Whether you’re a competitive rider, a happy hacker, or a weekend warrior, having a plan before you ride helps keep riding interesting, productive and beneficial for both you and your horse.

As riders, we also guardians of our horses and so have a responsibility to keep them as healthy and happy as possible in doing the work we ask of them. A lot of focus is put on the horse’s physical well-being, but his mental well-being is just as important. Creating a riding plan that is flexible and adapted to your horse’s needs can help to build a strong partnership and connection with your horse.

Regardless of what your riding goals are, the focus for every ride should be on relaxation for your horse because a stressed horse cannot learn, nor can he perform to his full capabilities.

Be prepared to adapt and adjust your plan. See it as a guideline rather than a rule and have a back-up plan. Horses have off days. Some days things just won’t work out. Meet your horse where he is on that day.

Begin with a clear idea of where you are now and where you want to be in about three months. What do you and/or your horse need to develop over the coming 12 weeks that you can break down into small, incremental steps? What changes need to happen?

The bridge between where you are now and where you want to be will be built with a series of steps taken one at a time to get from A to B. Each ride is a stepping-stone where you are building the foundation of that bridge to reach your goal.

Ask yourself these questions (and write them down) to keep your plan front of mind and increase your chances of achieving your goals:

1) What exercises can I do in my warmup to help my horse relax?
2) What exercises can I include in my next six rides to move us closer to my big goal?
3) What smaller steps can I take to help my horse get there?
4) What can I include that will keep it interesting and fun for us?


  • How the exercises will benefit your horse physically and mentally
  • Relaxation, suppleness and correct posture
  • Keeping the exercise/training fun and interesting
  • Building your and your horse’s skills and fitness
  • Small, incremental improvements that lead to achieving your bigger goal


  • Drilling and repetition (how many times does your horse really have to repeat a movement or exercise on one session?)
  • Going around the outside of the arena constantly (i.e.“the riding school rut”)
  • Focusing on what your horse or you don’t do well – always finish sessions on a positive note with familiar skills

Including both warm-up and cool-down time in every ride is important – even if you’re just going out for a hack/trail ride..Taking the time to include a warm-up and cool-down period will help to keep your horse healthier and happier.

The Warm-Up

A good warm-up prepares the horse’s joints and muscles for the work – whether that’s a training session or a trail ride. At a minimum, the first 10 minutes of every ride should be an active walk on a long rein which gets the muscles warmed up and the joint fluid lubricating the joints. Then do another 10 minutes or so of working trot/jog and/or canter/lope on circles, straight lines, bending lines, and changes of direction.

The necessary warm-up varies from horse to horse. Older, stiffer horses or those coming back into work after time off will need a longer warm-up. Some horses loosen up better in canter while others do better in trot early on. Some need straight lines to get moving forward while others need bending lines for more suppleness. Some need 15 minutes and others need 30 minutes to really warm up and loosen up.

The Work

This is the part of your ride where you’re working on building those small steps towards your goal – for example, improving transitions, a particular gait, or your position. Out on a hack, it might including more forward gaits, hill climbs, or more challenging terrain (e.g. crossing water, riding through tall grass or deep snow, etc.) You’re always building a skill or improving fitness.

Be sure to include short rest breaks at the walk (about 30 seconds), allowing your horse to stretch out his neck and back on long reins. These breaks relieve the pressure that builds up on the nerve endings and muscles that eventually block the transfer of oxygen, gases and enzymes necessary for the muscles to continue to be able to work comfortably.

The Cool Down

Before finishing your ride, allow your horse to stretch in the walk, trot, and/or canter (depending on his physical fitness level). Be careful that he isn’t falling on the forehand, but is keeping his hindquarters engaged and working through his core and his back is lifted. This stretching frame lets the muscles lengthen and release any lactic acid that has built up during the ride. Finish with 5-10 minutes (or until the muscles have returned to a comfortable resting temperature) of walk on a long rein or in-hand.

For a trail horse, the cool down can happen in the last few minutes of your ride as you encourage a stretching walk back to the barn.