The Golden Rules of the Dressage Warm-Up Arena

Learn how to stay sane amid the pre-test chaos

The warm-up arena at a show can be a happening place, but if you don’t know your way around, it can quickly become a scary one. Savvy riders share the ring with others who may be distracted by the antics of their horses or the directives of their instructors. Some riders may boldly think they own the warm-up arena and act as bullies while others may simply be petrified with show nerves. The more prepared you are by knowing a few common rules, the more smoothly you will be able to warm up your horse and get ready for your test. 

Fortunately, good warm-up techniques, like any skill, can be learned. Did you know that the U.S. Dressage Federation (USDF) publishes an official protocol for warming up at a show? This should be required reading for all competitors ( The following are tips, insights and rules for the warm-up arena at a show from instructors who have taken many students to shows over the years: Bill Woods, Sarah Martin, Jessica Rattner and Tracey Lert give sound advice for every competitor.

Follow the Basic Code of Conduct 

Riders should pass each other left hand to left hand. This is the first, most elemental rule riders must observe, say the experts. If you are traveling to the right and you see a horse coming toward you, steer your horse off the track so that you will pass with your left hands nearest to each other. This rule is easy to remember if you have your driver’s license since the same rule applies when driving (in the United States, at least). Circles are an exception. If you are circling, stay to the inside of oncoming riders. If you are passing another rider who is circling, you can stay your course on the rail. It’s not necessary to try to thread through her circle in order to pass left hand to left hand. 

Slower gaits take the inside track. As Florida author, judge and instructor Bill Woods succinctly puts it: “If you are walking, whether you’re going to do a Prix St. Georges test or Intro, for heaven’s sake, get off the track!” Look up, he insists. This simple habit is critical to harmony in any warm-up arena. If you are studying your horse’s neck, not only are you not looking where you are going, you are also probably lost in your thoughts.

The warm-up arena is for work. If you need to take a break for any reason, exit the warm-up arena. Parking your horse on the rail will cause traffic-flow problems for the rest of the riders trying to get ready for their tests. You will encounter all kinds of good reasons to stop—to strategize with your trainer, to chat with a friend about your last test or to put on your coat and get the last-minute boot buff. Whatever the reason, just take it outside the gate, and make sure you aren’t blocking the entrance or exit either. 

Control your whip. Just the sound of a whip can disturb other horses. Horses need their personal space. If you are close enough to touch another horse with your whip, you are too close. Keep at least one horse’s length away from other horses in all directions. “Treat every horse like they might kick,” advises Jessica Rattner, rider and head trainer at Devonwood Equestrian Center. “You never know when a horse will decide that close is too close and fire out. It’s just better to be safe than sorry!”

Prepare for the Pre-test Warm-up

Be aware of the kind of message your horse might sending and receiving from other horses. For example, a Friesian coming up behind someone in a thundering canter might make another horse think he is running away from something and out of control, which is contagious. A young horse seeing upper-level movements for the first time might interpret them wrongly. A passage is definitely a sign of an excited horse. Half passing toward a horse might seem to be an attack. To get your horse more comfortable with the show experience, make sure you school him with other horses. 

Sarah Martin, an instructor based in Colorado, prepares her students by holding a mock show warm-up lesson with up to 15 horses. She directs the riders in an orchestrated set of test patterns. “It’s a wonderful tool,” she explains. “In this way, the experienced horses provide an example of how to behave for the younger horses. The riders have an opportunity to learn how to space themselves and control the tempo.”

Martin advises her students to watch the warm-up arena for a few moments before entering. She says a rider must learn to read the arena much like a raft guide must learn to read the water. Which way is the current flowing? An observant rider can pick out which horses are high and unpredictable, which riders look like a deer in the headlights and who is quietly doing their work. Some riders may be circling at one end so that they can hear their coaches. Others might be looking down and only dimly aware of their surroundings. Use this information to know where to direct your horse and when to do your movements. When you enter the warm-up ring, Martin suggests staying toward the middle at a walk to give your horse time to adjust to the tension and hum of activity. 

Since dressage movements can take a horse in any direction, it can be difficult to predict which way another rider is going. In these cases, it’s OK to speak up. “Sometimes a simple ‘heads up’ or ‘on your left’ is enough,” says Rattner. She also suggests, “If you want to take a particular line, declaring your intentions can help other riders plan.”

Martin agrees but cautions, “Shouting out your next move does not absolve you from watching out for other riders, and endlessly narrating your intentions just adds to the overall confusion of the warm-up.” 

“Let’s start with responsibility,” suggests Woods. “If you can steer, you are supposed to be more generous and selfaware than those who cannot. If you are a princess, you get no dispensation. Make your tempis around the helpless novice riders, not through them!”

Martin teaches her students to ride defensively, no matter who else is in the warm-up. “I do not differentiate between green and experienced,” she explains. “Advanced horses can also sometimes be claustrophobic or very high. I read the energy level of the horses around me, and I avoid the high energy ones, no matter what their level.” 

Everyone agrees that if you are experienced and/or are riding a well-trained confident horse, you are in the best position to watch out for other riders and set up your movements in the right places. “I think it’s up to advanced riders to keep their antennae up,” says Tracey Lert, a longtime instructor in California.

Using Wireless Headsets

In the last few years, wireless communication devices have changed the way riders warm up at a show. The devices function like walkie-talkies complete with headsets, thereby allowing coaches to discreetly instruct their riders without yelling across the arena. “I like them,” says Lert. “It makes the atmosphere calmer and it’s more centering for the rider. She doesn’t have to hug one corner of the ring in order to hear her coach.” 

Martin appreciates them, too, but is quick to add that the warm-up is not the place for a riding lesson. She often finds that she is coaching several students at once, so she will give her newbie rider the headset while offering an occasional comment to the others as they ride by. “In general, I do very little shouting from the side, although a loud ‘good!’ can help to pump up a timid rider or boost the confidence of a rider who is about to enter the show ring.”

Rattner notes that the wireless systems make it more difficult for riders to keep track of everyone. “You don’t have the benefit of hearing an instructor tell her student to do a half pass. And if you are wearing a headset, you may find it harder to hear someone right behind you. Make sure you take note of who is ‘plugged in’ and who is not,” she suggests. 

The wireless systems do have some disadvantages, Woods points out. “I appreciate the notion of decorum and golf-commentator-like whispered tones, but one downside to headsets is that each student retreats into a self-oriented cocoon with little regard for anyone or anything outside her sphere. Programmed to follow her coach’s orders, the rider titanically plows along, oblivious to whatever icebergs other coaches are unwittingly throwing in her path. One advantage of the old aural system of coaching aloud was that since each trainer could hear what the others were saying, each could steer his students into uncontested zones, free of hazards and hindrances. On the bright side,” he adds wryly, “the prevalence of techie devices spares the rest of us from the guy on the sideline who, instead of actually coaching, insists on shouting arcane bits of dressage philosophy so the rest of us will acknowledge his brilliance. I prefer to be a minimalist. If your student doesn’t understand the heavy stuff by now, trying to flood them with it moments before their test isn’t going to do them any good.”

Woods does acknowledge one obscure benefit to the wireless communication systems with this recollection: “I appreciated one kid’s approach to TMI [too much information] which I observed at a wintertime Florida show. An advanced Young Rider was being prepped for her test by not one but by both of her parents—well-known professionals.

Each was wearing a headset and standing at an opposite end of the schooling ring. North end: Dad’s advice. South end: Mom’s. I watched as, overwhelmed with their input, the child discreetly took her reins in one hand and slipped the switch on her belt to off. Problem solved!”

Use Warm-Up Time Effectively

The warm-up arena is not the place for a last-minute review of your test. Not only is it difficult to navigate a test pattern with a ring full of riders, it is not the best preparation for your horse either. “Trust the training you did at home,” advises Lert. “Use your warmup time to get your horse through and to test his responsiveness to the aids.” 

Lert learned the secret of building a horse’s confidence from her father, Peter Lert, instructor, competitor and winner of the USDF Lifetime Achievement award. (Peter Lert passed away in January. See Arena, p. 18.) He began his career as a jumper trainer. “Show-jumping riders use the warmup to build a horse’s confidence so he believes he can jump anything,” says Lert. “I see a lot of dressage riders make the mistake of creating anxiety in their horses by drilling the stuff that is not working. You don’t want your horse thinking, Oh no, Mother is upset! It’s especially important to finish your warm-up with something your horse does really well, so he will enter the show ring in a good frame of mind.” 

The warm-up arena can be an electric place, and for an inexperienced horse it can be overwhelming. If you suspect that your horse might act up, Martin suggests riding him out first or warming him up on the longe line. Recognized shows usually provide a designated longeing area. “Of course, no one can stop a young horse from bucking and spooking completely,” she says, “but taking your fractious horse into the warm-up puts other riders on green horses at risk.”

When another horse in the warmup arena just loses it, or if a rider gets thrown from her horse, everyone agrees that you should stand as still as possible and wait until the situation is resolved. Lert tells her students, “Just halt and wait for things to get under control.” She feels that it is safer to stay on and not dismount. 

Martin encourages her students to dismount so that they can steady their horses. “The safest place is on your two feet,” she says, adding, “Don’t try to be the hero and catch the loose horse. You could cause another situation when your horse and the other one start kicking and squealing.”

Speaking of heroics, Woods recalls, “Once I was on an especially obnoxious Thoroughbred, trying to get him ready for his first Training Level test. As he tried a sudden, uncontrolled dash for the exit, another professional on a massive warmblood blocked his path and cheerfully offered, ‘It’s OK. If you have to, run him into me!’” While we can’t recommend this kind of chivalry, the spirit of goodwill toward other competitors is one of the best things you can bring to any warm-up arena. “Remember that everyone at a show is probably stressed,” says Rattner. “Polite riding can keep you and your ringmates from getting further stressed out. Niceness often perpetuates itself.






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