Warm-up etiquette 101 – Do you need a refresher?
Warm-up: A usually crowded area where you and your fellow competitors are trying to wrangle your horses into the right frame of mind to perform in the show ring or on the cross-country course.
I personally find warm-up the ‘scariest’ phase of the day and I know that I am not alone. I have hit the dirt in warm-up on numerous occasions. There is something about cantering into the show ring caked in mud from your helmet to boots that seem undignified but on the bright side, warm-up tumbles do not get you eliminated! Still, I would rather plan all of my dismounts at an event.
By riding youngsters, horses with kicking problems, horses who shy at other horses and so on has made me more aware of the mayhem taking place in the average warm-up ring. Fortunately, most of this warm-up drama is preventable if riders work on being more conscious of themselves and others during this group scenario. Warm-up is tough because we are all trying to focus on our own riding and our horses are not behaving like at home. However, we can all do our part to try to make warm-up a more pleasant place for everyone.
1) ALWAYS keep your eyes up: I am guilty of not following this rule all of the time, but luckily it has caused me more grief than my fellow riders. It is so tempting to start staring down at your horse’s neck to see what its frame is looking like, especially if you do not have a helper on the ground. Avoid get suckered in to this nasty habit because next thing you know a horse could go galloping past you, spooking your horse and landing you on the ground. Or worse, you could run into another rider/horse and become that person that everyone wants to strangle. This is a simple rule but it is the most critical, always be aware where you are riding.
2) Give the problem horse space: If you see a horse having an all out meltdown, avoid it. Even if you are riding a bombproof horse that couldn’t give two carrots about how other horses are behaving, you should still stay as far away as possible from the wild horses in warm-up. There is nothing more frustrating/terrifying than clinging onto your horse’s neck while oblivious riders keep whizzing by within close proximity. Giving upset horses their space, should be common courtesy.
3) If you are riding the problem horse, here’s how to avoid causing chaos: I have ridden my share of problem horses and although it can be a pain, I feel it is my job to keep my unruly creatures from stressing out other horses and riders. First of all, I never ask something I know could cause my horse to freak out when there are other horses nearby. For example, I would never give a horse a tap with my stick as someone was trotting past because this could cause my horse to buck and startle the other horse. I also find an isolated area to work my horse in, even if it is not a convenient location. This means sometimes I am riding around in the back forty, by my lonesome, until my competition time nears. Then I ride into the crowded, prime real-estate area of warm-up while I wait for my turn in the show ring. Remember, you can ride a rowdy horse in warm-up without disrupting everyone else’s warm-up too.
4) Pass left to left: In North America you pass left to left in warm-up whenever possible (heart to heart). Think of all the wrecks if drivers randomly chose which side of the road they were going to travel on. The same craziness happens in warm-up when people start passing however they please.
5) Watch your whip!: This may sound obvious but I have been hit way too much in warm-up by other people’s dressage whips. Make sure you are not riding around with your whip pointing out and passing too closely because this is ridiculous. One of these days someone is going to accidentally whip the wrong rider and a hockey-style fight is going to break out!
4) Do not coach like you are in your own private arena: If you are in warm-up as a coach instead of a rider, please be mindful of where you stand, what you tell your rider to do and how loud you scream. There are enough horses to avoid, riders do not have to also worry about trampling a coach. It is distracting to other riders to hear a ton of coaches barking out orders to their students.
5) Make sure your entourage does not get run over: If you bring non-horsey people to an event make sure you brief them on where they can and cannot stand. Having spectators is amazing for our sport but they should not be getting in the way of the action.
6) Ride like no one is watching: Just because you are surrounded by hordes of other riders, coaches and random spectators, do not change your riding style. Stay in your zone and ride the exact same way you do at home. Event atmosphere does cause some horses to act differently but in most cases, your horse is probably reacting to your riding. To help you stay in the moment, work at riding on the right side of your brain.
7) Respect the helpers setting jumps: Be aware of the people on the ground setting jumps. Be sure not to be approaching, when they are adjusting the jump.
8) Stick to your plans: It is easy to get lost in the action and start riding around aimlessly in warm-up. You try to ride a certain figure, but someone cuts you off. Be creative with some pre-planning for your warm up. Make sure you accomplish what you need to in order to deliver your best performance in the ring. I find the best way to deal with being cutoff in warm-up is by riding a balanced downward transition, then riding an upward transition and carrying on where I left off. Think of it as bonus transitions rather than being cut off! For jumping warm-ups, make sure you have someone on the ground to assist you. The times I have let myself be at the mercy of other rider’s jump warm-ups have never gone well. Seriously, beg another rider standing nearby to set fences for you in warm-up if that’s what it takes to get help.
Always strive to set yourself up for success by riding the warm-up that you and your horse need. The warm-up is a critical phase to your performance but it also is an area where stupid accidents can happen.
Remember, there is Dressage, Show Jumping, Cross-Country and Warm-Up; all are a discipline on their own and respect them equally.