The horse show warm up ring is a sea of horses and riders, in degrees of green to experienced, each in their own head, under some degree of pressure. Time pressure, peer pressure and pressure to succeed.
Every horse requires a custom pre-class routine. Busy minded horses often benefit from keeping their legs moving and minds occupied up to the moment you enter the ring. Others do better with 10 minutes of “chill” time in the stall before the class.
Before wading into the warm up ring, here’s what you’ll need in order to go with the flow and avoid interrupting it:
1. Embrace the busiest times in your home arena. Don’t avoid your fellow riders; find creative ways around them. Enlist friends to ride beside you, in front of and behind you. I recall a coach’s hyperbole to her student, frustrated with the lack of space to prepare in the Coliseum schooling ring at the Royal Winter Fair. “Girl, you’ve got to train that horse so you can lope in the tack room!”
2. Well-established aids, transitions and lateral skills will override the distraction of an unfamiliar environment when you leave your home arena.
3. Is your horse mentally ready to enter the warm up ring? Test his energy on a lunge line in a separate ring. Explosions on the lead shank or under saddle will set off other horses in the practice ring.
4. Decide which components of your pattern, course or test you intend to rehearse, and don’t avoid the tough stuff. Ask your horse the specific questions – lines, turns or tricky transitions required in your upcoming class.
5. Avoid drilling movements over and over. Cantering around that same circle or jumping that fence over and over only logs miles on your horse’s odometer down the road to burnout. While you may gain confidence from time in the practice ring, efficient sessions with commercial breaks keep your horse sound and sane.
6. Expect the unexpected. In the bustling horse show environment, your horse may “forget” acquired skills. Unwanted habits may resurface. If you encounter a roadblock, avoid making an issue of it for your horse and a hazard for others. Moreover, horses don’t learn when tense – try another approach or reshape the skill in simpler steps.
7. Active vision is the key to a collision-free warm up. Defensive driving instructs us to lift our focus from the car’s hood ornament and steer to the destination point ahead. Traffic imagination considers “Where is that rider going to be” and shifts to an alternative path without interrupting the rhythm. Read the energy of the horses around you. Cut the corner to avoid animated or ear pinning individuals.
8. Listen for the coach and rider having a lesson, or having an issue. Avoid cutting between them, interrupting their line of communication.
9. Use your voice, calling out “Passing on the right” or ”Heads up to the oxer,” for example. Apologize if you make a warm up ring blunder, like cutting someone off or crossing in front of a jump.
10. Be informed of your discipline’s schooling procedures and equipment policies. In English disciplines, pass oncoming riders left shoulder to left shoulder. Western performance warm up rings are more “free style,” with few written traffic rules. It mostly works, with common sense and courtesy.
11. Try to travel the same direction as the majority. I’ve found counter canter is a useful tool – I can school the left lead even when traffic is flowing right. Pass on the inside when travelling the same direction. Avoid sandwiching your horse between the rail and another rider.
12. Rest your horse or chat with other riders in the corners – not on the rail or at the gate.
13. Avoid clutter, like unnecessary helpers in your pit crew in the schooling ring.
14. Know when to scratch from the class. If it’s not happening outside the ring, it’s not likely to happen inside.
Remember, courtesy is contagious. Defer to those competitors in the next class. Don’t take it personally if someone sideswipes you or cuts you off. While riding’s not technically a team sport, looking out for one another benefits everyone!