Structure Your Dressage Warm-Up with David Marcus

A Canadian Olympian explains the three must-haves for a purposeful start to your dressage horse’s work session.
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Credit: Susan J. Stickle

Credit: Susan J. Stickle

I often teach clinics where I am asked, “Do you mind if I come into the arena a few minutes prior to my lesson to warm up?” “Sure,” I say, only to see the rider trotting and cantering around on a long rein with absolutely no control. Her (or his) thought process is generally that she wants to allow her horse time to warm up his joints and muscles. However, her horse is thinking, Here I am, running around with my head wherever I want and at whatever speed I want, and then he feels confused when she says, “Now, I want to put you together like a show horse,” and he doesn’t like the new set of rules. It is like having a kid without a curfew suddenly getting one: He is bound to argue. 

For this reason, I prefer a very structured, systematic approach to my riding that begins with the warm-up. From green to Grand Prix, it is about knowing I can do three things: 1. Check and train my horse’s reactions to my seat, leg and rein. 2. Check and train my ability to regulate the length of my horse’s stride, and 3. check and train my ability to control his overall shape. 

As you can see, I don’t just use the warm-up to give my horse time for his muscles and joints to literally warm up. Every moment I am sitting on my horse’s back I am teaching him something, and the warm-up is no different. The work has to be directly relatable to his training. I want to have a set of rules that apply to where I want the rest of my ride to go. These three variables may be the whole focus when working a green horse. While on a Grand Prix horse, like my 2012 Olympic partner Chrevi’s Capital, it might take only the first five or 10 minutes of our ride. 

Here is how I ride a warm-up with purpose to improve my horse’s reaction time, stride length and overall shape.

Reaction Time 

Studies show that walking for 20 minutes reduces the chance of tendon and ligament injury. Therefore, I make this an important part of my warm-up. Here, I ride the walk with Don Kontes, owned by Deborah Kinzinger Miculinic. (Credit: Susan J. Stickle )

Studies show that walking for 20 minutes reduces the chance of tendon and ligament injury. Therefore, I make this an important part of my warm-up. Here, I ride the walk with Don Kontes, owned by Deborah Kinzinger Miculinic. (Credit: Susan J. Stickle )

Once I have walked on a long rein for 20 minutes, I start in trot. Studies have shown that walking for 20 minutes reduces the chance of tendon and ligament injury. For this reason, I make this an important part of my warm-up. I then start in a relaxed working trot rising. I ride long and low in both directions, making sure my horse is flexible and reaching forward toward the bit.

I start to work my horse with transitions within the gait on large 20-meter circles and long, straight lines. The goal at this point is to find the rhythmic, harmonious version of my horse. 

As we are all aware, the first step of the Training Scale is rhythm. However, we cannot control the rhythm until we can control our horse’s reactions. Here is an exercise that I would do to make certain he is moving forward on his own with an immediate answer to the tiniest of aids.

Exercise 1—20-meter Circle in Rising Trot, Forward and Back

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This is an exercise I would do on any horse, from green to Grand Prix. By riding alternating half circles of forward and working trot, I check my horse’s reaction time to the transition aids. I prefer this exercise to riding quick transitions of a few steps because I think those can often create tension, and that is never my intention. 

At this point, it is not necessary to ride a true lengthening/extended trot in this exercise. The goal is to create the reaction to my aids by the way I engage my horse in a more forward trot from the leg. I make sure that I then reward him and repeat the exercise. 

Here is how to ride a 20-meter circle in rising trot at either end of the arena, for example, at A:

1. Ride the first half of the circle with a more forward trot, from A to centerline.

2. Ride the second half of the circle, from the centerline to A, in a more working trot.

My focus is on the quickness of my horse’s reaction to my aids—both “go” and “whoa”—at A and centerline. At A, I ask for the more forward trot. My expectation would be to get a reaction equal to my aid. If I feel this has happened, I immediately reward his response with either a soft pat of my inside hand or a gentle “good” with my voice. 

Once I approach the centerline, I ask my horse to return to a normal working trot by closing my outside rein, squeezing softly with my knees and relaxing in my body. I maintain the working trot for another half of the circle until I approach A again. 

If my horse did not immediately react to the smallest of aids the first time we were at A, I repeat the exercise. This time when I get to A, I ask for a quicker reaction by increasing the volume of my leg aids. It is important to note that after I’ve done this, I always repeat the transition the next time around with the smallest of aids to check his response as a result of the training from this increased aid. 

I repeat this exercise until I have created a horse who is reacting immediately to my aids. Then I can change direction and repeat the circle exercise on the other rein.

Tips for the exercise: I always make sure to pay attention to my geometry so I am aware of where my horse’s body is under me and how he is reacting to my aids as I apply them to transition, turn or rebalance. When I am committed to a certain circle and my horse is suddenly off that line, it heightens my awareness of where he is (or is not) under my body. 

I also pay attention to maintaining the same energy throughout so my horse has the same desire to go forward in the working-trot portion of the exercise. I want my horse to stay in front of my leg throughout. That means my horse has the desire to go forward on his own even on the slower side.

I think it is also important to note that this exercise can be done in both trot and canter. My expectations will remain the same in both gaits, however the use of my leg will be different. I use my lower leg to go forward, specifically my inside leg in trot and my outside leg in canter. I use both of my upper legs to slow my horse in trot and canter. 

Riding forward and back on a 20-meter circle can be done in trot as well as in canter. In canter, I use my outside leg to go more forward (Credit: Susan J. Stickle)

Riding forward and back on a 20-meter circle can be done in trot as well as in canter. In canter, I use my outside leg to go more forward (Credit: Susan J. Stickle)

I use both of my upper legs when asking the horse to come back. (Credit: Susan J. Stickle )

I use both of my upper legs when asking the horse to come back. (Credit: Susan J. Stickle )

Exercise 2—Leg Yield From the Diagonal

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For an upper-level horse, I might also add the test of leg-yielding in the warm-up. Riding the leg yield from the diagonal is a great exercise for any horse confirmed in the movement. I would not use this exercise to teach leg yield. It’s a test to check balance, straightness and suppleness.

1. Go across the diagonal in rising trot, M–X–K.

2. At X, turn that diagonal into a leg yield right from X–K.

3. Make sure your horse is parallel to the long side in the leg yield.

4. At K, straighten your horse for a stride before bending through the corner and then proceed straight on the short side. 

I like to do this exercise because I find that it is a more gymnastic exercise to go from the right rein to the leg yield right in the left flexion than from the right rein to the leg yield left in right flexion. At X I would change my posting diagonal so that my new inside leg is naturally coming on the horse as I am asking him to step sideways into the new direction. The horse doesn’t anticipate the pattern of this exercise because it is not typically practiced. As a result, it is a truer representation of the honesty of his reactions than doing the leg yield in a place in the arena that your horse may anticipate.

How many times I repeat this exercise is related to how easy it is for that horse. If I can do this exercise very smoothly the first time, where the only thing that changes is the orientation of his body, I will move on to the other rein and repeat the exercise. If not, I will repeat the same exercise until I feel secure in the ease of the movement.

Troubleshooting: The common things that go wrong with this exercise are generally related to the hotness or laziness of my horse. 

On a hotter horse, I like the exercise because as I turn the diagonal into a leg yield right, the horse will have an easier time going parallel as he is quick off the leg aid. However, it is common that he will run through my new outside rein. In this instance, I check that he is responsive to my slowing aids and outside rein throughout the exercise. If necessary, I will even add a transition to walk and back to trot while maintaining the leg yield.

A lazy horse will not commonly run through my outside rein, but will possibly lose energy in his hind end as we go into the leg yield, making it harder to maintain the horse’s body in a position parallel to the long side. In that case, I spend more time on the second half of the diagonal, making sure to create the parallel-to-the-long-side aspect by getting a reaction to my leg-yielding aids while maintaining my focus on his forward desire.

Stride Length 

Now that I have a horse who is reacting immediately to the smallest of aids, it’s time for me to move on to the next exercise that will help me manage the length of my horse’s stride. An important thing to think about during this phase of the warm-up is to avoid losing the quality I have created in getting immediate reactions to minimal aids. 

Now that I have control of my horse’s reaction to the aids and he has a desire to move forward, I can work on developing his stride length. Here is how. 

Exercise 3—Transitions Into and Out of Lengthened/Medium Trot

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This exercise is going to be a variation on Exercise 1 with the focus being on the quality of the gait as opposed to the reaction time to my aids. The goal is to maintain balance and rhythm as I transition from a working trot to a lengthened or medium trot in order to create adjustability in my horse’s stride length. 

I begin on a 20-meter half circle in working trot as I did in Exercise 1. But this time I go between working trot and lengthened trot, utilizing the long side to develop scope and quality in medium trot. In Exercise 1, I was more concerned with reaction time. But with this exercise, opening it up to an oval, I allow my horse to successfully achieve correct rhythm and balance. I may go straight for half the long side or my horse may require use of the full arena. For instance,

1. Begin in rising trot, on the left rein.

2. Ride a 20-meter half-circle from R to S in a balanced trot.

3. Ride from S to V in a lengthened or medium trot.

4. Repeat the balanced trot on a 20-meter half-circle from V to P

5. Ride from P to R in a lengthened or medium trot.

With time, I will be able to take a horse that can stay balanced on the larger ovals back onto the 20-meter circle without losing quality. Only then is the 20-meter circle appropriate for the exercise. 

Once I take a walk break, I might repeat the exercise in canter. My approach in the canter for the lower-level horse is the same as in trot. I find what approach makes the horse comfortable. For upper-level horses in the canter, I also ride in a working gait with the same idea of comfort, but with more connection to the bridle and focus on uphill balance.

Body Shape 

At this point, I allow myself to be mindful of my horse’s body shape and the way he is carrying his neck. Through quickening his reaction time and adjusting his stride length, I can now become more aware of how his frame can be affected. 

Oftentimes, we fear the topic of controlling the neck because it is such a taboo topic. However, I need to be able to control my horse’s outline and neck shape. I need to be able to adjust the height of his neck from where I would want the poll in the show ring (see Photo A, p. 34) to where I would want it in the stretching trot (see Photo B, p. 34). What is important to remember is that correct neck control is not about pulling a horse’s head down into a frame. Instead, the ability to correctly control the height of the neck is directly related to the horse’s correct response to the aids, impulsion and adjustability of the stride. For that reason, I have saved it as my last topic.

No one exercise fits every horse to develop adjustability in neck height. Every horse’s conformation is different and this plays such a big part in my ability to give you concrete guidelines. For this reason, the focus must be different depending on the horse and instead of one clear exercise, I focus on remembering these five tips:

1. The horse should always be reaching to the bridle from active hind legs over a supple back, no matter his neck height.

2. The highest a horse’s poll should go is the frame you would see in a show frame for the level he is working.

3. The poll can go as low as you’d like as long as your horse continues to reach forward toward the bit and it is not maintained for long periods of time.

4. The ability to control the neck is a direct reflection of how a horse is using his hind legs and back. If you do not have the ability to raise or lower his neck, first check that he is active enough behind—the slow hind leg can create a hollow back and, thus, no ability to control the neck. 

5. In general, if a horse wants to maintain a very high head and neck carriage, work to lower the neck, and if a horse wants to maintain a very low head and neck carriage, work to raise the neck.

After riding through all of these exercises and focusing on these variables, I should now have a horse who is truly reactive to my aids, truly in front of my leg, giving me the ability to harmoniously control the length of his stride and the shape of his neck. Only now am I ready to start the training portion of my ride. Sometimes I spend the whole ride or lesson on something considered a warm-up variable, but the goal should and must always be to get the quality first. 

(A) I need to be able to adjust the height of Don Altena’s neck from where I would want his poll in the show ring (A) to where I would want it in the stretching trot (B). (Credit: Susan J. Stickle )

(A) I need to be able to adjust the height of Don Altena’s neck from where I would want his poll in the show ring (A) to where I would want it in the stretching trot (B). (Credit: Susan J. Stickle )

 (B.) The ability to correctly control the height of the neck is directly related to the horse’s correct response to the aids, impulsion and adjustability of the stride. (Credit: Susan J. Stickle)

 (B.) The ability to correctly control the height of the neck is directly related to the horse’s correct response to the aids, impulsion and adjustability of the stride. (Credit: Susan J. Stickle)

David Marcus is among North America’s top dressage competitors. He and Chrevi’s Capital represented Canada at the 2012 Olympic Games and 2014 Alltech FEI World Equestrian Games. A dual citizen of the U.S. and Canada, Marcus is a well-respected trainer who has helped students of all levels meet their goals. He and his husband, Nicholas Fyffe, recently opened Marcus Fyffe Dressage, a year-round training operation at the heart of the equestrian scene in Wellington, Florida.

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