The best kind of warm-up points out areas that need attention during that day’s training session or require a quick tune-up before a performance. I use this exercise to find things I need to correct in my horse—stiffness on one side or the other, reluctance to give at the poll, and resistance in the neck, for example.
After a few minutes of general aerobic warm-up, use the drill I’ll describe here to alert you to any problem spots and get your horse’s body soft, supple, and ready to work. You should ride with two hands to get the most out of this exercise. Outfit your horse in whatever bit he’s most comfortable with. Work on a 12-foot circle at a walk, advancing to a trot once you get better at the drill.
1. Start a 12-foot circle to the left at a walk. On this left arc, you’ll work on the left side of your horse’s mouth, poll, and ribs, with the goal of softening this side of the horse’s body. You don’t want a tight bend in your horse’s body, but all of his body parts—nose, poll, neck, withers, ribs, and inside hip—should have enough arc to be on the circle. None of your horse’s body parts should push into or out of the circle, which I call a “perfect circle” when all parts are in the right spot. You’ll perform this exercise to the right, too, so that the right side is equally supple.
2. Here you can see the rider’s hand position and rein arrangement, as well as the leg pressure he’s using. Draw your left rein slightly higher than your right rein to maintain that left arc through the horse’s poll and neck. Use your left heel (or spur, if necessary) to maintain the ribs’ alignment on the arc. Your outside leg should be close to your horse’s side so that you can feel any stiffness in his body and feel when he leans on you. No matter what you’re working on, you should have at least light contact on your horse’s sides with both legs.
3. One key to this exercise is to remember that while the circle is important, the point of the drill is to identify problem spots as you work along the circle. If you feel stiffness or your horse gets pushy in one spot, move away from the circle, and go work on those issues. Return to the circle once the identified issue is resolved, and get back to work on this drill. When you’re on the circle, focus on your own position and that of your horse to ensure that you get the most out of every step of the drill.
4. Once you get the correct arc and your horse gives in all the right places, cue your horse for a 180-degree turn to the left. To initiate this turn, put your outside leg on the horse’s side to cue the horse’s front end to come around to the left. When initiating the turn, pick up your inside rein to hold up your horse’s shoulder, and keep your outside rein in a supporting position, down toward the swells of your saddle.
5. With the 180-degree turn complete, maintain the same left arc the horse had before the turn, so now the horse is arced to the outside of the circle. Maintain the same hand and leg position explained in Photo 2. Now cue the horse to back around a 12-foot circle, keeping your horse’s body on the left arc. The entire maneuver, from the turn through the backing steps, should flow; there shouldn’t be any resistance, hesitation, or stiffness. Be patient, and ask for slow, smooth steps. You’ll start to feel the horse loosen up after a few backward steps. If you notice stiffness anywhere along the turn or backward circle—where your horse lays on your leg, doesn’t stay on the arc, freezes up—stop this drill, and go work on softening that spot, then go back to the drill.
6. Once you feel your horse loosen up on the backward circle, cue the horse for several turns to the left, until the horse is soft and willing. Once he’s very comfortable in his turns, walk forward to complete the drill. Then repeat the drill to the right, reversing the arc and hand/leg positions demonstrated here.
Al Dunning, Scottsdale, Arizona, has produced world champion horses and riders in multiple disciplines. He’s been a professional trainer for more than 40 years, and his expertise has led him to produce books, DVDs, and his own online mentoring program, Team AD International (teamadinternational.com). Al’s assistant, Jade Keller, is shown here.