The Leah Files: What We’re Working On – Riding the Proper Warm-Up by Madelyn Bricken

The Leah Files: What We’re Working On

Riding The Proper Warm-Up


In an effort to be up close and personal with all you lovely Velvet Rider readers, I wanted to give you all a glance of my riding style and what my horse and I are currently working on. With that being said, I wanted to give you all the rundown on how I like to properly warm-up Leah’s muscles before we begin with the collected work each day. While every horse is different, these tidbits of warm-up knowledge just happen to be the ones that get Leah’s mojo flowing.

In general, horses need about fifteen minutes of a forward, working work in order to get the blood flowing throughout their entire bodies. As soon as I sit down in the saddle, I am immediately putting Leah to work in this way. Whether I am walking around the property or in the arena itself, I make sure Leah is clearly traveling forward and not sluggish. Sluggish walks accomplish little to nothing.  As she is walking, I start to play with the bit through my reins. I massage a little in my left hand, a little in my right hand, until I can see her start to mouth the metal like a person would a lollipop.

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I am the kind of rider in that I like to make things interesting for my horses. Walking on the rail (around and around) is quite boring. Therefore, I make sure to throw in plenty of circles (of various sizes) and three-loop serpentines. I find that the serpentines are a fabulous warm-up exercise because they help the rider become more aware of the changes in bend. Again, while I am working through these movements at the walk, I am still constantly massaging my reins and giving small half-halts in order to encourage Leah to become soft through her jaw and body.

Dressage is like riding a bike while rubbing your stomach with one hand and patting your head with the other hand. Throw in playing a harmonica? You see where I’m going with this. You’re doing a lot of things at once.

Once I feel that Leah is responding well to these more basic exercises, I transition into something a little bit more challenging. For starters, this is the time where I completely forget the rail of the Dressage arena exists. The quarter lines become my new perimeter. Here is where I focus on my lateral movements. I prefer to start out with shoulder-ins, both directions, then transition into haunches-in. Working through these exercises on the quarter lines allow me to really monitor our straightness and accuracy. It is also important to remember that the quality of the walk should not be compromised, despite the lateral exercises.

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Knowing when Leah is soft and supple enough to move into the working trot has taken me quite some time and just a little finesse. With that being said, when she starts really salivating and chewing the bit, I know she’s ready to proceed. Instantly, I can feel the lightness and loftiness in the trot work because of the time I took to focus on the exercises at the walk.

Keeping it always interesting, I start out with more serpentines and circles.  All the while, I am, again, encouraging Leah to stay soft and through. She sometimes has the tendency to grab the bit and just hold, becoming quite rigid. To work through this, I like to stay on the 20-meter circle and encourage her to stretch. To do so, I lower my inside hand to my knee and almost “show” Leah the way to softness.  But, I make sure to maintain steady contact on the outside rein in order to keep her shoulder from dodging. The motion in my hands is always reinforced with a steady, strong leg. I take as much time as needed during this exercise, but I never exceed the needed time. I try to move onto another exercise as soon as Leah is soft, particularly fluid and straight leg-yields, as well as shoulder-ins.

Next, I slide right into a nice working canter. My canter warm-up is just a little bit different than the other gaits. Leah really doesn’t need to be “long and low” in this gait. Instead, she needs all the extra help she can get to make sure her hindquarters are engaged. I start out on a 20-meter circle, flexing and bending to check for suppleness. During this, I make sure to give her a few small “bumps” with my inside leg – “wake up, hind end!” It’s amazing how I can instantly feel her hindquarters come underneath herself.

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This is my favorite part of my entire warm-up routine – extended canter down the long side of the ring. I do this to make sure she’s really listening to my aids: go forward, go forward, go forward, anddddd come back and sit. Fun!

During the canter, I like to begin to shorten my reins and encourage Leah to collect with each and every stride. I find myself on a circle again, and each time I pass the centerline, I use my entire body to half-halt and ask her to shorten her stride – about 5 steps, and then go forward. This exercise really helps engage those hindquarters, which is something incredibly important for successful flying changes and pirouettes. Or as Volker Brommann would say, “it helps her become just a little electric.”

And viola! There you have it – my warm-up routine. I usually spend about 20 minutes in total on these exercises (excluding the 15 minutes of walk). However, on some days, Leah needs less warm-up time and on other days, she just needs a little more. It really is a matter of feel and just knowing your horse.

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Lastly, I have put together 5 tips that also are important to remember during your warm-up time:

  1. First and foremost, breathe. Warming up is supposed to be a relaxing and peaceful time.  I like to take really deep breaths while I am walking – I want to feel my ribcage expand and stretch. This makes you loose, which translates directly to your equine partner.
  2. Use this time to nit-pick at your position. Focus on sitting up straight. Are your thighs relaxed? Is your lower leg firm yet gently hugging your horse? Toes pointed forward? Hands in the proper position? Really make sure you are sitting in the saddle, shoulders back, eyes up. Be proud.
  3. Test yourself by riding on the quarter lines or centerline. Can you walk perfectly straight on these? Trust me – it’s harder than it seems.
  4. Focus on your horse’s gaits. Like I said before, no sluggishness. However, that also doesn’t mean a runaway train is acceptable. Really use your half-halts to the best of their ability.
  5. Lastly, ride accurately. If you decide to use the 20-meter circle, make sure your landing points are correct. Focus on making a perfectly shaped circle – not an egg, or rectangle, or octagon, or hexagon? Circles. Dressage is nothing without geometry. So don’t let it slide.

Personally, I think the warm-up routine really sets the tone for your entire ride. If your horse’s muscles aren’t properly warmed up, you could potentially be putting them at risk for injury. Study various articles online, look in Dressage magazines, or simply chat with your trainer. Brainstorm and come up with the perfect warm-up plan for you and your horse. I can guarantee that you won’t be disappointed!

Until next time…

Ride Happily!

-Madelyn Bricken

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