Betsy Steiner's Thirty Minute Warm-Up

From top FEI dressage rider/trainer Betsy Steiner, an easy-to-remember warm-up program that completely prepares you and your dressage horse to school, take a lesson, or ride a test. From the editors of Practical Horseman magazine.
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From top FEI dressage rider/trainer Betsy Steiner, an easy-to-remember warm-up program that completely prepares you and your dressage horse to school, take a lesson, or ride a test. From the editors of Practical Horseman magazine.

If you're like many riders, your warm-up plan isn't too organized. You may start with a few laps around the rail, but you're not sure you tracked right as well as left. You never quite get your horse in gear, he keeps spooking at a rustling in the bushes, you stop to gossip with friends, you canter a little-and neither of you gets focused or ready to work. But when you use a thoughtful warm-up program . . .

Betsy Steiner | ? Mandy Lorraine

Betsy Steiner | ? Mandy Lorraine

  • You warm up gradually and thoroughly. You stretch and supple your horse on both sides. You check your aids and his reactions to them. You make sure he's attentive. You keep moving (which builds and maintains his, and your, focus). And you find that when you're organized and productive, thirty minutes isn't very long.
  • You start learning how your horse's body feels and changes as he warms up-but until you know, you have your timed routine; you don't have to rely solely on feel. (Thirty minutes is usually right for developing suppleness and willing cooperation while leaving enough eoomph for the work to come.)
  • You don't have to school as long or as hard because you've prepared your bodies to do the work required.
  • You can use the warm-up alone to start a young horse or (if you're fighting a busy day) to exercise a more advanced one and come away saying, "I stretched and suppled him. I tested his responses to my aids -moving forward from my seat and legs through his back, and into contact with the reins. I worked him aerobically, put him together, and got him balanced. And I built focus. For today, that's enough."
  • You have a basic system that works at any level. It's practical for any horse, from Training Level to Grand Prix. You know you can't expect a horse who's just been through a demanding weekend clinic or show, followed by a Monday with just hand-walking or turnout, to pick up where he left off. This system eases him back in naturally instead of forcing things.
  • You and your horse have a familiar, confidence-building routine for keeping his attention at clinics or shows-where everything is more exciting and distracting.

Here's How You'll Ride It:
To get the most from this warm-up:

  1. Remember to wait for your horse's response after you ask for something, be it a more forward step or a softening on the bit.
  2. Keep your concentration and stay active for thirty minutes straight. Have a purpose in everything you do. If either of you starts huffing and puffing during the trot or canter, let a businesslike free walk across the diagonal be your breather.
  3. Run a quiet, methodical checklist. Ask every question you can think of-"Does he feel light and easy, or earthbound?Is his rhythm regular and energetic? Is he straight? Is he slowing down?Is he leaning against my leg? Is my leg on?Am I looking up? Are my elbows softly bent? Is he pulling on the right rein?" For thirty minutes, let nothing take your focus away from you and your horse.
  4. Keep things simple. Work on basic qualities, like rhytm and relaxation, your horse's willing response to your aids, and the correctness and energy of his gaits-a clear, marching four-beat walk, an energetic two-beat trot, a lively three-beat canter.
  5. Count everything. Before I begin a movement or transition, I say, "One, two, three, four, ready, set, go, and-" in time with my horse's stride. Counting keeps me accurate, keeps me from wandering, keeps me honest (I can't bail out and say, "Whoops, forgot that, I'll start over)-and because it's tied to his rhythm, the movement seems to make more sense to him.
  6. Make sure your girth is tight enough; then mount. Make sure the saddle fits comfortably on your horse's back and you're comfortable in the saddle. When you feel secure, take the reins in one hand, put your other hand on his neck, and pat him, so you immediately establish communication and connection, as if telling him, "Everything is OK and steady. Let's go to work together."

First Fifteen-Minute Set: Supple And Stretch
Take up the reins in what I call a "half-long" length: relaxed and easy, but not loose. You don't want to throw your horse away-that's not gymnasticizing, and you risk him taking off-but you also don't want short reins and collection, which would just create tension because neither of you is ready for them. With half-long reins, he can step forward and touch the bit, round his neck, keep his nose a little in front of the vertical, give you a light, conversational contact, and still take the long, energetic steps you want-but if he spooks or gets silly, you can quickly shorten up. If he isn't particularly spooky but you know he can be too fresh and fidgety to focus on his work, longe him for a few minutes before riding.

Five minutes of walk -- Begin on a twenty-meter circle in your horse's easier direction-the right, say-with your inside leg at the girth and your outside leg a touch behind the girth. Look up and ahead where you're going. Check his response to your seat by asking him to walk more energetically forward with a little longer step: Flatten your lower back, open your chest, push your seat bones into the saddle, and close your upper leg from hip to knee.

If he ignores you or gives a ho-hum response, reinforce your aid with a squeeze of your lower leg or a quick touch of your spur. If he feels stiff or heavy on a rein, ask him to soften by closing your fingers as if squeezing water out of a sponge, then relax them again to encourage him to go forward. Check to see that he readily comes back when you firm up your lower back in a half-halt, then steps forward again when your back becomes soft and following. Change rein out of the circle (as if making a figure-eight) and do the same sequence in his harder direction until he's going energetically forward, stretching and reaching fro the bit.

Ten minutes of trot and canter -- Start in or spend more time in the gait in which your horse warms up best-let's say it's the trot. Shorten your reins, but not so much that his nose comes behind the vertical. Sit the trot a few strides to get organized and make sure he's responding to your seat and leg; then start posting. Encourage him to go forward by going down one long side, across the diagonal, and up the other. As you post, let your hips move forward, imagine you're pulling your weight down your upper leg from your hip, and tighten into your knee. As you sit, relax everything.

As you rise, pull forward again and check your position: Is your chest open and is your lower back flat, with your ear, shoulder, and hip aligned, so your legs are firmly on your horse? (If he's fresh, start on a twenty-meter circle. Straight ahead may mean forward, but it could also mean getting longer and stretching away until you've lost him. The circle gives you more control, so you can let him trot out and still keep his attention if he gets nervous.)

After a couple of twenty-meter circles in each direction , motivate your horse (you don't want him to get stuck in one thing) by lifting him smoothly into a canter. In the first few strides, allow him a little longer rein so he has the freedom to move through his body, bring his back up, and supple and loosen his muscles. Follow the movement with your hips and a secure seat. (If he tends to start out stiff, lighten your seat for the first few strides, but remember that a light seat can make a horse frisky.)

Hold both legs securely against his sides and try to feel him evenly between your legs and directly underneath you. Keep your inside leg firmly at the girth so he doesn't fall in on the circle, and and your outside leg back from your hip so he maintains the inside bend and his haunches don't fall to the outside. Keep a steady contact on your outside rein so his shoulder doesn't drop out, and use a squeeze-relax feel on the inside rein to maintain his bend to the inside.

After a couple of circles, prepare for a trot transition. Close your upper leg, from hip to knee, down and around your saddle. Sit into your horse-flatten your lower back, bring your shoulders back slightly, and scoop your seat bones forward-and as he steps into the trot with feeling, squeeze your lower legs to maintain a steady rhythm.Sit the trot a few strides; then canter again. After several transitions, come out of the circle and change rein across the diagonal with a trot change at X. With each trot transition, ask yourself if his trot is a little more relaxed and supple than before. Is he reaching more into your hand? Is he stretching more over his back, so that you feel he's bringing his body up underneath you?

Back at the canter, ask him to move more freely forward. Count, or use words such as "Ready, set, go, and-"; then flatten your back, push with your seat, and move your hand forward to give him the room to go until he gives you the feeling that his haunches are coming more powerfully underneath. Then bring him back and try again.

By the end of this first fifteen-minute set, your horse should be softer in both reins, moving from behind (in a relaxed way) through all the muscles over his back and neck, and giving you the feeling that you're sitting on an arc reaching from his tail to his poll. Walk, pat him, and move on to the second set.

Second Fifteen-Minute Set: Balance And Move Him Together
Five minutes of walk -- Walk a twenty-meter square with a quarter-turn in each corner, three times in each direction. If you get stuck, put your horse on a twenty-meter circle until he's forward and rhythmic again, then come back to the square.

You want this work to be an easy, relaxing "non-issue" (after fifteen minutes going long and stretching, he should be more than willing to listen and let you figure out your balance and his responses), but concentrated. The energy's there, but it's very positive and focused and disciplined; neither of you is wasting energy by fighting with the bit or each other. Stay positive!

Ten minutes of walk and trot -- Pick up a forward posting trot on a twenty-meter circle and get the energy going. (If your horse isn't energetic enough, go down a long side before returning to the circle.)Then come back to the walk and check his response to both your legs in turn by decreasing the circle from twenty meters to fifteen meters and increasing it again. Take eight to ten steps to leg-yield gradually in, then then eight to ten steps to move gradually back out; you're not doing an exact, technical leg-yield, just asking him to move away from your leg. Change rein and decrease and increase the circle going the other way. Move into sitting trot and repeat the exercise in that gait a couple of times.

Then do some trot-walk transitions. Start by being very definite in your mind, saying, "We are going to walk." Flatten your lower back, stop the trot motion by letting your weight move evenly down into both seat bones, squeeze your hands on the reins, and push your upper legs down "into" your knees. Allow the transition to happen over three or four strides (instant obedience isn't the issue; balance and lightness are).

When your horse walks, relax your body, move with him, and soften your hands to encourage him to move forward energetically. If he gets strong and heavy, do a couple of trot-halt transitions to improve his lightness; then return to trot-walk again.

Finish your warm-up at the sitting trot on the circle. Leg-yield in, start leg-yielding out-and halfway there, while your horse is still bent and in his best balance, ask for a walk transition. Continue leg-yielding out at the walk (remember, keep the movement forward and gradual; when your circle is once again twenty meters across, trot and leg-yield in again.

This is a great exercise for pulling everything together: It balances him from the inside leg to the outside rein, moves his haunches closer to his forehand, places him between both your legs and reins, and encourages him to come up in front and become connected, responsive, supple, and quiet.

At the end of your thirty-minute warm-up, your horse will feel more elastic, athletic, and gymnasticized, with little or no stiffness blocking him anywhere. His back should give you the sense of being round and easy to sit on. And when you feel his mouth, he should move his jaw softly. Walk him on a long rein, give him a break, and you're set for anything-because he's suppled, stretched, pulled together, and ready for work.

If your horse isn't quite that responsive yet, don't worry. With time and quiet work, he will be. Remember, Nature has a timetable. You need to give him-and yourself-time to understand what you're asking and to develop in a natural way, without gadgets, the muscle strength and suppleness that will let him do it.

So take your time, and enjoy!

--Adapted from "The Total Thirty-Minute Warm-Up," Practical Horseman, December 1995.