Many riders get confused about how to warm up their dressage horses so they can have a productive schooling session. As a rider and trainer, your goal in the warm-up is to take the restrictions away from your horse’s body. Depending on the day, your warm-up could be as short as ten minutes, or it could end up being your entire ride.

Here are 9 tips to help you with your warm-ups:

  1. Since your horse has probably been standing in the stall, spend the first five to ten minutes walking around on a loose rein.
  2. After walking around “on the buckle” for several minutes, pick up a contact with his mouth so you can begin your warm-up.
  3. Focus on the first three ingredients of the Training Scale: rhythm, suppleness, and connection. I always start my work with those first three ingredients on a large circle. Then, if all goes well, I’ll go large around the arena.
  4. Rhythm: As you walk, trot, and canter, check that the rhythm is always regular and that the tempo is neither too fast nor too slow.
  5. Suppleness: Spend as little or as much time as you need to supple and relax your horse both mentally and physically. Work done in tension is a waste of time. When you supple your horse, you’ll relax him physically. Once he’s physically relaxed, he’ll relax mentally.

In a nutshell, to supple your horse, bend his neck seven inches to the inside of a neutral position (neutral is when his nose is in line with the crease in the middle of his chest) while you close your leg on the same side.

Do a set of “three supples,” meaning you’ll bend and straighten him three times quickly but smoothly. Then do nothing for seven or eight strides, followed by another set of three supples. (This “suppling” technique is described in detail in Dressage 101, Train with Jane Volume 1, and A Happy Horse Home Study Course.)

  1. Connection: Use the connecting aids to put your horse on the bit. The connecting aids last approximately three seconds. During those three seconds you add, add, add hind legs through your closed outside hand while maintaining flexion at the poll to the inside.

To apply the connecting aids:

  1. Close your legs steadily for three seconds as if asking for a lengthening
  2. Close your outside hand in a fist to capture and recycle the energy back to the hind legs.
  3. Keep the neck straight by giving three to four little squeezes or vibrations on the inside rein.

In warm-up, I connect my horse and then ride him long and low as seen in the picture; or, if he tends to be heavy on the forehand, I ride in a horizontal balance with his topline more parallel to the ground.

  1. When things fall apart, always go back to the beginning of the training scale. First, reestablish regular rhythm. Then, supple your horse. Finally, ask for connection.
  2. While focusing on rhythm, suppleness and connection, it’s appropriate to ask your horse to do school figures like circles, serpentines, and shallow loops.

The First and Second Level horse can do school figures as well as leg-yields and rubber band exercises like modest lengthenings.

  1. Many riders do a lot of transitions from gait to gait with their dressage horses in the warm-up. Personally, I think your horse needs to be warmed up sufficiently before you can expect him to do good transitions. As a general rule, I save schooling the transitions until the second phase of my work, after the warm-up is complete.