Getting your warm-up right is a key element in producing your best performance in the dressage arena.
Unfortunately, there’s no set time to suit every horse and situation; if you don’t allow long enough, your horse may be too sharp and tense, and if you overdo it, he might run out of steam halfway through the test.
So, in this article, we’re going to identify things that you should not do during your warm-up, cover eight factors that can influence the length of your warm-up, provide you with five steps to create your own warm-up plan, and give you some tips on how to time your warm-up to perfection.
Why is your warm-up important?
You would never expect an athlete to perform without warming-up first, and your horse is no different.
If you get on your horse, pick up the reins, and immediately start to ride him in the frame and outline that you expect for the competition, then not only can you cause your horse physical discomfort and injury but your horse may also become resistant and start to display difficult and uncooperative behavior.
Your warm-up is important because it prepares your horse, both physically and mentally, for the work that is to come. For this reason, you must warm your horse up diligently every time you ride him, not just for the purpose of competition.
Physical preparation – prevention of injury
As the name suggests, one of the reasons for the warm-up is to warm up your horse’s muscles.
This process gradually increases your horse’s cardiovascular system and heart rate, helping to pump blood and oxygen around his body to your horse’s muscles, and preparing his body for work.
This extra oxygen will help to improve the elasticity of your horse’s muscles and the efficiency of his movement, allowing him to perform more strenuous movements with ease.
A horse that is asked to perform with cold and tight muscles will struggle to show full body suppleness and will be at a greater risk of injury and lameness.
Mental preparation – getting him “tuned-in”
As well as physical preparation (see above), the warm-up also gives you the opportunity to mentally prepare your horse.
You don’t roll out of bed in the morning instantly on your A-game ready to start work. Instead, you’ll probably have a morning routine that sets you up for the day and gets you mentally prepared. This same principle applies to your horse.
So, during your warm-up, you need to gradually bring your horse “onto your aids.”
Through the use of transitions and school movements, your goal is that at the end of your warm-up, your horse is attentive and responsive to your aids ready for the test ahead.
This “tuning-in” process should not be forgotten, especially in the face of stiff competition. Many dressage tests are won or lost due to the mental preparation that did or did not happen during the warm-up.
What not to do during your test warm-up
When you are at a competition, the purpose of the warm-up is to get you and your horse ready (both physically and mentally) to perform a dressage test.
With that goal in mind, here are three things that you should not do during your warm-up.
1. Do not try to teach your horse anything new.
Your competition warm-up is not a training session!
Trying to teach your horse something new under the additional pressure of an imminent dressage test can lead to both you and your horse becoming tense and losing confidence.
You should already be able to ride and perform all the dressage movements in the class you have entered.
If there are any movements that are a bit shakey, then you may wish to ride that individual movement once or twice during your warm-up, but do not try to make any drastic improvements or make too big of a deal out of it. Instead, just accept that you’re not going to score very highly on that movement and focus on picking up extra marks on the other movements that you and your horse can do well.
2. Do not ride through your whole test, although you may want to practice snippets of it.
Riding through the whole test during your warm-up can not only tire your horse out (see #3) but your horse may learn the test too! This can result in your horse anticipating upcoming movements, which can ruin your performance between the whiteboards.
Test riding is also very different from warming-up. During test riding, you must follow the test instructions and ride movements in a set order and at a set place. If your horse loses balance, is slow to respond to your aids, or becomes too strung out, then you do not want to be continuing with a test if you don’t have to. Instead, you need to ride circles, transitions, and other school movements in order to re-establish those lost qualities in your horse’s overall way of going.
Plus, you don’t want to ride your best test in the warm-up arena!
3. Do not tire your horse out.
In order for your horse to give his best performance, he needs to have some energy left in the tank.
If you have done too much during the warm-up, leaving your horse physically and mentally fatigued, he is not going to be able to produce his best work. Your horse is also less likely to enjoy his experience of competing and may start to become resistant.
If you feel as though you have to exhaust your horse (either by riding or lunging) before you can safely and confidently ride a dressage test, then there is a physical and/or training issue that needs to be explored.
Factors that influence the length of your warm-up
There is no ‘one-size-fits-all-time-limit’ when it comes to warming up your horse and getting him ready to perform.
The time you need to allow will change based on the individual horse and the conditions that you have to face on the day.
Here are eight factors you need to take into consideration.
1. The age of your horse
An older horse will need a little bit longer to get his muscles warm and loose at the beginning of the warm-up.
Young horses, much like small children, can tire quickly, especially from the excitement of competition. So, to help keep their concentration, the warm-up may need to be a short one.
2. Your horse’s fitness
It goes without saying that your horse should be fit enough to be able to perform the required test. However, you still need to take into account your horse’s fitness levels when warming-up.
If your horse doesn’t have a high level of fitness, then you definitely don’t want to be riding endless canter circles and tiring him out. So, adjust your warm-up accordingly.
3. Your horse’s temperament
A hot or easily excitable horse may require more time to walk around and relax in a competitive atmosphere compared to another horse who is naturally more laid-back.
On the flip side of the coin, a more laid-back horse may need to spend more time working on transitions to get him attentive and responsive to your aids.
4. Your horse’s level of experience
If your horse is green and unaccustomed to working away from home or in a competition environment, you might need to spend longer at the beginning of your warm-up than what you would do if your ride was a seasoned campaigner with many shows under his belt.
The more experienced horse is likely to settle into his work much more quickly.
5. The weather and temperature
If the sun is shining and it’s a roasting-hot day, your warm-up can be shorter because your horse’s muscles will already be warm. You also don’t want to be working your horse up into a sweat which can lead to dehydration and reduced energy.
Alternatively, if it’s cold, windy, and/or raining, you will need to keep walk periods to a minimum to prevent your horse from getting colder as opposed to warmer.
Related Read: How to Compete in Bad Weather
6. The buzz of the environment
If you’re at a big competition, your horse may need a bit of extra time to settle and relax in an atmosphere where there is a lot going on.
In comparison, if you’re at a smaller and quieter competition, your horse is more likely to settle quickly and be ready for work.
7. Travel time
Traveling is both mentally and physically tiring for your horse. Therefore, if you have traveled a long way, your horse may be a bit stiff to begin with, needing a bit of extra time to limber up.
If he is mentally tired, then try to keep the warm-up short, only doing what is necessary so as to not deplete his energy levels any further.
8. Your temperament as the rider
Remember that your horse is only half of the partnership and you need to get yourself ready for the dressage test too!
As well as physically and mentally preparing your horse during the warm-up, you need to physically and mentally prepare yourself so that you too are “in the zone” and ready to give your best performance.
Before getting on your horse, take a deep breath and forget about all the other things you have to do and all of your other responsibilities. You need to be mentally “in the game” so that you can prepare and position your horse correctly, allowing him to do his job to the best of his ability.
Listen to your horse!
More than likely, you’re going to have to mix and match some of the advice and tips that we have given above. For example, your horse might be young, relatively laid-back but inexperienced, and it could be raining on the day.
You know your horse better than anyone else, and through competition experience and a bit of trial and error, you will learn what works best for your horse in each situation and how long he needs for each phase of the warm-up to get him ready to compete.
Your warm-up plan
As we’ve discussed, the length of time for your warm-up will change based on your individual horse and the situation on the day, but all warm-ups should still go through the same steps.
Here are five steps that you will need to follow in your pre-test warm-up.
*We have put a timing guideline for each step, but remember that this can vary due to the factors we have outlined above.
Step 1 – Check the class and timing
Before you even tack your horse up, check that your class is running on time. There’s nothing more frustrating than having your horse all ready for his test, only to discover that the judge is running 20 minutes late and your perfectly-timed warm-up is consequently ruined.
This is also a good time for you to watch a few other competitors and make sure that you know your dressage test and where you’re going. You can also do a few stretches to help loosen yourself up, especially if you have been traveling for a while, and to mentally prepare yourself.
Timing guideline: 15-30 minutes *
Step 2 – Let your horse take in his new surroundings
Allow your horse some time to adjust to the atmosphere and to look around. He is more than likely going to step out of a metal box with no idea of where he is.
Depending on the venue and your horse’s temperament, this can be done by walking your horse in-hand or you can mount the horse and walk on a relaxed rein.
This step also gives your horse time to decompress from traveling and to start moving his body again; standing in the same place for an hour or two inside a moving horsebox or trailer is not natural for the horse.
Once your horse has taken in his surroundings, you can then move on to step 3.
Timing guideline: 5-10 minutes *
Step 3 – Establishing relaxation
You should now be on your horse in the warm-up arena where your first goal is to establish relaxation, looseness, and confidence in unfamiliar surroundings.
Related Read: How to Reduce Tension and Get Your Horse to Relax
This first part is best done in walk on a long rein. During the walk, ask your horse to stride purposely forward without rushing him, going large around the arena and riding some large circles.
Towards the end of this step, you can shorten your reins a little but still keep your horse in a stretched frame.
Timing guideline: 8-12 minutes*
Step 4 – Rhythm, suppleness, and contact (first 3 training scales)
This next part of your warm-up should focus on establishing the first three training scales of rhythm, suppleness, and contact.
So, transition to trot, still in a stretched-out frame, and focus on working your horse in a regular rhythm and at a suitable tempo.
NOTE: Even if you are required to ride in sitting trot during your dressage test, this stage of your working-in routine should be ridden in rising trot so that your horse can fully loosen through his back.
You can then transition to canter, still in a long frame and focussing on rhythm, and have a canter on each rein, possibly riding a few large circles before transitioning back to walk.
During your first canter, although you still want to have your bum in the saddle, don’t sit deep and heavy. Instead, sit lightly so that your horse can warm-up and work through his back. You can start to sit deeper as you progress through the warm-up.
Throughout these exercises and simple transitions, you want to be encouraging your horse to politely seek an elastic contact with your hands, as well as checking your horse’s responsiveness to your aids and half-halts.
Don’t move on to the next stage of your working-in routine until you have your horse working actively from your legs, through a supple back, and into an elastic contact.
Timing guideline: 5-10 minutes *
- The Scales of Training: Scale 1 – Rhythm
- The Scales of Training: Scale 2 – Suppleness
- The Scales of Training: Scale 3 – Contact
Step 5 – Impulsion, straightness, and collection (last 3 training scales)
Once you’ve achieved step 4, you can then focus on building impulsion, straightness, and collection (at the lower levels, collection refers to balance), and bringing your horse up into his normal working frame.
- How to Change Your Horse’s Frame and Outline
- The Scales of Training: Scale 4 – Impulsion
- The Scales of Training: Scale 5 – Straightness
- The Scales of Training: Scale 6 – Collection
Correctly ridden upwards and downwards transitions will help to bring your horse’s hind legs more underneath him, improving his uphill balance (collection) and allowing you to build impulsion.
Only when your horse is working forward with a suitable amount of impulsion can you refine his straightness through the use of correctly ridden circles and lateral exercises such as shoulder-fore and shoulder-in.
Transitions also help to focus your horse’s mind on your aids, keeping your horse reactive to your leg and seat.
- How to Progress With Transitions
- How to Ride Transitions “On and Back” Within the Paces
- How to Use Circles in Dressage Training
It is during this stage of your warm-up that you can work through some of the movements that are required, but remember that you do not need to practice everything and you should not ride through the whole test. You can also ride in sitting trot (if required) and sit deeper in the canter work.
Once you have completed this step and your horse is attentive and tuned into your aids, you’re ready to go into the arena.
Timing guideline: 10-15 minutes *
Timing your warm-up
It’s a good idea to time your usual warm-up routine at home. After all, if you don’t know how long it usually takes to get your horse “in the zone” and ready to produce his best work, how will you know what time you need to allow to warm-up at a competition?
Horses are creatures of habit, so it’s a good idea to always use the same warm-up routine that you use at home. This should help to settle your horse as he’ll feel comfortable and secure within the familiarity of his usual workout.
As a general rule of thumb, it’s advisable to add at least an extra 15 minutes to your usual working-in time when attending a competition. This additional time is so your horse can have a good look around, relax, and stretch from traveling.
If your warm-up is going well and you think you might have allowed too much time, put in a few long rein stretch breaks in between schooling exercises and movements.
Whatever you do, don’t just sit there watching the world go by as your horse falls asleep! You need to keep his attention and keep him moving.
Five minutes before you’re due to enter the arena, ride a few transitions to get your horse tuned-in and ready for his test.
What if it doesn’t go to plan?
We are not robots, and neither are our horses, therefore, there will be times when things don’t quite go to plan.
Maybe it’s a big competition and you’re feeling the pressure, maybe the work-in arena has limited space or is busier than what you and your horse are used to, or maybe you’re both just having a bit of an off day. These things happen.
In these situations, try not to lose your confidence. Instead, use it as a training opportunity.
Transition to walk on a long rein and/or find a quiet corner to stop and think logically about what is happening and how you can solve the problem.
Related Read: How to Troubleshoot Dressage Problems
If you can’t solve it completely, then you can at least think about how to improve the situation and make the best out of what you’ve got.
Make sure that you and your horse still have a positive experience, even if that means riding up the centerline, retiring, and allowing your horse to walk around between the whiteboards in a relaxed manner before giving him a pat and exiting the arena.
As long as your horse comes home having had a positive experience, the score you receive is irrelevant. They’ll be plenty of time to work on increasing your test scores once you and your horse can confidently complete the warm-up away from home and under the pressures of competition.
The answer to the question, “How long should I warm-up for before a dressage test?” could simply be, “How long is a piece of string?”
The duration of your warm-up depends on many factors including the age, fitness, and experience of your horse, the weather conditions on the day, and the amount of buzz in the competition atmosphere.
It’s really just a matter of trial and error and listening to your horse, but you can use the advice given above to help formulate a plan that works for the both of you.