Now based at Stoney Lake Equestrian near Toronto, Jaimey and Tina Irwin trained in Germany and have devoted themselves to the German classical dressage system. For more than 15 years they trained with Holger Muenstermann, who has worked with some of the world’s best, and their training philosophy is based on his teachings. They believe every rider at every level can and should be using a consistent, systematic approach, whether schooling at home or riding at competitions.
“We have three phases in our training system,” explains Tina. “The first phase is the warm-up. The second phase is the working phase, and the third phase is the cool-down. The warm-up and cool-down are crucial for the longevity of your horse’s career and also their mental well-being. Warming up correctly not only allows the horse and rider to warm up their bodies to prepare for the full workout, but it also gives the rider an idea of how the horse is feeling that day so they can tailor their session to accommodate the horse’s present mood and feeling. The cool-down phase is a great way to end the session in a physically and mentally relaxed state, and it sets the stage in preparation for the next day’s work.”
“The benefits of having a systematic training system are huge,” adds Jaimey. “Horses thrive on routine and once they know that what you ask of them is consistent, they will start to offer it on their own. Too often when teaching clinics, we see riders who have no plan and are all over the place. This is very confusing for the horse and the rider and is not helpful. Through the three phases of your workout, the horses start to know what to expect and also start to build correct muscle tone, strength, and fitness just like any other athlete should.”
The Irwin’s daily warm-up routine begins with walking – either in-hand or under saddle – for at least 10 to 15 minutes to give the tendons, joints, ligaments and muscles proper time to warm up before transitioning to trot.
“When the weather allows, we walk the horses on a long rein outside or go on a small hack around the farm,” says Jaimey. “It’s beneficial for both riders and horses mentally to begin the training session with a clear mind and to walk outside of the dressage ring or arena before beginning their workout. The long rein is important, as the horses are often coming out of their stalls from overnight and they need a chance to warm up and not be put together immediately. Think of a runner jumping out of bed after a good night’s sleep and immediately going for a long-distance run without stretching or warming up.”
After walking for at least ten minutes on a long rein, Jaimey and Tina begin to put the horses together at the walk, then begin rising trot while stretching long and low. They always start the trot work with longer lines and large 20-metre circles in both directions to let the horses warm up properly without asking for small circles or anything too difficult in the warm-up phase.
Tina cautions, “Each horse is different and has to be treated as such. Although most horses benefit from the long-and-low stretching in the warm-up, there are some that are better warming up in a working outline instead.”
Once they have stretched the horse at the trot in both directions, they do the same at the canter. They encourage the horses to canter forward freely down the long side of the arena, and also use 20-metre circles to bend them laterally after achieving a nice longitudinal bend over their topline.
After the canter, they come back to the trot and stretch them once more in the rising trot before coming down to walk and giving them a long rein and a break.
“This is our standard warm-up routine, but we do need to be flexible and make small modifications depending what each individual horse needs that day,” says Jaimey.
When working with young horses, the Irwins often lunge them first if they have excess energy so that they are able to ride safely and effectively. These horses are hand-walked for 10 minutes prior to putting them on the lunge line. Once the lungeing is finished, they get on the horse and begin work in rising trot, but do not stretch until the end of the warm-up.
“We don’t generally stretch down the young horses at the beginning because they are, at this stage, learning to balance themselves with a rider on their back,” says Jaimey. “They need to learn to balance themselves in walk, trot, and canter, go forward and develop a steady connection with the bit before we ask them to stretch. In this way they learn to stretch properly, connected over the back, instead of stretching their under-neck with their back sagging down instead of lifting up and being round. For this reason we leave the stretching to the end of the session with young horses until they have a solid understanding of coming ‘onto the bit.’”
A hot horse can require a slightly different warm-up than a quieter horse. “If you feel that your horse is very fresh and needs to unleash some energy, then it may not be safe to ride around at the walk on a long rein. We still make sure that the horse has a proper warm-up at the walk, but it could be through hand-walking for 10 minutes or with turnout in a paddock before the training session to help release any excess tension and energy.”
In this case Tina suggests riding on more contact at the walk once mounted, and adding some leg yields to ensure the horse accepts the rider’s leg before beginning the trot work. If the horse is raring to go even after hand-walking, it may be best to trot off fairly soon after mounting. Long lines and large circles are still important in the warm-up phase, while adding transitions within the gaits is helpful to get a hot horse more focused and on the aids.
If the horse is not responsive to the half-halt during warm-up, transition to walk and make sure they are listening before returning to the trot. Tina and Jaimey recommend the same exercise to warm up a fiery horse in the canter, making canter/trot transitions and riding forward and back within the gait to keep the horse on the aids.
On the other end of the spectrum, a lazy or more sluggish horse can be tricky to warm up at the walk for a long period of time, especially when they want to stop every couple of steps. When a lazy horse feels the rider’s leg at every stride, they may get dull to the aid and not react anymore. Therefore, even in the warmup, the Irwins believe a lazier horse must be ridden with less leg overall, and with shorter, quicker leg aids to get a reaction.
“If the horse doesn’t react to your leg while warming up, then he must go forward in trot or canter and react to your driving leg immediately,” explains Jaimey. “It’s important to correct him quickly if he doesn’t react to the leg by giving him a quick kick or a tap with the whip, and then immediately relaxing the aid again as the reward for him going forward. This sequence may need to be repeated a few times in order for the horse to understand what you expect of him.”
“As always, consistency is key. If you let your horse walk in a lazy way during the warm-up and only ask him to go forward in the working phase, then he won’t react properly. The horse must understand that every time you tell him to go, he will go.”
He continues, “It can be more comfortable for this type of horse to warm up in the canter, and therefore you could start with a little bit of trot work to get your horse going, but fairly quickly get to the canter warm-up to help open him up and get him working more from behind. Transitions within the gaits going forward and back are also very helpful to sharpen a lazier horse, just as much as they help relax a hotter horse.”
Next month: Phases 2 and 3: Working phase and cooldown.