The art of the warm-up: Riders reveal how they get their horses ready for action

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Before the study, few researchers had evaluated what constitutes an "ideal" warm-up for different disciplines, horse experience, training level, fitness, or how different environmental factors influence the warm-up.
Before the study, few researchers had evaluated what constitutes an “ideal” warm-up for different disciplines, horse experience, training level, fitness, or how different environmental factors influence the warm-up. Photo by Valerie Fomina

Showjumpers and dressage riders tend to use subjective measures in deciding when their horse is sufficiently warmed up for competition or exercise, researchers in Britain have found.

The measures were likely to vary between riders, such as the horse’s responsiveness to aids or when the animal felt supple and relaxed.

It was found that both showjumpers and dressage riders warm up their mounts for about the same time — 10 to 20 minutes — although dressage riders used the walk as their main warm-up gait, whilst showjumpers preferred the trot.

About half of the more than 250 riders surveyed believed that performing their usual warm-up routine before a competition positively affected their horse’s performance.

Visit any equestrian competition and riders and horses will be seen exercising carefully in preparation for the challenges ahead.

Despite the near-universal use of warm-up sessions, few comprehensive studies have been carried out into their benefits before competition and their impact on performance.

What do riders regard as the benefits of warming up their horse? What is the optimum time for a warm-up? Is there any difference between a showjumping rider’s warm-up and a dressage rider’s warm-up? Does warming up positively affect performance for horse and rider?

Researchers at Hartpury University in England carried out a preliminary study to improve understanding of what dressage and showjumping riders consider to be the benefits of performing particular warm-up exercises.

The study was conducted by Associate Professor Dr Jane Williams and Hartpury graduate Maud Chatel (BSc (Hons) Equine Science), the founder and owner of France-based equine therapy company Rehactiv’Equine.

“To ensure optimal performance, undertaking a warming-up regime before intense exercise is acknowledged as an effective way to lower the risk of injury and increase performance in human athletes,” Williams said.

“The same applies to equestrian sport, where it’s widely acknowledged that both the horse and rider should complete a pre-competition warm-up to prepare them for the demands of competition.

“The purpose of our study was to try and understand dressage and showjumping riders’ decision-making when warming up at home and prior to a competition.”

Previous studies have shown that an efficient warm-up regime will help to reduce lactic acid accumulation in the muscles, delaying the onset of fatigue and providing a potential performance advantage over horses that have not been warmed up adequately.

However, before the study by Williams and Chatel, few had evaluated what constitutes an “ideal” warm-up for different disciplines, horse experience, training level, fitness, or how different environmental factors influence the warm-up.

“Across both disciplines, riders included technical skills in their warm-up such as lateral work, transitions and jumping."
“Across both disciplines, riders included technical skills in their warm-up such as lateral work, transitions and jumping.” Photo by Valerie Fomina

The riders who participated answered questions, and shared their attitudes and approach to the warm-up process.

“Our study found that dressage and showjumpers maintain that warm-up regimes should prepare the horse for work, increase responsiveness to the riders’ aids, increase the horse’s suppleness and promote relaxation to enhance performance and decrease injury risk,” Williams said.

“Across both disciplines, riders included technical skills in their warm-up such as lateral work, transitions and jumping.

“During a competition, approximately half of dressage and showjumpers surveyed agreed that using the horses’ usual warm-up routine was beneficial.”

Chatel, whose business offers sports massage treatments for horses and riders of all levels across France, added: “Riders felt factors such as the stress level of both the horse and rider, crowdedness of the arena, arena size and surface, as well as time allocated by the venue, were important factors that could impact their warm-up routines.

“Both showjumpers and dressage riders considered horses were warmed up adequately using subjective measures likely to vary between riders: the horse’s responsive to the aids, when the horse felt supple and relaxed.

“Future research is warranted to investigate if rider recall of warm-up regimes matches the duration and activities included in these, in practice.”

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