Do you view the collecting ring as something to be endured and survived, rather than a place to prepare and perform? The warm-up arena at a competition is a bit like a job interview – it’s intimidating at first, but the more you get out and about, the more familiar you’ll be with the process and your plan of action, and the more confident you’ll be as a result.
What you’re aiming for in the perfect warm-up is to have your horse ready to begin his best work just as he heads down the centre line or turns towards his first fence. However, there’s a fine line between not doing enough or peaking too soon, so it’s important to practise your warm up at home so you know exactly what you need to do at a show. Don’t be afraid to change things, though, and experiment with different methods through the show season to help you discover what works best for your horse.
Make yourself known in the warm-up
Your first order of business on arriving at the warm-up arena should be to check in with the steward. This saves them having to trek across a crowded arena to find you, particularly if you’re eventing, when you may be warming up in a large area, and they’ll need to tick you off a list. You can also find out if ride times are running to schedule, put your number down if you’re jumping and stay up-to-date on any changes that may have been made to the timetable.
If another rider falls off in the warm-up, don’t continue schooling or jumping while others try to catch the loose horse. Pull up and, if needed, dismount – the priority in this situation is to keep all the horses calm and catch the loose one quickly.
Plan your warm-up
Many riders are guilty of overdoing it in the warm-up, so by the time they enter the competition ring their horse has lost his sparkle and doesn’t perform to the best of his ability.
It’s particularly easy to overdo it when you’re warming up for a jumping class and this is mostly due to a lack of confidence. If nerves take over, you can lose focus and end up repeatedly jumping the practice fences because you think it’ll help you feel more confident in the ring. But drilling your horse in this way is only going to tire him out and it can cause your nerves to unravel even more. Instead, popping over each warm-up fence a couple of times on each rein should be sufficient – just make sure that your last jump is a confident and successful one.
Alternatively, if your horse can be sharp at shows, you may find that walking him in-hand on arrival or hacking around the venue before starting a proper warm up might help to keep him calm.
However you approach your horse’s warm-up, always finish with something easy so you both go into the ring feeling confident, capable and ready for action.
While it’s tempting to jump a much bigger warm-up fence than the height you’ll be competing at, this can stop your horse from respecting the fences in the ring and you may have more poles down as a result. It can also get you into trouble with the steward and it’s not very courteous to fellow riders who want to warm up at an appropriate height.
The rules of the collecting ring
Whatever discipline you’re warming up for, a common collecting ring etiquette applies…
- pass left-hand to left-hand This basic rule helps to establish what happens when you ride towards someone else. So, if you’re on the left rein, you should stay on the track while the rider coming towards you takes the inside track
- walk on the inside track Whether you’re working on your horse’s walk or letting him have a breather, stay on the inside track so you don’t get in anyone’s way
- lateral work takes right of way This requires you to pay attention to other riders, but it makes sense – someone performing leg-yield won’t benefit from the exercise if they get cut up on their way to the track
- don’t stop on the track It should go without saying that stopping suddenly is asking for a pile-up, but it’s a useful rule-of-thumb to avoid halting on the track at all. If you want to practise halt, choose a spot on the inside track or centre line or, if you need to adjust your tack or go through your test, step out of the warm-up area so you’re not in anyone’s way
- call out your practice fence Before you turn into a fence, shout out which one you’re heading for. There’s no point calling out that you’re jumping the oxer once your horse has locked on to it – you’ll be too late to prevent anyone riding across your path and pulling your horse out at the last moment sends him mixed signals
- ride away from the fence Don’t circle or stop after landing, unless you’re lucky enough to be in a relatively empty warm-up arena. Keep the flow of traffic going and allow others to jump the same fence in quick succession
- follow the flags If the warm-up fence is flagged, jump it in the indicated direction –keep the red flag on your right and the white flag on your left. You can be eliminated for jumping a flagged practice fence the wrong way, so be careful
- don’t be shy If you want to practise your centre line or come across the diagonal, you may never find a suitable gap, so call it out as you would a practice fence
- avoid tailgating Not only is it annoying for other people, but following too closely behind someone can put your horse at risk of getting kicked. If you do it into a fence, you’ll only have to pull your horse up quickly if the one you’re following stops or knocks a pole down. Instead, give everyone plenty of space
If you’re riding with a schooling whip, be aware of how much it sticks out – it’s easy to accidentally brush or tap a passing horse while you’re busy focusing on your own.
Reading the ribbons
A coloured ribbon in a horse’s tail is a universally understood indicator that he may need a bit more space. In the potentially crowded and hectic atmosphere of the warm-up, it’s not a bad idea to use one as a precautionary measure, especially if your horse is young and inexperienced. It can encourage other people not to get too close, which will help ensure he has a positive experience. There are a few different ribbon colours you can use…
- Red ribbons indicate a horse who’s likely to kick out
- Green ribbons denote a young or inexperienced horse
- White ribbons are worn by stallions
If you’ve gone to the show without a helper and need a fence adjusting, ask someone on foot in the collecting ring if they can do it for you. Don’t attempt to jump a fence you’re not comfortable with just because you’re feeling shy.
Keeping an eye out
In a busy arena, it can be difficult to keep track of everyone’s movements, but if you focus solely on your own path, you’ll effectively be riding blind.
Instead, use soft-focusing to keep an eye on the horses around you. You can practise this at home, on and off your horse. Rather than concentrating on one object – hard-focusing – try to let your eyes slip slightly out of focus so that you get a much wider peripheral viewpoint. It might take a couple of tries to master this, as the end goal isn’t to unfocus so much that you can’t actually see anything, but once you’ve ridden like this, you’ll have a much better grasp of the movements of those around you.
Check your discipline’s rulebook or ask the show secretary if you’re unsure what equipment is allowed in the warm-up. You can use boots and whips when you’re warming up for eventing dressage, for example, but not in the competition arena.
While your plan may be to find your own corner of the collecting ring so you can school your horse as you would at home, it’s unlikely you’ll be able to do this. Instead, use the natural ebb and flow of the warm-up to your advantage.
If your horse is on the lazy side, the warm-up can be a great place to add a bit of extra sparkle before you head into the ring. Follow the flow of traffic and use quickfire transitions between and within the gaits to get him in front of your leg and keen to move forward, but engaged and focused, too.
If, however, your horse is tense or sharp, use easy school figures and lateral work to keep his brain occupied and to help you keep your leg on. Encourage him to stretch over his topline by incorporating some 20m circles in working trot, spongeing the reins to help him soften and relax into his work. You may need to factor in some extra time to walk him quietly around the inside track before your class or you may find it easier to keep your warm-up short and to the point – you’ll learn what your horse prefers through trial and error.
While it’s fine to be coached in the warm-up, it can be distracting for other riders if your trainer is shouting across the ring at you. Step out of the arena to consult them, or invest in a radio system so they can instruct you through an earpiece.