With show season right around the corner, I thought I should go over some tips to help you in the warm-up ring. So many riders are confused about how to warm-up their horses so they can have a productive schooling session. So here are 9 tips to help you with your warm-ups.
As a rider and trainer, your goal in the warm-up is to take the restrictions away from your dressage horse's body. So depending on the day, your warm-up could be as short as 10 minutes, or it could end up making up your entire ride.
1. Since your horse has probably been standing in the stall, spend the first 5-10 minutes walking around on a loose rein.
2. After walking around "on the buckle" for several minutes, pick up a contact so you can begin your warm-up.
3. Focus on the first three ingredients in the Training Scale-Rhythm, Suppleness, and Connection. I always start my work on those first three ingredients on a large circle. Then if all goes well, I'll go large around the arena.
4. Rhythm: As you walk, trot, and canter around, check that the rhythm is always regular and the tempo is neither too fast nor too slow.
5. Suppleness: Spend as little or as much time as you need, suppling and relaxing your horse both mentally and physically. Work done in tension is a waste of time. When you supple your horse, you'll relax him physically. Once he's physically relaxed, he'll relax mentally.
In a nutshell, to supple your horse, bend his neck 7 inches to the inside of a neutral position (neutral is when his nose is in line with the crease in the middle of his chest) while you close your leg on the same side.
Do a set of " three supples" which means you'll bend and straighten him three times quickly but smoothly. Then do nothing for 7 or 8 strides. Then do another set of "three supples".
(This "suppling" technique is described in detail in Cross-Train Your Horse, Train with Jane Volume 1, and A Happy Horse Home Study Course.)
6. Connection: Use the "Connecting Half Halt" to put your horse on the bit. The "Connecting Half Halt" is the version of the basic Half Halt (a momentary closure of seat, legs, and hands) that puts your horse on the bit.
Close your legs steadily for 3 seconds as if asking for a lengthening, close your outside hand in a fist to capture and recycle the energy back to the hind legs, and keep the neck straight by giving 3-4 little squeezes or vibrations on the inside rein. The connecting half halt lasts approximately three seconds. During those three seconds, you "Add, add, add" hind legs through your closed outside hand while maintaining flexion at the poll to the inside.
In warm-up, I connect my horse and ride him either long and low, or if he tends to be heavy on the forehand, I ride in a "horizontal balance" with his topline is parallel to the ground.
7. When things fall apart, always go back to the beginning of the training scale. First, reestablish regular rhythm. Then, supple your horse. Finally, ask for connection.
8. While focusing on rhythm, suppleness and connection, it's appropriate to ask the training level horse to do school figures like circles, serpentines, and shallow loops.
The first and second level horse also can do school figures as well as leg-yields, and rubber band exercises like gentle lengthenings, and then coming back to the working gait.
9. Many riders do a lot of transitions from gait to gait with their dressage horses in the warm-up. Personally, I think your horse needs to be warmed up sufficiently first before you can expect him to do good transitions. So, I save schooling the transitions until the second phase of my work after the warm-up is complete.
A Happy Horse