NEVER is the process of warming-up more vital — to so many — than when preparing to go into the arena to qualify for a national championships or to achieve a personal best place at regional championships. We are at the beginning of the main competition season so there will be many more warm-ups and classes to win!
List 1 judge and Junior and Young Rider selector Leanne Wall who, with her other role as a UKCC3 coach, can be found beside warm-up arenas both here and abroad gives her advice on how to make the most of those crucial warm-up minutes. And, she says, ‘Learning to prepare and warm-up for a test is part of riders’ and horses’ educational journey.”
Test preparation at home
Leanne begins by quickly recapping the test preparation that should go on at home in the weeks building-up to your competition. She says: “One of the things you should pack with you when you go to your show is your regular warm-up routine that addresses your particular horse’s needs, and the requirements of the test or tests that are your competition goals for the season. You will also need to be able to produce an exercise from your toolbox of exercises that you can use if your horse has tension or focus problems in show warm-ups so that you can remain cool, calm and collected.”
A familiar warm-up routine can be a comfort blanket that will help both of you ‘settle’
You should also have worked on test rideability exercises so that you will be able to practise test movements in the warm-up and string a sequence of test movements and transitions together without encountering anticipation problems. Practising movements, or a whole test at home, will test whether your horse is truly on the aids. Establish where you will need to prepare each movement for the test, along with ways of managing the horse’s anticipation.
It is important that your horse has the rideability to negotiate corners well because in a test situation corners are where you can collect, and repair connection, balance, suppleness and flexion. Question what you want from your horse in preparation for the following movement and think, ‘does he feel ready to execute it?’ If not you can use the corner to help you.
Work out with your trainer appropriate schooling exercises to help combat anticipation or the horse’s tendency to decide what he will do and where he will go. For example, for rein-back rideability, practise both trot to halt, then trot to halt and rein back, then trot to halt to trot. The quality of the halt is often associated with the ease of transition to a rein back.
The rideability of the walk is of equal importance to rideability in the other of the paces. It is often neglected in schooling sessions. You always need to question in your schooling how good the walk is: is it a 7 or is it an 8? Can you ride transitions within it while maintaining fluency? And then ride the upward transition to test that you have the horse on your seat and on your aids.
People often say to me, ‘I can’t stretch my horse because I’ll never get it back up again’. That’s all the more reason to practise letting your horse down and picking it up as you will be stopping in your warm-up to adjust tack, remove bandages and boots, and put your jacket on, before going into the arena. It will contribute directly to your mark-earning ability.”
But be tactful, don’t just practise this at the end of a schooling session. Instead incorporate acceptance of being picked up and restarting frequently throughout your schooling sessions when you give your horse a break.
Your horse does not know he is at a championships — to him it may just seem busier but take any opportunity you can before the big day to familiarise him with a public address system, loud speakers, flower pots, or anything else that might be strange to him. Remember whips will not be allowed, so if you normally school with one, practise without it for a few weeks before the show as your horse will soon notice when you haven’t got it!
And, of course, before you go to the show, learn your tests inside out! Not just the movements but where the marks start and finish so that you can sort out problems within one movement, maximising following movement marks. Listen to your music everywhere you go and, remember, the judges won’t know if you’ve made a wrong turn: stay calm and cover any errors up.
Will you be going for a 9 (or 10!)?
When I train riders I explain there are minor and major mistakes as far as test marks are concerned. For example, if the horse tends to drop behind the leg in a walk pirouette, I tell them to make the piro bigger and keep the walk rhythm and structure correct because if the horse sticks, it’s a 4; if the pirouette is large you can still be awarded a 6.
Similarly, if your horse does not feel off your inside leg just before going into a half pass, ride forward, position the shoulders first and then ride the quarters. In a leg yield, it is better to keep the balance, rhythm and suppleness with quarters slightly trailing as opposed to quarters leading disrupting the quality. It is all about knowing your strengths and areas for development and maximising your performance at that time.
You will know if there is anything in the test that your horse will find difficult — and those movements where he should excel. In your preparation work out how you propose to maximise your marks using the appropriate ring craft to make things easier for him and where it is worth taking big mark-earning risks.
In the show warm-up
If your horse is confident and established in the work there is no reason why you need to alter your warm-up routine at the show. At the lower levels, or with an inexperienced or novice horse, you should allow yourself extra time to spend longer walking and stretching to gain the horse’s confidence and ‘mental’ suppleness before you progress to getting your horse reactive to your aids.
Maximise your use of this ‘horse arena familiarisation’ time. Look for possible distractions and plan how you will potentially have to manage them. Then spend 10 minutes visualising yourself riding your test, where you will prepare and how. If shadows are spooky to your horse, it may be possible to go slightly to the side to avoid them.
“If your horse is very hot or tense, long and low may not be a safe option. Instead you will need to get your horse on your aids, on your seat and forwards — and do the stretching later in the warm-up. Every horse is an individual and needs to be treated accordingly. You need to ride what you feel, not what the ‘book’ says”
Remember that walking on the track can be dangerous and possibly disruptive to another rider in their planned warm-up programme so always walk on the inside track and ride transitions to walk on the inside track and halt well away from the edge. Do remember school etiquette and pass left to left. If your horse is feeling behind the leg, go on the left rein where you will have right of way on the track and ride transitions within the paces on the left rein first.”
At big shows there may be as many as 25 horses in a 20 x 60m warm-up arena so you have to learn to take a big breath, stay focused on your horse and your job. Check to see if there are any horses to avoid, then adapt and plan where you’re going, ignoring other combinations.
Connect physically and mentally with your horse. Put yourselves in a bubble and ignore any outside influences that are beyond your control. It is your time, with your horse — so try to maintain clarity in your thoughts and smile!
Is your horse a Happy Athlete?
A happy athlete working with confidence and in harmony with its rider is key. Judges like consistency. Rhythm, balance, suppleness and confidence demonstrated through ease and fluency in the work show that you’re a good partnership. Tension can be the biggest killer of marks. Remember 7s top to bottom of your sheet add up to 70%! Mistakes caused by tension and over-riding are expensive. A consistent rhythmic test ridden accurately and well-presented is a mark earner.
If your horse is hot you may need to get him mentally relaxed so that he focuses on you so that you will be able to show what you are capable of. But don’t work him so that he becomes physically tired because then he will not be able to perform with the ease and lightness in the way the judge will want to see in a ‘good’ test.
What rideability exercises you decide to do in a warm-up is all about knowing your horse and knowing how much you can push for in the circumstances and whether they might exacerbate tension issues. Lateral work is a good way of gaining acceptance of your leg — so plenty of leg yields and transitions both within the lateral work and between paces. Remember the scales of training: counting the Rhythm out loud may help you both relax; Suppleness will help develop the contact and when the contact/connection is better, then you will be better placed to achieve true Impulsion which in turn will help the Straightness. Use corners in both the warm-up and in the test arena to re-balance, re-engage and re-supple. Body movers not just leg movers are what the judges want to see.
You should practise your test movements. What questions are you about to ask your horse in the test? Is the horse adequately on your seat, and supple enough to perform the movements and transitions? How quickly do transitions and movements come up in the test and are you able to string them all together?
Boots and bandages off; jacket (and two numbers) on
Some horses you need to undress 15 minutes before you go in. Other horses are very in-tune with their riders, very confident in their job and in the connection, so when the rider stops to remove boots and put their coat on they can pick them up and off they go into the arena. Others could take advantage and drop behind the aids. Hopefully, you will have practised putting down and picking up rideability at home.
If you’re competing outside after an indoor warm-up — and if you can — do allow your horse some time to acclimatise to the cold, wind and light level to prevent him tightening up with the change of environment.
When the horse before you goes in to do its test you know you’ve got around 7 minutes to set your horse up, check everything you need to check before you proceed to the arena. Whether there is a ring steward around or not, it can be helpful to have a friend, mum or a groom with you, to warn you when the horse in the arena ahead of you is coming to their last few movements. Be on the ball so that you can maximise your time going around the edge of the arena. Your test time is when the judge expects to see you coming down the centre line from A, not when you start to ride round.
With some horses you have to work out the best tactics for going from the warm-up into the arena. Some get scared and suck back into themselves so you might need someone to give your horse a lead and confidence by walking out in front of them or having another horse giving a lead and, if necessary, with someone behind you to encourage the horse to keep going forward. As soon as you can, get into trot and the horse in front of the leg. Think forward the whole way.
Going around the outside of the arena before entering is another opportunity to prepare for the test. What has gone well in the warm-up? Where is the weak link? If the horse is a little bit stiff, or spooky, it’s an opportunity to address that with some shoulder-in or travers to get the horse both more supple and listening to you. If he’s behind the leg, do some on and back in canter, or a few transitions.
Don’t just to sit looking pretty going round the outside, not asking any questions or communicating with your horse because it will give him too much time to see spooks and become unsure of what is required of him. If everything is brilliant, and in the best place it can be, then show the horse off!
Remember not to take a whip into your championship test!
Too often you see riders coming out after their test and going straight back to the lorry. The horse has worked solidly for anything from between 45 minutes to an hour, so it’s as important to stretch and cool off your horse off afterwards as it was to warm him up. Cooling down allows his muscles to loosen up and disburse any lactic acid within them. If you don’t cool down properly you will be paying the price the next day and the day after. In this cold weather a rug is essential.
Did you have a good day?
Do set your own performance goal for your test performance that is not reliant on scores or a judge’s opinion. Riders are sometimes disappointed with scores and often don’t understand the reason for a low mark, but if they don’t meet the requirements of the test, there is no way the mark is going to be above a six. Ease of movements comes into submission but if they can’t do the movements then, as a judge, I would suspect the suppleness, desire to be forward and engagement may also be lacking — which comes into impulsion.
Often there will be a variation in the different judges’ marks, so try not to pin everything down to a score — even if your aim is simply not to have a ‘lacking activity’ comment in your free walk, or a ‘lacking left bend’, or ‘outside bend’ comment through a corner. Have your own goal and your own aim that you can identify and be in control of. And afterwards look first at the positives on your test sheet before you examine the negatives and things you want to improve.
© Celia Cadwallader, 7 February 2018