Photo Credit: NBanaszak Photography

Every ride starts with a warm-up. But there is a huge difference between a warm-up and a Warm-Up.

Many people think that because the horse starts the ride "cold", that the warm-up has to be slow and under-power. They think that it takes a long time to let the horse's body warm up and therefore, they need to take things easy.

The warm-up proceeds at a fairly leisurely pace. The legs move, the horses truck along and riders feel that in ten or fifteen minutes, the "real" work can start. They do very little during that time - just stay on and get the horse moving. There may or may not be a canter in that first fifteen minutes or so, but even if there is, the canter is stiff and laborious.

After all, the horse shouldn't put too much effort into the movement that early in the ride. Right?

The Most Important Goal in Horse Riding

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Regardless of discipline, what would be the most significant effect a rider would want to have on her horse?

We all want our horses to improve in their athletic development, skill acquisition and connectedness. Much of our rider development and training efforts go into working toward our show or personal goals. These steps and stages are essential to our overall development.

But the best riders aspire to do one essential thing each and every day, regardless of goals and lesson plans.

They work hard to improve their horse's way of going. Because proper balance and weight carriage is essential to a horse's longevity.

Each and every minute of each and every ride has the potential to contribute to your horse's health and well-being. (Click here to tweet that if you agree.)

Or not.

Why You Don't Want to "Take It Easy" in the Warm Up

Despite your best intentions, the horse that moves incorrectly is the horse that is hurting himself. Without effective use of the hind end, the horse has more difficulty carrying the rider's weight.

The disengaged horse moves with short strides and a hollow back. The body is stiff and difficult to bend and the horse appears to be sluggish. Transitions come slowly. The horse leans into or out of turns. The body shows little suppleness.

The top line - the area over the back that carries the rider - sags.

Combined together, it is simple to see why slow and soft is not the way to go during a warm-up. It just isn't healthy for the horse.

Not that your riding should be harsh or aggressive. Somehow, you have to find the perfect middle.

So what is the alternative?

The Five Components of the Ultimate Warm-Up

The goal of the warm-up is not only to increase circulation and warm up the muscles. It is also to set the horse up to successfully carry the rider's weight with the best balance possible on that day. Only after the horse is moving well, can the "lesson", or more challenging part of the ride, begin.

1. Energy

The key to all things riding is energy. However, be sure that the energy doesn't translate into legs just moving quicker. Instead, use several half-halts to increase the energy without increasing leg speed. Transfer that energy into longer strides, a swinging back and bouncier movement (indicating better use of the muscles).

2. Topline Use

The horse that uses his top line develops good longitudinal flexion. In clearer terms, being supple over the top of the back means that the horse can carry the rider's weight in a healthier fashion. The muscles contract and release in tandem to allow the horse's back to act as a muscle "bridge" - thereby relieving some of the pressure off the horse's joints while it moves.

3. Bend

Every horse has a stiff and hollow side, but letting him go about the ring in tension is not the answer to the problem. In contrast, work on developing a deeper bend left and right early in the ride. The horse that has lateral suppleness has better balance.

4. Straightness

The horse that can bend well is also the horse that can move straight. In order to be straight, the horse's hind footprints should land into the same track as the front footprints. Beware! True straightness is difficult to develop and takes years of consistent riding to achieve.

5. Rhythm

There is little else in riding that is as essential as rhythm. Every other movement, skill or technique builds upon regular, cadenced footfalls regardless of gait. The warm up should be devoted to developing rhythm - sometimes quicker, sometimes slower and most often, the rhythm that is most ideal for your horse (horses may have different perfect rhythms).

Your warm-up may take only 15 minutes, or it may take up the majority of your ride on a given day. The length of time devoted to improving your horse's movement is always well spent, regardless of whether it seems to take longer than you initially intended. 

Although it seems counter-intuitive to ask for energy and suppleness early in the ride, it makes the most sense when considered from the horse's perspective. Simply put, weight-bearing requires energy, strength and suppleness. Instead of letting your horse move along in an unhealthy fashion, amp up the warm-up, ride effectively, get you and your horse breathing and work toward correct movement right from the get-go.

Then listen to your horse and see what he says.

What do you think about doing an active warm-up? Let us know about your warm-up routine. .

Finally! The Ultimate Rider-Centered Program!

Ready for something completely different? If you liked what you read here, you might be interested in the new Horse Listening Practice Sessions. 

This is NOT a program where you watch other people's riding lessons. Start working with your horse from Day 1.

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.Related articles:

First, Plan Your Ride. Then, Scrap It: Even though you are inspired to get that horse to do the next cool thing, your horse might simply not be ready.

What Being On The Forehand Means to the Horse: The idea here isn’t to cause guilt and doom and gloom; instead, we should learn all we can and take steps to avoid known problems.

Giving the Gift of Exercise: Do remember that the horse is hard-wired to move. Nothing pleases him as much as doing what he is supposed to do!

Dressage As A Healing Tool: Even at its most basic level (or perhaps, especially at the most basic levels), dressage holds a value to horses of all disciplines.

Frame, Round or Collection? Do you know the difference, and in a pinch, would you be able to identify it in a moving horse?


  1. I don’t really do an “official” warmup. I briefly ride with a completely loose rein and let the horse walk without any influence from me. From that walk, I feel where he is unbalanced or weak (that may change from day to day) and then decide what I can do to condition those areas of weakness. I may also trot a bit on a completely loose rein and then pick up a light contact. As soon as I’ve decided which areas need the most immediate help, we start to work. We may start the work at a walk, and if the diagnosis is correct and the problem areas are addressed the horse can get quite a workout (and even start breathing a bit heavily!) before we ever get around to working at the trot. Whatever I’ve worked on at the walk will continue through the trot, and perhaps into the canter. There are always frequent rest breaks when I know that what I’m asking is truly difficult for the horse. Later in the ride he will be much more supple and we can just have some fun and end on a happy note.

  2. I like this comment , the only difference for me is that I ride with the lightest of contact away from the block before work begins.

  3. Thanks for this! It seems that I have been doing it quite right all this time with my horse. We spend a lot of time on working the back muscles, getting a nice deep bend before picking up the pace.

  4. I just have a Question: Would it be better to begin the Warm-up from the ground? Then by the time the horse is asked to carry the rider, his muscles would have begun to be warm and carrying the rider would be easier.

  5. Great post! So true that the warm up will affect your ride, either positive or negative. I usually warm up with some in hand work first, getting the horse to stretch down through his neck, step under with his hind end, halt softly, and travel straight. Once I get on, I work on the same things but my horse is always more relaxed and soft after the in hand work!

  6. I am Thankful this Thanksgiving that I stumbled on to this Blog.
    Although Dressage is not my theater, I heavly value all of the topics and comments.
    I have been searching how to mend my riding form. Starting out in my younger days, it was remarked what a natural rider I was. Not enough money to pursue my dreams I set out on a life of hard work to afford my ambitions.
    The more I worked and had the means to progress the less my riding ability became. Curious; my very work postures slowly destroyed my suppleness and form.
    I knew something was wrong so I have begun my journey. I started out with a chiropractor, he suggested a few exercises. Thankful for the Internet because I keep searching to solve my issues. I have discovered that Posture and stretching are the key. I have even changed the way I walk.
    Keep up the great topics, you are nailing my issues big time. Especially the outside rein.

  7. Riding with a metronome is a great way to make small adjustments in order to keep the rhythm on track.

  8. Hi KiKu – You may want to look into the Alexander Technique which teaches you how to use your body in more effective ways without tension. There are great teachers who also happen to be dressage riders. I have mild (but painful) scoliosis and also sit at a desk all day — it’s made a profound difference in the way I carry myself on a day-to-day basis. I think it could really help you!