4 Tips to Plan Your Warm Up Before Show Day

by Nancy Wesolek-Sterrett
Head of Dressage Department, Meredith Manor International Equestrian Centre Tips for dealing with horse show jitters

Winning rides depend on a pre-class warm up specifically tailored for the individual horse. At the very least, a warm up routine establishes rhythm and relaxation while creating a connection to the aids. Trainers and seasoned competitors understand that one of the best ways to win classes is to plan the right warm up. Put another way, a poorly planned and executed warm up risks losing a class before they even go through the in gate.

Professionals plan their winning warm up before they leave home. They understand that weather, equine unpredictability, schedule changes and other factors out of their control can mess up the best laid plans. So well ahead of show day they load the odds of a smooth warm up in their favor by preparing and planning. Here are a few points to consider before you leave the barn so you have a warm up plan that maximizes your horse's performance and reduces your show jitters.

Know Yourself, Know Your Horse

This sounds so obvious. But how many times have you seen someone longeing their horse for hours to tire him out enough so they can feel comfortable getting on his back for a class? Or endlessly drilling on movements until their horse loses its edge before they go through the in gate? These are rider confidence issues and no warm up routine can fix them. Work at home to find better ways to deal with your energetic horse or to feel confident using and coordinating your aids before you start penciling shows on your calendar.

Knowing your horse means understanding his personality, particularly his activity drive. Activity drive is like money in the bank when you are showing horses. Horses with high activity drive have lots of energy to spend. Think of a barrel horse or event horse waiting to explode from the starting box. Horses conditioned to a high level of athleticism usually have a high activity drive that must be managed in their warm ups. Nervous, hyper horses may appear to have a high energy drive. But if it is just a show of nerves rather than a display of athletic conditioning, a heavy duty warm up routine may use up their energy and leave them with nothing to spend in their class. Then there are the horses with naturally low activity drive. Label them laid back or lazy, you do not want to spend too much of this horse's energy in your warm up. Warm his muscles check that he is on the aids, and save the rest for his arena performance.

Your horse's personality affects his reaction to trailering, to the new horses he finds around him at a show, to all the stimuli at the show grounds that he does not experience at home, and how well he eats and sleeps away from home base. Consider how all these environmental changes may affect your horse as you plan your show schedule. The warm up you ride at a show may or may not be very different from the one you ride before training sessions.

Does gender affect how you plan to warm up for classes? It might. Is your gelding a worrier or a stoic who may lose focus under stress? Your stallion who behaves perfectly at home may become ADHD as he tries to figure out where he fits among all the new horses he sees and smells. You may need to plan a longer warm up or a different routine to bring his attention back to you. Mare moods change as they go in and out of season. Do you know your mare's pattern? Will she get to the show and undergo a personality change?

You also need to factor physical issues into your warm up. What is your horse's current fitness level? What is his current training level? Do you have a geriatric horse that needs a gentle warm up for stiffer muscles and aging joints?

Choose Appropriate Shows and Classes

Your horse's age, training level, condition and energy drive will determine how many classes a day he can handle. For a weekend show, ideally you arrive on Friday to allow your horse time to work the travel kinks out of his muscles, settle down in the new environment, and return to as normal a pattern of eating, working, and resting as possible.

Be realistic about how much your horse can do each day. I am most familiar with dressage competitions so I will use them as an example. Lower level dressage horses that are building ring experience might do two tests the first day, with the tests spaced out to allow the horse time to rest and recuperate before warming up and working again. Then, because the horse will be more tired, I would schedule just one test on the second day before loading up and heading home. At the higher levels where much more collection and engagement are required, I like to limit a horse to one competition each day.

This is a schedule appropriate for horses that are showing infrequently. If you head to a show every weekend, your horse's experience and physical condition may allow you to do more before your horse's energy drive is spent. Another consideration in how many classes I may enter on a given day is whether I can schedule rest breaks and a proper warm up between the classes. This planning is easier for dressage riders than it is for, say, hunter competitors but do the best you can when entering. Know your horse and his fitness level.

Establish Routines

Horses are creatures of routine. Develop routines at home and follow them as closely as possible when you reach the show grounds. We teach our students of habit of approaching and working with their horses we call heeding. Heeding is a system of methodically applied horse pressures that create a feel in the horse of something you want him to do. Students use heeding when they open the stall door to greet their horse, while they groom, as they tack up, as they lead the horse to the arena, as they mount, and as they apply their riding aids. Establish consistent routines at home for all theses daily activities then continue to follow this same routine when you show. Your horse will settle in more easily and be ready to work more quickly despite all the distractions at the show grounds.

Build warm up routines into your training sessions then make them part of your show ring warm up. Have a plan and stick to the plan. The familiarity will help your horse relax and focus on your aids more easily. Even better, if you get caught short of time, running through even a shortened version of your full routine will feel familiar to the horse and help him get into 'the zone' before he enters the arena. Your warm up routine should stay with the familiar, with what the horse already knows. This is not the time for schooling (even though some disciplines refer to the 'schooling ring'). Try not to focus on your surroundings, just focus on yourself and your horse.

Have a Backup Plan

Develop warm up routines at home but be ready for circumstances like weather or class cancellations that can abruptly change the best laid plans. If your class is called early, be ready with a 'short program' warm up routine you can do in 5 to 10 minutes and be ready to go. However, stay calm and do not let the changed circumstances create a sense of anxiety that you transmit to your horse. Incorporate bending, leg yielding, walk-to-halt transitions, transitions within the gait, (collecting, then extending, then collecting again) and other exercises that can help your particular horse quickly ready his mind and body for the class.

If you are just starting to show a horse, it may take a few shows until you figure out the warm-up routine that best suits a particular horse. Plan your show routines but also plan to blow a show or two until you figure out what works for you and your horse. Remember that the most important thing is to have fun with your horse and enjoy the journey.

Your turn! Let us know what do you do to prepare for show day in the comments below.


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