The perfect warm-up

Leading riders share their tips for an effective preparation

main-maybe-event_cant_mcleans_061110_244An effective warm-up can mean the difference between a good dressage test and double clear, or a poor mark and rails down. We asked four top riders and a vet to reveal their top tips for perfect preparation.

Dressage is the easiest discipline to plan for, because you are given a time for your test. Unless things are running massively behind schedule (and it always pays to check on arrival), you can work back from your allotted slot.

When you arrive, figure out how long it’s going to take to get to the dressage arena, as running late will stress you and your horse. Before you start working in, find out which arena is yours and watch a test in it to ensure you’ve learned the correct one.

Top rider Andrea Bank aims to be on her horse and heading over to the work-in area about 40 minutes before her test. If she is doing two tests in the same day, she’ll allow a little less time than this for her second test. Some horses may not cope with as much work as this: Andrea says when riding the breeding stallion Limonit she would aim for a 30-minute warm-up and no more, because he was an internal stresser and would become mentally tired quite quickly.

Both at home and at shows, Andrea stretches her horses in walk, trot and canter, before giving them a walk break. Then she picks the horse up and runs through movements, then walks again to give them a breather. Her final ‘pick-up’ is five to eight minutes before her test.

“Obviously, I am a bit tougher at home and expect a bit more. But the work is still along the same lines. I just take it how it comes: some days they’ll be great, others they won’t.

“I move the horses around a lot and keep them really busy, especially the stallions, because sometimes they get a bit looky and nervous. I like to get them really ‘through’ their bodies, using lots of exercises: walk pirouettes, leg-yield down the long side, and transitions within the leg-yield, so you keep their hind leg under.”

Andrea Bank riding Limonit in the National Saddle Centre FEI Prix St George, Show Grounds, Hastings, Thursday, March 17, 2011. Credit: KAMPIC / Sarah Alderman
Andrea Bank and Limonit at HOY in 2011. (Image: KAMPIC/Sarah Alderman)

Andrea’s best tip for a hot horse that tends to run in the warm-up is to do loads of transitions but not too many straight lines: “When you ride straight lines, they get stronger and faster. Keep them turning. Do lots of leg-yielding and really try to get the weight back on to the hind leg.”

For a lazy horse, Andrea says the worst thing you can do is keep nagging with your leg or the whip, which only makes them duller. Instead, give a big enough aid (kick or slap with the whip) to get a really good response. “Don’t keep kicking because that makes it worse. And if they’ve just done something really good, just walk and take the pressure off. I like to give them lots of walk breathers.”

And if you get nervous, you’re not alone – it’s a matter of learning how to stay in your own bubble and using those nerves to your advantage, rather than being overwhelmed by the competition and freezing up. Andrea confesses that she does get nervous on competition day, but it’s a ‘good kind of nervous’. On the way to the shows, she listens to music and doesn’t like talking to anyone. “I put enough pressure on myself as it is, so I just switch off to everybody and listen to my iPod.”

Andrea’s routine

  • 40 minutes prior to test: get on and walk over to the arena
  • 35 minutes prior to test: stretching in walk, trot and canter, followed by walk break
  • 20-25 minutes prior to test: pick the horse up and ride movements, followed by walk break
  • 5-8 minutes prior to test: pick the horse up again


If you have a tense horse, keep them busy. You see people freezing in the warm-up, so the horses are looking and they get more and more worked up. Move them around the whole time, so their mind has to stay on you and they feel secure. If you stop riding, they get insecure and start being naughty.

Show jumping warm-ups

Show jumping warm-up rings are often chaotic, and it’s easy to be daunted by professionals seemingly taking over a fence – but remember you have every right to be there too! And, conversely, always be considerate, as it’s easy to become so focused on what you’re doing that you unintentionally cut off other horses.

Top show jumper Tess Williams doesn’t do a lot to warm up before a big class – her preparation definitely errs on the low-key side. If she’s on early in a class, she’ll get on half an hour before and just walk and trot around, to free the horse’s muscles up and get them relaxed. “Just stretching and lots of walking.”

If possible, Tess likes to watch five or six horses go, just to see how the course is riding, what strides they are doing and what the time is like. Then she’ll get on and walk and trot, in a pretty slow rhythm, before giving the horse a good open canter to stretch their back. “I’d rather have a long, slow warm-up, than a rushed one. I’m pretty relaxed most of the time.”

When Tess is about seven horses away, she’ll start jumping a cross-bar, then at five to six horses away, she’ll move on to verticals and oxers. “I always start on a smaller vertical and then I go on to an oxer. If the first fence is a vertical, I’ll finish on a vertical, but if the first fence is an oxer, I’ll finish on an oxer.

“I usually try to jump a fence just before I go in the ring. If I stand around by the gate, I usually have the first fence down!”

Tess Williams rides Alltech Craighaven Nitro in the Lady Rider of the Year at the 2011 Horse of the Year, Hastings, New Zealand, Thursday, March 17, 2011. Credit:KAMPIC / Kerry Marshall
Tess Williams rides and Craighaven Nitro in the Lady Rider of the Year (Credit:KAMPIC/Kerry Marshall)

The biggest mistake most people make is doing too much at the practice fence – jumping over and over, says Tess. “If your horse is jumping well, there’s no point in overdoing it. When my horse is feeling really good, I might only jump six or seven fences in total before I go in the ring.”

Like Tess, Olympic show jumper Katie Laurie concentrates on keeping her horses relaxed and confident at a show. “I don’t try to school them too much in the warm-up.”

For a Grand Prix class, Katie will make sure her horse is at the ring-side and has a trot around before she walks the course. She will begin her warm-up when there are about seven or eight competitors to go, and always starts off with a cross. “It’s so nice to canter down to a tiny fence first, so you can jump it with no pressure.”

After the cross, Katie will move on to a vertical, and will stay on it until it’s as high as she’s going to jump in the ring, before moving on to an oxer, which she won’t build as big. “Then I always do one last vertical before I go in the ring, because the oxer opens them up, and the vertical gets them back together a bit more.”

Both Katie and Tess like to take their horses out of their yards and ride them in the morning when at shows, to stretch their legs.

Katie’s routine

Prior to course walk: loosen the horse up with a walk and trot around

7-8 competitors to go:

  • Jump a cross-rail once or twice
  • Jump a vertical – start low, slowly increasing to the height you will jump in the ring
  • Jump an oxer – start low, again slowly increasing, but not quite to the maximum height required in your class
  • Jump one last vertical before heading into the ring

Warming up for cross-country

How much of a warm-up your horse will require for cross-country depends greatly on his type, the level, and whether you’ve already done your dressage and show jumping on the same day. However, at a horse trial where the cross-country runs separately, Olympic eventer Matthew Grayling allows about 20 minutes to warm up, assuming the horse has already been hand-walked in the morning.

“Basically, I walk over to the warm-up area and when I get there I will trot and canter around. I subtly decide whether I can go forward and come back, concentrating on getting the horse feeling relaxed, and jump the practice fence half a dozen times, trying to get a feel of how the horse is going on that particular day.”

Matthew also likes to jump a skinny, and a couple of fences off an angle (although nothing drastic). “The main idea is to leave the start box in a nice relaxed frame with the horse feeling happy.”

Matthew tends to tailor his warm-up depending on the horse he’s riding. He’s had some hotter types which require more cantering initially to settle down, while others, such as the warmblood-cross NRM Lowenberg, who is a colossal 17.3hh, need a longer loosening up period. “I tend to trot him for five to 10 minutes, then canter, before giving him a break, because I’ve found when we go to the beach, his second canter is often better than his first one. I will also up the speed with him in the warm-up and give him a bit of a blow, then give him another break for five minutes before going into the start box. With all my horses, I try to give them a breather and settle the heart rate before I go into the box.”

Mathew Grayling riding NRM Lowenberg in the 3 star 3 Day Event, Equestrian Park, Hastings, Friday, March 19, 2011. Credit: KAMPIC / Sarah Alderman
Mathew Grayling and NRM Lowenberg (Credit: KAMPIC/Sarah Alderman)

Matthew’s daughter Charlotte devised a unique warm-up routine for her two-star horse NRM Ru Star, who had a tendency to get very stressed at the start box: she got on about an hour before her cross-country and warmed up by hacking around, well away from the start box. She would then ride back to the truck to get ready, and go straight down to the start box not having jumped a single fence!

Overall, Matthew’s best advice is not to over-jump your horse at the practice fence. “I wouldn’t ever jump more than 10 to 15 jumps, and I have gone straight to the start-box from the truck through running late and found it made no difference. I do think some people jump a bit too much and also try to create too much speed at the practice fence, which winds the horse up – and everyone else who is watching.”

Matthew’s routine

  • Walk to start box.
  • 20 minutes prior to cross-country start:
  • Trot and canter around
  • Check you can go forward and come back, but be subtle – keep the horse relaxed
  • Jump the practice fence a few times, concentrating on giving the horse a nice ride
  • Jump a skinny
  • Jump a couple of fences on an angle
  • Give your horse a breather so his heart rate settles before heading to the start box

The vet’s viewpoint

Equine vet Dr Dave van Zwanenberg explains that warming up is not just about practising a few dressage moves or popping over a couple of fences. It actually kick-starts the physiological processes that make exercise more efficient and safer. Understanding exactly how warming up works can help you make sure your horse is in optimum condition when the bell rings.

What happens physiologically?

Warming-up gives time for the body to increase blood flow to the muscles, explains Dave. “At rest, 10-15% of blood flow goes to muscles. At high intensity work, around 70% of blood flow goes to muscles. It takes time for this to occur. Increased blood flow equals increased delivery of oxygen to muscles, which leads to increased aerobic capacity of the muscles to work. It also allows for quicker removal of waste products from muscle and all-round better muscle efficiency. Warm-up also leads to more efficient gas exchange in the lungs. Exercise stimulates contraction of the spleen. Resting horses store a large volume of red blood cells in their spleen in reserve, as at rest they are not required. Exercise creates contraction of the spleen and addition of these red blood cells to the circulation, increasing the oxygen-carrying capacity of the blood.

“Warming up also increases blood flow to the nervous system, which allows for faster neuronal input. 

“Correct warming up means there is less likely to be an accumulation of lactic acid, because you have increased the aerobic capacity of the muscles, meaning more (or all) of the energy required can be produced aerobically, rather than anaerobically.”

How long, how hard?

What sort of warm-up the rider should do, and for how long, is the million dollar question, says Dave. “The answer is not that easy as it varies depending on the activity being performed and there are different trains of thought. It tends to be horse-specific and what works for one may not work for another, although typically a good warm-up should last 20-30 minutes.

“One train of thought is to do basic muscle warm-up and then concentrate on specific movements after basic warm-up. This should start with low-level aerobic exercise to increase blood flow to muscles – a loose-rein walk for 5-10 minutes before progressing on to relaxed trot and then possibly canter as well. Once the horse is feeling looser in the canter and trot, the rider can drop back to some more complex movements – lateral work if dressage, or small jumps for show jumping or cross-country to encourage stretching. The basic premise of all warm-ups is to start gently and gradually build in intensity.

“The second train of thought is to incorporate specific movements into the initial warm-up – for example, at loose-rein walk start asking for lateral movements, or in canter start asking for changes early on to focus switching on of neuronal pathways. Depending on the horse, some will warm up better with one routine compared to another. It’s best to try different approaches and see what works and feels best.”

Dave’s warm-up tips

  • Timing is key, as there is no point going through a warm-up routine only to sit stationary ringside for 20 minutes and have the circulation to muscles slowly switch off.
  • Warm-up starts from the time you hop on the horse and doesn’t have to feel like work – for example, a loose-rein walk to the work area for 5-10 minutes.
  • It doesn’t matter whether the temperature is hot or cold; it takes around the same length of time to increase blood flow to the muscles, whatever the weather.
  • Warm-down is equally important, as it allows for continued blood flow through the muscles and removal of waste products quickly, which should reduce muscle soreness for the following day.