How many times have you seen an eventer come into the stadium phase of eventing leading the pack, only to leave behind a ring punctuated by fallen rails as the victory goes to someone else?
While knockdowns can drop you in the final standings, a clear round means you'll at least keep your Sunday-morning ranking and even have a shot at moving up on someone else's error.
That's what happened at the Rolex Kentucky Three-Day Event last spring when Sinead Halpin finished her four-star debut with a perfect show-jumping trip riding Manoir de Carneville. She advanced from fourth to third as former Rolex winner Clayton Fredericks of Australia toppled a pole with Be My Guest.
Sinead, who gained instant celebrity and the US Equestrian Team Foundation's Pinnacle Cup as the top-placing American at Rolex, gives credit to a well-produced warm-up for enabling her to put in a memorable show-jumping round. Many riders don't realize that a competition preamble planned with thought can make the difference between winning and being an also-ran.
"The pressure of a show is already so great with its competitive nature, that added to the excitement of a change of scenery and a change of jumps, you really need to set yourself up to succeed," explains Sinead, whose business, Sinead Halpin Equestrian, is based out of Fieldstone Farm in Pittstown, New Jersey. "That starts in the warm-up, the one thing as event riders we tend to overlook."
Do Your Homework
Sinead's eyes were opened after attending jumper shows and seeing that show jumpers always seemed to have two staffers on the ground. At first, she figured it was overkill, "but the more I thought about it, how professional and seriously they were taking the warm-up, I knew that was something I could learn from," she recalls.
"When you go to an event warm-up, it's sort of every man for himself. Everyone's running into everyone else, and it's not perfect preparation for success in the arena," she says. "For the show jumping, you really have to do your homework."
A big part of that homework is developing and practicing a warm-up plan with the help of your trainer, who can objectively assess you and your horse. You can tweak your plan at the event, but it will provide a solid base from which to work.
As you start working on your plan, begin looking for a savvy ground person who can help you during the stadium warm-up, setting jumps and being your eyes on the ground. This doesn't have to be your trainer. He or she can be a friend, a groom or another competitor. Ask the person to watch at least one of your lessons at home to get a feel for your comfort level and your plan. This way, he or she can offer input at the competition about whether you should jump one more fence or look ready to go.
With your trainer and ground person in the loop, the next part of your homework is spending some time figuring out what your horse needs the day of stadium jumping from beginning to end. Is he usually tired or stiff the day after cross-country? If so, plan to take him for a short hack to loosen him up several hours before the formal warm-up.
An early morning hack also is a good idea if your horse is tense or high strung. You also might want to jump a few practice fences at that time, when the atmosphere is calmer. This can take the edge off horses who exhaust themselves mentally with nerves. A morning outing likely will lessen the need to jump a lot of fences later, Sinead says.
Next, think about how much time you'll need for the formal warm-up to prepare for the stadium phase. A 30-minute warm-up usually works for most horses, but tailor it for your horse's temperament and attitude, Sinead says. If he's spooky at competitions, in addition to an early-morning hack, you might need to plan a longer warm-up to get him more focused on you and his job. If he's a mellow type who knows his job, plan a shorter one.
During the warm-up, Sinead says she usually aims for about 10 minutes of flatwork and about 15 minutes of jumping, with a few breaks.
If you get nervous during the warm-up, build in a little more time for yourself. Sinead has some of her amateur riders arrive early, practice their flatwork, then jump a few fences to get into a rhythm with their horses and build confidence. Then they watch a few rounds and finish by jumping a few more practice fences tailored to the course. (More on this later.)
You also want to map out a general strategy for the flatwork and jumping portions of your warm-up.
Adjustability on the Flat
"As you start your flatwork in the warm-up, don't get caught up in the nitty-gritty details of your dressage work," Sinead says. "Go after efficiency and smoothness."
Start at the trot, asking your horse to stretch to warm up, but spend most of your warm-up time in the canter. "The jumping phases are all done out of canter. Don't tire your horse perfecting the medium trot—you won't be rewarded for it."
From the start, ask your horse to accept your aids at the pace you set. You need to be able to take contact with his mouth and put your leg on. "You want him to be able to go forward, back, laterally—as many ways as possible—so that he can cope with jumps, the terrain and the thing that will happen more often than not—a mistake made by the rider," Sinead says.
If you don't practice adjustability in the warm-up arena, your horse will be completely surprised when you go into the ring, and his reaction probably won't be a soft one, Sinead explains.
To test how your horse is accepting your leg and rein aids, practice transitions within the gaits and especially at the canter, "lengthening and shortening, getting his mouth supple and soft so he's willing to accept your opening right or left rein.
"If I take the inside rein and he answers my question about whether he's going to bend by sticking his head straight up in the air, I know I need to spend five more minutes making sure he's listening. In the arena, when I'm going to make a left- or right-handed turn, if he reacts this way, he's not going to have a clean jump."
In the Warm-Up