Tips for a Win­ning Warm-Up

Even­ter Buck Davidson and the U.S. Event­ing Team’s Show Jump­ing Coach Sil­vio Maz­zoni share warm-up tips.

Practical Horseman - - Contents - By So­nia Tay­lor

Learn how to individualize and per­fect your show-jump­ing warm-up for a suc­cess­ful round with tips from even­ter Buck Davidson and U.S. Event­ing Team Show-Jump­ing Coach Sil­vio Maz­zoni.

Atop plac­ing at a three-day or one-day event can likely hinge on a clean show-jump­ing round, which is why rid­ers need to pre­pare for a suc­cess­ful per­for­mance in the ring with a smart warm-up plan. In­ter­na­tional three-day even­ter and top-ranked U.S. rider Buck Davidson, aided by the U.S. Event­ing Team’s Show Jump­ing Coach Sil­vio Maz zoni, shared his thoughts on how to ride a well-pre­pared show-jump­ing warm-up and his rou­tine for three of his top mounts. “Train­ing horses is about con­sis­tency,” Buck says. “If you want to teach your horse to jump a bar­rel with­out a bri­dle and sad­dle, you can do that. As long as you train your horse the same way, he will un­der­stand what’s ex­pected.”

Be­gin at Home

Buck says the foun­da­tion for your show-day warm-up starts with de­vel­op­ing a rou­tine back at the home base and know­ing your horse. “You have to ride your horse on show day the way the horse knows you will ride him. You should be con­sis­tent. Don’t go to the event and try to be some­body else. Do what you nor­mally do, do it well and you’ll be fine.”

Achiev­ing the ride you want on show day means try­ing dif­fer­ent things at home so that you know what works for your horse and what doesn’t. Ex­per­i­ment with flat exer-

cises that ad­dress your horse’s weak­nesses and help en­cour­age bal­ance, ad­justa­bil­ity and straight­ness. In­tro­duce fences at dif­fer­ent stages of your warm-up so you know about how long your horse needs on the flat be­fore he’s ready to jump his best. Some horses are bet­ter jump­ing af­ter a brief flat­work ses­sion, while oth­ers need more time to be at­ten­tive, sup­ple and re­laxed.

Buck sug­gests ex­per­i­ment­ing with the length of your warm-up. Does your horse need 10–15 min­utes be­fore jump­ing a course in good form or does he need 20 –30 min­utes of ex­er­cises be­fore course­work? Does your horse tire eas­ily? Is he greatly in­flu­enced by weather? All of these vari­ables play a role in your day-to-day train­ing and your show-day warm-up.

De­velop Con­sis­tent Train­ing

When Buck is work­ing his horses at home, he likes to do grid work such as bounces fol­lowed by course work then go back to grid work. Grid work helps get the horse in bet­ter form and makes him quick on his feet. Tech­nique and strong foot­work are needed to jump a bal­anced, rail-free course. Start­ing and end­ing with grid work re­in­forces the lessons you want the horse to re­mem­ber come show day. “Through trial and er­ror, you re­al­ize what works and what doesn’t and what makes your horse jump the best,” he says. “As you get more ed­u­cated with your rides, the vari­ables that come up in event­ing aren’t that big of a deal.”

Buck says rid­ers and horses can be thrown off schedule on show day by things like de­lays. If sud­denly there are 10 rides ahead of you in­stead of five, you might want to change your warm-up strat­egy. Es­pe­cially if you’re on a young or in­ex­pe­ri­enced horse, more time on his back can cause him to tire or get more ner­vous. Buck sug­gests that if you have the luxury of a ground per­son, ask her to find out if show jump­ing is run­ning on time and whether there have been a lot of holdups on course, like re­fusals, which cause de­lays.

Build Con­fi­dence Early In the Sea­son

For Buck, set­ting a show-jump­ing warmup plan de­pends on the com­pe­ti­tion, the horse’s ex­pe­ri­ence and where he is in the stand­ings. He says clean rounds are ideal at the big­ger com­pe­ti­tions, es­pe­cially later in the sea­son. How­ever, early in the sea­son, he’s not as con­cerned about get­ting per­fect rounds. “Ride­abil­ity and re­lax­ation of the horse at the be­gin­ning of the sea­son are huge. Some­times you have to sac­ri­fice a rail or two if it means mak­ing sure the horse is jump­ing with good tech­nique and with con­fi­dence.”

Buck’s ad­vice to rid­ers is to be as smooth and as ac­cu­rate as pos­si­ble ver­sus get­ting too com­pet­i­tive early in the sea­son. He em­pha­sizes that es­pe­cially with young horses, you should take your time to de­velop con­fi­dence in the be­gin­ning of their train­ing. That way, you can work out any is­sues when the jumps are low ver­sus when the jumps are high and the con­se­quences are greater. Too of­ten, he says, rid­ers rush young or green horses. “Chances are, you’re go­ing to have the horse for a while and you want him to last. Take it slow at the be­gin­ning of the sea­son and just have fun.”

Ride with a Long-Term Strat­egy in Mind

Buck isn’t big on chang­ing his rou­tine with more cre­ative tac­tics on show day. For in­stance, while some peo­ple put a towel on the rail of a warm-up fence to pre­pare for a scary jump on course, he’d rather stick to what he does at home. He says these things might work for the short term for some horses, but he rec­om­mends keep­ing the big­ger pic­ture in mind—that is, prac­tic­ing scary jumps at home and build­ing con­fi­dence ev­ery day so there are no is­sues come show day. “If you start to throw in dif­fer­ent things at the show, you will likely con­fuse your horse, make him ner­vous and put his at­ten­tion on you and not the fence. That’s a sure recipe for knock­ing down rails.”

Buck em­pha­sizes rid­ing ac­cord­ing to the horse, not the course. “If the horse is lis­ten­ing to me, the course will take care of it­self. If you warm up ac­cord­ing to the course and do tricks to get the horse ready for that one mo­ment, your strat­egy might work once or twice, but over the long haul, it’s not a suc­cess­ful way to train.”

Plus, al­ter­ing the warm-up fences at some com­pe­ti­tions may not be al­lowed. To avoid un­wanted penal­ties, Buck ad­vises that rid­ers check the rule­book be­fore mak­ing any changes to the warm-up fences.

Fo­cus on Tech­nique And Form

De­pend­ing on which horse Buck is rid­ing, he may ad­just the ground line or add a plac­ing pole dur­ing warm-up if al­lowed. He says Sil­vio has been in­stru­men­tal in help­ing him ad­just his strate­gies for dif­fer­ent horses. “I’m very big on work­ing to get a bet­ter tech­nique and teach­ing a horse to show jump clean, in the right form with the least amount of in­ter­fer-

ence or help from the rider,” says Sil­vio. “You have to teach the horses and rid­ers to jump in bal­ance and to use them­selves on their own. Rid­ers must show the horse the easi­est route over the jump to go clean, es­pe­cially if they are tired, hav­ing jumped cross coun­try that day or the day be­fore.”

In the past, if Buck was rid­ing a horse who dan­gled his front legs over the fence, he would try to get him deep into the fence or take off closer to the base of the fence. If the horse takes off close to the base of the jump, in the­ory, he will make more of an ef­fort to pick up his feet.

Rather than ride deep, Sil­vio ad­vised Buck to give the horse more room by mov­ing the ground line far­ther out from the fence. Push­ing the ground line slightly far­ther away en­cour­ages the horse to make a rounder shape over the fence. “You have to give the horse more room and build his con­fi­dence,” says Sil­vio. “Some horses are shy at shows, which is why it’s im­por­tant to build their con­fi­dence and work on their form in warm-up.”

Sil­vio has also en­cour­aged Buck to use plac­ing poles 9 feet in front of the fence and 10 to 12 feet be­hind the fence on show day to en­cour­age bet­ter form and bal­ance. “Es­pe­cially if a horse has al­ready com­pleted cross coun­try and has jumped fast, flat and some­times out of stride, you need to re­mind the horse that he needs more of a round shape to clear a showjump­ing fence suc­cess­fully,” ad­vises Sil­vio.

On show day, Buck uses pole work as Sil­vio sug­gested with ex­pe­ri­enced horses who have done these ex­er­cises many times at home. For less-ex­pe­ri­enced horses who are other­wise dis­tracted with crowds, an­nounc­ers and signs, he rec­om­mends prac­tic­ing pole work at home so you don’t scare them or con­fuse them at the show.

For a closer look at Buck’s show-day strate­gies, here’s how he warms up three of his top horses.

Pe­tite Flower

“Flower” is a 2002 Thor­ough­bred mare who placed ninth at last year’s Rolex Ken­tucky Three-Day Event in Lex­ing­ton. Ac­cord­ing to Buck, Flower is a ridicu­lously good jumper and very care­ful. For show day, he warms up with 10–15 min­utes of flat work, then jumps her over five to six fences be­fore en­ter­ing the ring.

With Flower, Buck says his main chal­lenge is to keep her straight. She tends to fall on the left shoul­der and swing her hips

to the left. If not cor­rected, her can­ter and bas­cule—the nat­u­ral arc she makes with her body over the fence—are com­pro­mised, which could lead to rails. To make the corrections, on the flat, be­fore he jumps any fences, he asks for haunches-in by putting weight on his in­side seat bone with his in­side leg at the girth and out­side leg slightly be­hind the girth. He then asks Flower to cross her haunches un­der­neath her­self. His out­side rein re­mains steady, help­ing to keep Flower’s neck straight, while the in­side rein asks for a slight flex­ion. By main­tain­ing straight­ness, Flower is bet­ter able to rock back on her hind end and push off over the fence.

In ad­di­tion to her straight­ness, Buck also works on en­cour­ag­ing Flower to lengthen her can­ter stride to cover more ground be­cause she has a nat­u­rally bouncy (up and down) can­ter. He does this by ask­ing for tran­si­tions within the gait, go­ing for­ward and slow­ing down within the can­ter, then main­tain­ing the de­sired can­ter around the warm-up ring.

Once she’s straight and through the back, mean­ing she’s sup­ple in her poll and mov­ing freely from be­hind, Buck be­gins to jump with an un­even oxer that has a back rail higher than the front rail and is set at 3-foot-6. He comes to the fence with a very for­ward, open can­ter, not wor­ry­ing so much about the dis­tance to the fence. His goal is to keep her re­laxed yet for­ward so she can use her back in the air.

Af­ter jump­ing the oxer twice, he raises it three holes all around and jumps the fence from each direc­tion. Once she jumps the higher oxer suc­cess­fully, he raises it to max­i­mum height at 4-foot-3. Af­ter she clears the fence, he jumps a ver­ti­cal at 3-foot-9 then at 4-foot-3. He fin­ishes up with an­other un­even oxer at 4 feet or 3-foot-11 just to make sure she has a good shape be­fore en­ter­ing the show ring. He typ­i­cally gives her a walk break be­fore and af­ter jump­ing the ver­ti­cal.

Ballynoe Castle RM

Buck’s long­time part­ner, Ballynoe Castle RM, or “Reggie,” is a 2000 Bel­gian Warm­blood/Ir­ish Thor­ough­bred. The pair has had mul­ti­ple show­ings at the Rolex Ken­tucky Three-Day Event CCI****, com­peted at the 2010 World Eques­trian Games and trav­eled to Hong Kong and Lon­don as al­ter­nates for the U.S. Event­ing Olympic squads in 2008 and 2012, re­spec­tively.

Buck says Reggie doesn’t re­quire a lot of flat­work be­fore his round, and he typ­i­cally doesn’t jump more than a hand­ful of fences be­fore he goes into the ring. As he’s warm­ing up, he does tran­si­tions within the can­ter and might ask for a walk pirou­ette or rein back to make sure Reggie is lis­ten­ing and en­gaged. For the walk pirou­ette, Buck col­lects the walk, si­mul­ta­ne­ously flex­ing Reggie slightly to the in­side. Then he ac­ti­vates the horse’s in­side hind leg us­ing his own in­side leg at the girth with his out­side leg slightly be­hind the girth to keep the haunches from fall­ing out. The com­bi­na­tion of seat, legs and rein aids helps con­trol Reg-

gie as he puts weight on his hind end and turns his front end around his haunches.

As he starts to jump, Buck takes Reggie over an un­even oxer one to two times at 3-foot-6, then raises the fence three to four holes. He keeps the oxer wide so that Reggie stretches over the fence rather than jumps high and comes down on the back rail. Af­ter the oxer, Buck jumps over a ver­ti­cal, some­times with plac­ing poles 9 feet in front and 12 feet in back to help Reggie be more round in the air and more bal­anced. If Buck is pleased with the way Reggie jumps the ver­ti­cal, he leaves it at that. If not, he’ll jump an­other un­even oxer be­fore head­ing into the ring.

“Reggie knows how to jump bet­ter than I do. As long as I know the course, I know I’ll be OK.”

Park Trader

Park Trader, or “Kobe,” is a 2002 Ir­ish Thor­ough­bred geld­ing who com­pleted last year’s Rolex CCI****. Kobe is an un­ortho­dox horse ac­cord­ing to Buck. He’s very care­ful, very sen­si­tive and doesn’t like a lot of leg pres­sure. If Buck is too strong with his leg aids, Kobe backs off and of­ten loses mo­men­tum, which is why he doesn’t ride him with spurs.

With Sil­vio’s help, Buck has been able to over­come Kobe’s is­sue with leg pres­sure and im­prove his per­for­mance in the show ring. “You can’t use hands with­out leg, and since Kobe doesn’t like leg, we’ve worked on open­ing Buck’s hands,” says Sil­vio. “This means less di­rect pres­sure on the bit. [Horses] will go where you open the door, so we’ve opened [Buck’s] hands to give [Kobe] the space and de­sire to go for­ward with­out too much leg.”

When open­ing his hands in warm-up, Buck will ask for a hand-gal­lop to en­cour­age for­ward mo­men­tum. If he feels Kobe stalling over the fences (and con­se­quently drop­ping rails), rather than ap­ply his leg at the girth, Buck lets his leg slip be­hind the girth, caus­ing Kobe to kick up a bit with his hind end over the fence and clear the back rail. “It doesn’t make for pretty pic­tures, but it works,” says Buck.

Buck jumps a few more fences with Kobe than with some of his other horses to en­sure he is jump­ing for­ward (but not rushed) and in a nice shape. He starts with a square oxer, where the rails are even. A square oxer is more dif­fi­cult be­cause some­times the horse doesn’t see the back rail un­til the last minute. For Kobe, this kind of oxer gets his at­ten­tion and makes him pick up his feet when he’s feel­ing a lit­tle lazy.

Buck jumps a square oxer four or five times at 3-foot-6 with a ground line set far­ther out in front of the fence so that Kobe has a nice big jump. If Kobe’s shoul­ders start to bulge left or right, Buck widens his hands, which helps him hold Kobe’s shoul­ders in place. Af­ter jump­ing the square oxer, Buck will take him over a ver­ti­cal or oxer at 4 feet or he might leave him with a 3-foot-6 fence if he’s jump­ing well. “If I have him happy at 3-foot-6 and he’s ride­able, lis­ten­ing and for­ward, I’m good with that. The jump height isn’t as im­por­tant as his ride­abil­ity.”

While some rid­ers are OK end­ing a warm-up with the horse hit­ting a rail, Buck might jump one more to en­sure a smooth ride. “Some horses pick up their feet af­ter hit­ting a rail. With Kobe, the more rails he hits, the mad­der he gets. He’s not a horse you want to trick. A hap­pier Kobe is a bet­ter Kobe.”

Ride­abil­ity is Key at Lower Lev­els

With a horse go­ing Novice or Train­ing divi­sion, Buck’s pri­or­ity is ride­abil­ity first, clean round sec­ond. To achieve the de­sired ride­abil­ity, Buck uses tran­si­tions, cir­cles and fig­ure eights to get a steady, re­laxed, bal­anced and rhyth­mi­cal horse.

Buck usu­ally jumps more fences—seven to 10—with young or green horses than with his more-ex­pe­ri­enced mounts so that when he en­ters the show ring, it feels as if he’s al­ready jumped half of the course. He sug­gests start­ing with some­thing small and easy like a cross­rail. Then work your way up to a small ver­ti­cal and a small oxer. “Don’t worry so much about the height of the fence. You want the horse to feel con­fi­dent. You want him to trust you and lis­ten to you. Come in a lit­tle for­ward to one fence and a lit­tle slower to the next.”

He em­pha­sizes stay­ing out of the horse’s way and let­ting him make mis­takes so that he fig­ures out how to fix them in the fu­ture. He notes that green horses some­times strug­gle be­cause their can­ter isn’t strong yet, but says that will come in time. “Kick­ing and pulling at the lower lev­els will bring you a horse that is locked in his back and ner­vous. Give them room to jump. Be pa­tient. Make it fun for the horse and your­self!”

If you have a young or green horse who is bal­anced but still knock­ing down rails, go back to the flat­work at home and work on de­vel­op­ing a stronger hind end. He sug­gests do­ing a lot of hills and tran­si­tions and us­ing gym­nas­tics in your flat­work or jump work twice a week.

De­pend­ing on whether you are com­pet­ing at a one- or two-day event, Buck says to al­ways mon­i­tor your horse’s well­be­ing and en­ergy level. “I’d rather jump one too few fences than one too many. If you hurt them, you’re go­ing nowhere. Trust your in­stincts and see it through over the long haul.”

ABOVE: Park Trader dis­likes too much leg pres­sure and has a ten­dency to back off and lose mo­men­tum over a fence, which can cause him to knock rails, es­pe­cially over ox­ers. To com­pen­sate for this is­sue, Buck Davidson of­ten lets his leg slip back in mid-air, caus­ing the horse to kick up his hind end and clear the back rail. “It’s doesn’t make for pretty pic­tures, but it works,” says Buck.

LEFT: “Chances are, you’re go­ing to have the horse for awhile and you want him to last,” says Buck, who ad­vises tak­ing it slow in the be­gin­ning of the sea­son and avoid­ing get­ting too com­pet­i­tive be­fore the big events. This prac­tice paid off for him and Pe­tite Flower. They earned a top-15 fin­ish at the 2015 Rolex Ken­tucky CCI**** af­ter a dou­ble-clear showjump­ing round.

Sil­vio Maz­zoni, a suc­cess­ful Grand Prix rider and trainer, be­gan work­ing with the U.S. Event­ing Team as its showjump­ing coach in 2014. Here he is pic­tured with four-star even­ters Han­nah Sue Bur­nett (left) and Jen­nie Bran­ni­gan (right).

Sil­vio helped Buck ad­just strate­gies for each of his horses, fo­cus­ing on cor­rect form over the fences. Though Buck’s ex­pe­ri­enced part­ner, Ballynoe Castle RM, re­quires lit­tle warmup, Buck uses ground poles to help the horse be­come more round in the air and bal­anced.

Pe­tite Flower is a care­ful jumper, but Buck had to fix straight­ness is­sues to avoid drop­ping rails. Dur­ing warm-up, he does sup­pling ex­er­cises, such as haunches-in and can­ter length­en­ings, in order to keep her straight, mov­ing freely and us­ing her back in the air.

“Reggie knows how to jump bet­ter than I do,” says Buck of his long-time part­ner Ballynoe Castle RM. Be­cause of the geld­ing’s de­pend­able de­meanor, Buck is able to have a light but ef­fi­cient warm-up be­fore his round, merely fine-tun­ing a few key strate­gies.

Buck typ­i­cally widens his hands while rid­ing Park Trader in order to have less di­rect pres­sure on the bit with the sen­si­tive geld­ing. He will of­ten do this in warm-up to try to keep Park Trader’s shoul­ders straight or dur­ing a hand-gal­lop to en­cour­age for­ward mo­men­tum.

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