test,” she explained. “You should practice the shape or outline of whatever test you’re doing in the warm-up. You might not have the amount of collection you’ll have in the test, but you should have the pattern in your horse’s mind so that you know you’ll have them in between your aids for the movements.”

Jeremy Steinberg usually runs through the test movements during his first ride.

“I like to quietly go through a lot of the movements of the test, so I know if there’s a problem I’ll need to work on later in the warm-up before the test. If I realize that there might be a problem with the pirouette on the centerline, I can stay away from doing the pirouette right on that spot, but I can do different exercises to make the pirouette better,” he said.
The bottom line is that you need to decide what works for you. If you feel you need to review every movement, be sure it’s not making your horse anticipate them. If you feel confident in performing the movements, then concentrate on exercises and the quality of the gaits.

A Few Common Pitfalls

•    Jeremy Steinberg warns against overdoing it in warm-up. “I think it’s human nature. Riders get nervous, and if something’s not good enough, you start harping on it because you want to make it better. The horses shut down a little bit to that. Sometimes you can ruin a movement by the time you get to the test by over-schooling it in the warm-up,” he said.

•    Courtney King advises riders to be time sensitive. “The worst thing is to be ready before your show time,” she said. “If you ride for 10 minutes, and you know that your horse is being good and you’ll have too much time, try to stagger short walk breaks throughout the warm-up instead of doing all of your warm-up and having to walk for 15 minutes right before your test.”

•    Practice makes perfect, and Carol Lavell encourages riders to attend schooling shows. “It really is ‘Discovery Channel’ on a young horse, and it does take some time. It’s well worth your while to take them places and put the time in,” she said. “Schooling shows are the best thing, or just take the horse along with you to ride if you’re showing another horse.”

•    “I think that the big mistake people make in their warm-ups is that they try and ride the warm-up like they ride the test,” said King. “They try to cover up if there’s a problem, instead of getting through the problem and fixing it so that they don’t have to cover it up in the test.”

Molly Sorge




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