It happens all the time.jump

Horse and rider stroll into the arena, all set to get started on their ride. You can see it from the moment they enter: the rider is walking nonchalantly to the mounting block. Her horse is even less inspired. He ambles along five steps behind her and seemingly requires coaxing, begging - maybe intimidation - to finally set up close enough to the mounting block for the rider to mount.

Once mounted, the "feel"  of the ride doesn't improve. The horse continues in his lackadaisical manner. The rider is busy doing everything but riding. She adjusts her clothes, fiddles with the reins, chats with other riders or checks out the car that happens to drive by at that moment.

The one thing missing is the enthusiasm and playfulness that characterizes a useful, productive and enjoyable beginning to a ride.


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I have to admit it - the scene above is an exaggeration. But it makes the point: we often get into a warm-up riding rut that becomes uninspiring and tediously routine. Rather than developing an essential first connection with the horse, the opposite happens. Although the rider is right there on top of the horse, there is so little going on between her and your equine partner that they might as well pack it in before they even begin!

Should you ride effectively during a warm-up?

Of course!

Here are five ideas that you can use to amp up your warm up! *Remember to play everything by ear; if your horse needs a more gradual warm-up, start slower and then build up to the canter well into the middle of the ride.

1. Go for a warm-up trail ride.

Heading off for even a casual walk on the trails warms up the horse's mind and body in a way that the ring riding never can. Have a bit of fun for the first 15 to 25 minutes roaming the fields and woods, smelling the fresh air and jazzing up the horse's body. Move into a trot and maybe even a canter when the time is right, and even start playing with some of the ring exercises right out there on the trails.

Your horse will almost certainly re-enter the riding ring with a better mental attitude. Add energy to enthusiasm and you will find a calmer, softer, more limber horse ready for the following studying session.

2. Go for a canter. 

Although it seems counter-intuitive, hopping off into a canter even at the get-go will give your horse more "go-go" right off the bat. You don't have to canter for long; just transition and take a few strides before heading off into a correct, ground-covering trot.

Sometimes, the horse feels tense and tight and a little over-exuberant at the beginning of a ride. A short canter helps let him know he can move when he wants to, and often reassures him in a way that stifling the energy just won't be able to.

Alternately, the sluggish horse benefits from a quick get-yer-blood-going stimulation. Just get into the canter and then evaluate. You might want to back off into a trot and let him breathe and snort. Or you might get more benefit from a longer canter series until the horse loosens up and moves more willingly.

3. Use ground poles and get creative.

One way to change the routine while warming up in the ring is to walk/trot/canter through randomly or purposely positioned ground poles. Teach the horse to pay attention to where his feet are going and provide some mental challenge as he learns to negotiate space, striding and timing. Once the horse feels fairly secure, throw in transitions coming into or out of the poles. Circle away from the pole and return back on a different angle. Go over the poles on a diagonal line. Halt coming to a pole. Canter away from a pole. Decide on a short pattern and take your horse through it several times.

4. Have some cavaletti fun.

Pull out the cavaletti if you have some (or use jump cups to lift jump poles off the ground) and get the horse to elevate his legs. Raise them to the higher height for little mini-jumps or leave them lower so the horse can go over with just a leg-lift. In both cases, a series of cavaletti can serve as a quick wake-me-up and blood circulating exercise.

5. Play from the ground.

You don't have to ride a horse during the warm-up. Playing with the horse from the ground might be just the exercise your horse wants! Alternate with either a free-lunging session or be more structured with some in-hand work. Although there most certainly is an art to groundwork, and you will notice dramatic development as your skills and ability to communicate improve, there is no harm in some trial and error.

In each of these scenarios, you will notice that your horse warms up mentally and physically toward a more focused, supple and responsive workout. Set up a more productive ride by changing things up, looking forward to new challenges, and stepping out of the round-and-round ring routine that so often becomes our pattern. Add a little creativity to the beginning of your ride and see what your horse has to say about it!

What do you do to amp up your warm-up? Let us know in the comments below.

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If you enjoyed the above article, you might also like:

Top 5 Reasons Why You Should Ride Horses Like You Downhill Ski: If you’ve ever skied downhill, you too might recognize the parallels between skiing and horseback riding. 

Five Reasons Why It Takes Two People to Ride One Horse: Why it's helpful when both of you work toward the same goal - one from the back of the horse, and the other from the ground.

Can You Accordion Your Horse? At our barn, we’ve turned the noun into a verb. We call it “accordioning” because the horse stretches out over the topline and then, a few strides later, he shortens once again.

9 Things You Need to Know if You Want to Ride Horses: Tips you wish you'd known before you started riding.

20 Signs That Your Horse Benefits From Your Riding: If you know how to interpret his signs and communications, all your questions will essentially be answered, especially in terms of how well your riding is going.


  1. I always start our workout with inhand work, usually just at the walk – circles, stepping under, walking over ground poles, sidepassing, backing. I find all this gets her attention and focusses her mind on me and the fact that I’ll be asking her for ‘stuff’. She is very smart and has an active mind and is interested in everything, so this gets her looking at me. Then we go to the round pen and I free work her a few minutes, trotting each way, reversing, halting, jogging, and finally a little canter each way. This is more to ‘take her temperature’, for me to see if we’re going to be a hot ride, or a calm ride. I can also check her movement for stiffness, gait hitches, or, God forbid, lameness. By the end of this she’s ready for me to “get on, already”, and she comes up to position when I walk to the mounting block!

    1. I really like your warm up idea. I do similar things on the ground first. Certainly stops any likelihood of silliness and gets them in a listening mode.

  2. I love #5 – groundwork. I have made this almost a must before I ride any of my horses. Sometimes I play with them at liberty, other times we work on softness and tracking under with the in-hand work. Either way, the ride is much more connected and my horses are much more engaged, mentally and physically!

  3. Even though I breed and do the early training for our farm, I always start on the ground. It sets the tone for the ride. At 69, it is preventive medicine. For anyone reading this post, I err on the side of caution every time. And so far…all is good.

    1. I too am 69 and I was thrown last year by a young horse because of not doing the warm up in ground work first. Luckily no damage but a reminder that I must not cut corners. It is an absolute must for me now, and the horses enjoy it as well.

  4. So happy to see the suggestion of taking the horse out on the trail. A steady diet of any thing can become old and repetitive. If a rider has access to trails it’s a great place to implement training.

  5. I have an OTTB and that means we canter as soon as we’ve warmed up with a nice walk “on the buckle.” He even gets upset if I try to skip the canter and work on the trot. (HE knows the routine. It’s his pathetic mother who forgets all the time, ha!) I’ve had more than one trainer tell me that the trot work is ALWAYS better after the canter warmup–and that TBs really aren’t taught to trot. They are bred to run, so the canter is a scaled back version of race mode. I love to ride the canter, too. So much easier than the “sewing machine trot” of the TB after a walk warmup. ;o)