By Tonya Johnston, MA
Appeared in Eventing USA, January/February 2009

If I had a dollar for every time one of my clients told me how much they hate the warm-up ring, I would be writing this article while floating in my infinity pool that overlooks the ocean on my ranch in Northern California.

About warm-up rings, I have heard it all: “I try to make my warm-up as short as possible, it just works better for me.” and “I can’t stand the warm-up ring. It makes me: scared/nervous/frantic/nauseous.” and “The warm-up ring makes me lose my confidence.” and “If I didn’t have to warm-up I would win more often!” So, do you recognize any of these thoughts? Have you ever wished for a different warm-up ring experience?

Many people have fears of the warm-up ring, including some that are legitimate and rational. What is irrational, however, is allowing your fears and dislike of the warm-up ring to consistently ruin your competitive experiences. Bear in mind that it’s just a ring with some sand, dirt, lumber and flags – and it can be your friend. Now let’s find out how.

Tonya’s Top 10 Warm-up Ring Strategies


  1. Know your pre-ride routine.
  2. Know your horse‘s pre-ride routine.

The first two strategies we will discuss together as there is a lot of overlap between them, as well as some key distinctions. The major point to remember is that a quality warm-up starts long before you even get on your horse. It is therefore helpful to take stock of what you know about you and your horse’s regular pre-ride habits.

Take out a sheet of paper and on one side make a list of the best things you have done to get yourself ready to compete, and on the back write a separate list of best things you have done to get your horse ready. These will be things that have helped you both perform well in the past. (If you always drink a cup of coffee on an empty stomach, get a tummy-ache and know you shouldn’t do it – do not include “coffee” on this list!) Try to make your list consist of things you start to do approximately two hours before you enter the arena or start box. Things in your routine may include: eat a piece of fruit, visualize test, stretch out hamstrings and get dressed. Things on your horse’s list may include: hand walk, grooming, carrot stretches and long and low for first five minutes of warm-up.

Once you have a clearly identified list of things that you like, you can arrange them into a pre-ride routine and commit to doing it every time you compete. If you would like more strategies in your routine, brainstorm some ideas and try them on your next outing. Additionally, if you find you wrote down nineteen things you do for your horse, and only one thing you do to get yourself ready, that is a tell-tale sign that you would benefit from a more well-rounded pre-ride routine.

3.  Practice warm-up ring scenarios at home.

Rehearsing warm-ups at home helps to normalize the process. For example, let’s say you have run at the venue of your next event. During a ride at home prior to the competition, use your imagination to set the scene of that facility and grounds – imagine the warm-up rings, the dressage arenas, and the cross-country course. Next, warm-up your horse while pretending that you are in one of those specific warm-up areas. Finish by moving to a different ring, field or area to perform a test or course. Imagine that you have ‘one shot’ at riding the course to simulate competition conditions. By shifting from one ring to another you can practice getting comfortable with the ‘warming-up’ process.

4. Create a transition point in your routine.

After the (sometimes rushed) tasks involved in organizing yourself, tacking up and getting on, use a cue to make a clear transition into the riding portion of your day. By using a cue to get you centered and balanced, you can be sure your time management and horsemanship responsibilities do not interfere with your state of mind for your warm-up.

Right before you get on or right when you allow your horse to walk off (or scoot or prance, whatever the case may be) toward the warm-up ring, a simple cue word or phrase can re-direct you onto the new task at hand: riding with confidence and composure. “Balance” or “Tune in” or “Commit” are examples of cues that you can say to yourself to shift gears and ready yourself for your ride.

5.  Have a plan for the way your school your horse in the warm-up.

Make a plan for what types of exercises help get you and your horse in sync. Warming up you and your horse’s muscles is of course important, but so is getting you both focused and on the same page. If possible, it is a good idea to have even a small piece or two within your warm-up that are consistent every day. If your horse appreciates a long walk and trotting on a long rein at the start of his dressage warm up, consider what happens on stadium day when your nerves get you shortening the reins and demanding suppleness from step one.

Pieces of this plan often come from your work at home with your horse, your trainer, and exercises you have learned in lessons or clinics. They may be things like: a series of trot/canter transitions to get your horse in front of your leg; riding off of the rail of the arena with your eye on a focal point to warm-up your focus; walk breaks where you let your horse relax on the buckle. Your flexibility and awareness will help you make adjustments as needed, but having a specific starting point will give you confidence and provide an anchor for your focus.

6.  Breathe.

7.  Control your peripheral vision and attention.

Your peripheral vision often narrows with arousal – therefore if you are nervous you will see less, making it more likely to be startled, surprised or run into. Add to this is the human tendency to squint, wrinkle your face, or cringe when you are somewhere you dislike and you can imagine how your sight is affected. At the other end of the spectrum is the rider who is overwhelmed by her surroundings and cannot pay attention to anything but the other horses in the warm-up ring.

To help with both of these scenarios, practice widening and narrowing your awareness during your warm-up. Take a breath and expand your vision by actually turning your head, looking at everyone in the warm-up, and appreciating the environment. Shift back to a focus on you and your horse by taking a complete breath, reminding yourself of a performance goal, and using a physical trigger such as stepping into your heel.

8.  Breathe again.

9.  Make a ‘reset’ button.

Mistakes happen. A rider who pulls on the reins, adding three strides to the oxer in the warm-up ring needs to have a predetermined way to mentally and/or physically stop, ‘shake it off’ and regroup. For example, that rider may do a brief body scan to find any unwanted tension in her body before heading to the jump again. After noticing her shoulders are very tense she exaggerates the tension by squeezing her shoulders up under her ears, holds for two seconds, and then exhales and relaxes her neck, shoulders and arms. She has done her ‘reset’ routine and can now more effectively put the mistake behind her.

10.  Gain perspective on the days when nothing is working.

Everyone has experienced a day where nothing works and nature seems to have conspired against you. Muddy footing shrank the warm-up to the size of a postage stamp; a truck repeatedly backfired; a loose horse galloped wildly through the show grounds; your ride time got bamboozled; the list of trouble was seemingly endless. When this happens, try to take a breath and shift to an ‘eagle-eye’ perspective. Adopt a long-range view, even if for a brief second, to remember that your training and your relationship with your horse will endure. Remind yourself that your riding talent and your horse’s abilities are never measured by any one day at one event.


The Optimal Idea

Have you have ever gotten on your horse before your stadium round with a shot at a top ribbon and found yourself wishing you would have a great warm-up? Consider a quote from Eleanor Roosevelt who said, “It takes as much energy to wish as it does to plan.” On your next outing, execute a well-planned warm-up. Carry out a preparation routine that builds your confidence, and then use the warm-up ring as a stepping stone to success.