Warm-Up Deep Dive

Whether you’re a year-round competitor or are dusting off the last of the snowflakes for your first spring rides, your warm-up plays an integral role in every riding session. It doesn’t matter if you’re preparing for a relaxed spring show, an intense aged event, or an early-season trail ride, what your horse tells you in the first few minutes of your ride can put you on a path to success or a bumpy ride to frustration. Instead of tuning out as you loosen up your horse, focus on that part of your ride as much as you do every other portion for the most successful outcome.

Here, I’ll detail my process for the first 10 to 12 minutes of every ride so I can get in tune with my horse and get the best results.


I like to begin every ride with some easy jogging. It gives my horse time to loosen up and get comfortable before I start working him. Photos by Nichole Chirico

Start With Jogging

I like to begin every ride with some easy jogging. It lets my horse—and me—loosen up and get comfortable for our ride. I like to work both two-handed and one-handed, checking my steering and guide. I employ lots of directional changes, giving my horse a loose rein to see where he wants to go.

Work Transitions With Collection

As I go along, I want to check my horse’s transitions. I don’t want them to be too sharp, but I want him to be responsive and comfortable with slowing down and speeding up. At the start of a ride, I want him to go from the jog to the walk smoothly, without stopping. An abrupt stop can hurt your score in ranch riding, for example, so I want it to be a smooth slow-down from jog to walk with subtle cues while maintaining forward motion. 

When I extend my horse’s gaits, it gets his muscles moving and his mind right before we try other, more challenging tasks. I like to start asking for an extended trot with a loose rein and no contact with his face. As we go along, I take up my slack and ask him to collect while keeping the same cadence and extension. I make contact with both of my feet, shorten my reins, and he begins to collect his body. To start, he might not be as comfortable with it, but he’ll ease into it. Then I give him back his face and let him relax. 

I do this at all gaits and with extension just to check in with where my horse’s mind is and that he’s listening. When we’re competing, having this skill means it’s quick and easy to make adjustments when I need to. I can go from helping my horse to letting him do his job and still have a very consistent visual product.

When I move my horse into a lope, I start on a loose rein and let him float around the arena. Photos by Nichole Chirico

Back Shapes

Backing squares and circles requires your horse to use all four of his feet and stay soft in your hands. Within these shapes, I also like to incorporate a turn-around, especially if his feet get sticky.

When I’m backing a square, I like to focus on dead-straight lines and sharp 90-degree turns. I back five to 10 steps, isolate his shoulders, and move his front end around the quarter-turn. Then I back some more, and this time I might isolate his hindquarters to make the turn on his forehand.

I continue this around the square. Backing circles is more about body control throughout the maneuver. I regularly move my horse’s shoulders and hips to keep a “circular” shape and test my horse’s body control.

The key is to know your horse. If he’s getting frustrated, let him go forward and then move his hindquarters. This offers him some needed relief, and it’s good to stop, let him catch his breath, and just back a couple straight steps and stop. When you know your horse, you know how far you can push him without sabotaging your entire ride, especially in the warm-up. Also, remember this is only a 10-minute warm-up. Don’t spend too much time, which can lead to resentment. Test the waters and note what needs work. 

Move Into the Lope

Once I feel like I understand where my horse’s body is, I can move into my loping warm-up. I start on a loose rein and let him float around the pen, loose and free, going at the speed he picks. If he’s fresh and takes off, I bring him down and gather a little more control. I don’t want him getting too amped up before we start the real work; I want a willing horse that’s in a learning frame of mind, but I want him to cruise around and get comfortable. I test his willingness to follow my eyes and how much rein I need to gather.

Then I start collecting his body by taking up the slack in my reins. I keep my outside leg on to keep him going. Ideally, it feels just as good as it did when he was loping around on his own. I add a little contact with my hands, lighten contact with my feet (but don’t take them completely off, or he’ll hit the brakes), and ask him to transition down to a trot. Then, I feather that down to a walk. I never want the forward motion to stop until I tell him whoa, back a couple steps, and reverse.

I’ll then ask him to lope off on a loose rein to see how my horse takes his lead, if he trots too much, etc. These things tell me what I need to work on in our training session. These tests also let me know where his mind is that day and how his body feels.

Consistency Is Key

Don’t mistake consistency for complacency. I might go through this entire checklist for every warm-up before every ride, but I don’t slack in my commitment to being engaged, so neither should my horse. It’s my practice to consistently check out my horse before every ride, but I’ll change the order or do things a little differently so it’s less predictable and to keep his mind engaged. I throw in a couple new things when it makes sense. After this 10-minute warm-up, I know a lot more about my horse for that day’s ride and he’s ready to work.

[READ ABOUT BRAD BARKEMEYER’S GROOMING TIPS]

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