How to Organize, Plan and Structure Your Ride - Dressage Today
By following the three-part ride structure—warm-up, work sets and cool-down—we ensure the horse works in optimal physical comfort and emotional health.
The basic structure of a training ride for every horse should always be the same: warm-up, work sets and cool-down. Here Joy Congdon rides Wixen FH (Welser/Warkant), bred by Eliza Rutherford. (Abby Burgess)

The basic structure of a training ride for every horse should always be the same: warm-up, work sets and cool-down. Here Joy Congdon rides Wixen FH (Welser/Warkant), bred by Eliza Rutherford. (Abby Burgess)

Our responsibility as riders is to keep the horse happy and healthy in his work. One of the best ways to do this is to keep the horse comfortable in his body during our rides. When the work feels good to him, he may even offer to do more. By following the three-part ride structure—warm-up, work sets and cool-down—we ensure the horse works in optimal physical comfort and emotional health.

Without thoughtful planning, you may experience some avoidable problems. For example, if the horse isn’t warmed up properly, then the work can be painful for him or cause injury. If work sets aren’t planned, then riders may repeat the same movement too many times or too many days in a row and cause repetitive-motion injuries or unintentionally demoralize the horse. If the horse isn’t cooled down and stretched out properly at the end of a ride, then a pattern of tightness is established that makes each day’s work a chore. Follow these guidelines to plan your rides each day/week to ultimately achieve your riding goals with a happy, healthy mount.

Ride Structure 101

The basic structure of a training ride for every horse should always be the same: warm-up, work sets and cool-down. There is much room for variation within each of the three phases for each individual horse. The amount of time you spend in each phase and the goal of each phase will also vary from day to day. 

Warm-Up

A correct warm-up prepares the horse’s joints and muscles for the demands of the work sets. The initial 10 minutes of a ride should be an active walk on long reins. As the horse walks, the joint fluid circulates and lubricates the joints. Then the rider should establish a basic connection and ride five to 10 minutes of working trot and canter on 20-meter circles, straight lines, bending lines and changes of direction. This pumps oxygenated blood throughout the horse’s muscles so that the muscle fibers become warm and pliable. During the end of this phase, the horse may be ready for more suppling work, such as leg yields and 15-meter circles. By the end of the warm-up the horse should be confirmed in the first three steps of the Training Scale—he should demonstrate rhythmic gaits, feel supple in his body and achieve the connection required for the work ahead.

Note that certain types of horses require you to spend more time in the warm-up phase. For example, horses who are older, stiffer or have had time off take longer to achieve suppleness. Take the time you need. Especially if the horse is coming back from an injury—patiently warm up until the joints, ligaments, tendons and muscles are supple. Then the horse has the optimal chance to come back to work with no further injury.

The warm-up varies from horse to horse. Some horses loosen up better in the canter while others work better in trot early on. Some horses may need more bending lines to control the tempo while others need more straight lines to get the engine revving. Some horses may take up to 30 minutes to feel warmed up while others may be ready to work after 15 minutes. Each rider needs to figure out the best warm-up routine for her individual horse, but the result should be the same: The horse and rider achieve the bottom three rungs of the Training Scale.

Work Sessions

Once the horse is properly warmed up, the rider should have a clear plan for what to work on that day. She should ride approximately two or three sets of work with walk breaks in between each set.  

Build your work sets in a systematic way to set the horse up for success. I like to vary the work sets according to muscle groups. For example, if I worked on canter–walk–canter transitions during one session, then the next session I’ll focus on exercises that are less weight-bearing, such as lateral work at the trot. This routine keeps the horse physically comfortable and mentally engaged.

Variety in work. The goal of your work will vary from day to day. I plan my rides depending on the day of the week. For instance, my horses work Monday through Friday with the weekends off. When I begin on Monday, I do what I call “gaits day.” After a slow warm-up, the work phase is focused on the basic gaits with many transitions between and within the gaits. This gives the horse a chance to limber up through his whole musculature system. The horse becomes more tuned to my aids so he is prepared for more serious work sets the next day. Typically, I’ll school the horse more intensely on Tuesday and Wednesday. These days, the work sets include movements that the horse and I are developing. I hack on Thursday to give the horse’s tendons, ligaments and muscles a chance to recuperate plus give him a mental break from the ring. I school him again on Friday, revisiting the training that I addressed on Tuesday and Wednesday.

The weekly work schedule varies from horse to horse. A lazier horse might do better with two days of working outside of the ring to keep him fresh and increase fitness. A horse who has contact issues may benefit from long-lining or longeing during the week. A horse who requires fitness can benefit from cavaletti work. Some horses benefit most from anaerobic work, such as walk lateral work, while others flourish with more aerobic canter work. Develop a plan of progressive work to systematically help each individual horse move forward with his training.

Cool Out

After the work sets, you enter the cool-down session of the ride. The rider should stretch her horse in the walk, trot and/or canter. A horse who is still developing strength might do better with a short-duration stretch in the trot so his balance isn’t thrown onto the forehand. For this horse, more time is spent stretching in the free walk. A fully mature horse can benefit from a longer period of stretch in the trot and canter. Make sure that connection is always maintained in the stretch, which means the horse’s abdominals are still engaged and the back muscles are lifted. The stretching frame allows the muscles that have been contracted in the work sets to lengthen and dispel the lactic acid that has built up during the session. Finally, the horse should walk on a long rein for five to 10 minutes or until his muscles return to a comfortable resting body temperature.

A correct cool-down allows the horse to finish the ride in the optimal physical and mental state to begin work the next day. This is important every day. Often, your 45-minute lesson or clinic does not include the cool-down portion of a ride. The cool-down is the rider’s responsibility. Remember to cool down after your class at a horse show as well.

Be thoughtful and organize your ride. You will find a system to adhere to that is in the best physical and emotional interest of the horse and will help you reach your training goals.   

Joy Congdon is a USDF bronze, silver and gold medalist, a USDF Certified Instructor through Fourth Level and a USDF “L” Program judge. She was the assistant trainer to Kathy Connelly for 17 years and has earned many regional and national year-end awards. Congdon operates her training business, Still Point Dressage, in the Champlain Valley of northern Vermont.