Dos and Don’ts of Warm-Up Ring Eti­quette

Warm up safely and suc­ces­fully with this Olympic dres­sage rider’s and how-eti­quette tips and know-how.

Practical Horseman - - Special Dressage Issue - By Lisa Wil­cox Pho­tos by Amy K. Dra­goo

Olympian Lisa Wil­cox out­lines the proper way to nav­i­gate chaotic warm-up rings so that rid­ers can fo­cus on re­lax­ing their horses while gym­nas­ti­ciz­ing their bod­ies in prepa­ra­tion for com­pe­ti­tion.

oday’s warm-up rings at dres­sage shows are crowded, chaotic and some­times down­right dan­ger­ous. I’ve wit­nessed near col­li­sions, rid­ers cut­ting each other off mid-move­ment and ten­sion spread­ing from horse to horse like wild­fire—at ev­ery level. In the worst-case sce­nar­ios, such may­hem can re­sult in se­ri­ous in­juries. But even the mildest cases cre­ate sit­u­a­tions that up­set horses, dis­rupt rid­ers’ fo­cus and gen­er­ally lower the qual­ity of ev­ery­one’s per­for­mances.

The root of this prob­lem is not over­crowd­ing. In Europe, warm-up are­nas are al­ways

jam-packed. If a rider com­mits an eti­quette sin there, whether at home or at a show, her trainer will im­me­di­ately rep­ri­mand her— and not al­ways gen­tly. From the be­gin­ning of ev­ery equestrian ca­reer in Europe, re­spect for other rid­ers and the com­mu­nity as a whole is firmly in­grained.

I’d like to see this same stan­dard adopted in the U.S. When warm­ing up for a test, we all have the same goal: to re­lax our horses while gym­nas­ti­ciz­ing their bod­ies in prepa­ra­tion for the move­ments they have to per­form. Com­pe­ti­tion jit­ters and the elec­tric­ity of the show at­mos­phere al­ready put most horses and rid­ers on edge. The last thing any­one needs is more ten­sion! Horses are very in tune with one an­other’s emo­tional states. So to min­i­mize ten­sion in our in­di­vid­ual mounts, we need to act to­gether as a com­mu­nity, treat­ing each other cour­te­ously and con­sid­er­ately so that ev­ery horse in the arena feels a sense of calm and se­cu­rity.

I don’t be­lieve that Amer­i­cans lack re­spect or are in­her­ently ruder than Euro­peans. We are sim­ply less ed­u­cated about ring eti­quette and some­times un­aware of how our ac­tions af­fect oth­ers. To rec­tify this sit­u­a­tion, I sug­gest we all make a con­certed ef­fort to pay more at­ten­tion to our own horses’ emo­tional states as well as to the horses and rid­ers around us while fol­low­ing a few ba­sic rules:

1. Take Off Your Blin­ders

The most im­por­tant thing you can do is stop rid­ing like you’re wear­ing blin­ders. We’re all con­cen­trat­ing on our own warm-up plans so it’s easy to for­get to look up! Ask your­self, “Would I drive my car like this?” Pay at­ten­tion to the rid­ers around you and try to treat them as cour­te­ously as you’d like them to treat you.

It helps to fa­mil­iar­ize your­self with the tests that other peo­ple are pre­par­ing for in your warm-up area. That way you can an­tic­i­pate what move­ments they might do next. For ex­am­ple, if you know the test in the ad­ja­cent arena in­volves a three-loop ser­pen­tine and you see a rider ini­ti­ate the first loop, you should have a pretty good idea of where the other loops will take her, so plan ac­cord­ingly. Most show or­ga­niz­ers try to group to­gether rid­ers of sim­i­lar lev­els in each warm-up space, so you might al­ready know some of the tests rid­ers are prac­tic­ing for the other rings.

As you be­gin your warm-up, ob­serve the en­ergy lev­els and auras of the horses and rid­ers around you and con­sider how they might af­fect your horse. Horses are like school kids: They all have dif­fer­ent per­son­al­i­ties. Some are bul­lies; some are shy and eas­ily in­tim­i­dated. It’s very im­por­tant to know your own horse’s char­ac­ter so you can try to pre­dict how oth­ers will af­fect him—and vice versa. In the warm-up ring, pay at­ten­tion to ev­ery horse’s body lan­guage, look­ing for signs of ten­sion. If an­other horse starts to swish his tail vi­o­lently as you ap­proach, you’re prob­a­bly too close. He might be about to kick at you—so get out of there quickly!

Take spe­cial note of any stal­lions in the ring. Some stal­lions are very easy­go­ing around other horses, but many tend to be nat­u­rally pro­tec­tive of their “ter­ri­tory”—the space around them—and there­fore more guarded than usual. They can be more eas­ily dis­tracted and up­set by horses who come too close to them. Their hor­mones might drive them to nicker to mares—and some­times even geld­ings—in their near vicin­ity. Do your best to give all stal­lions a wide berth (es­pe­cially if you’re on a mare) to avoid in­flu­enc­ing both their per­for­mance and your own horse’s.

2. Pass Left to Left, Yield to Com­mit­ted Rid­ers

When you’re ap­proach­ing an­other rider head-on, al­ways aim to pass her with your left shoul­der fac­ing her left shoul­der. Imag­ine you’re driv­ing on a road, keep­ing on­com­ing traf­fic on your left.

Of course, there are some ex­cep­tions to this rule. When an­other rider is clearly com­mit­ted to a line, aim to pass her in what­ever man­ner is least likely to in­ter­fere with her move­ment. So, for ex­am­ple, if you see some­one per­form­ing tempi changes across the di­ag­o­nal, don’t ini­ti­ate a half-pass right in front of her.

When you yield to other rid­ers com­mit­ted to a line, con­sider how your pres­ence might af­fect their horses not just phys­i­cally but also men­tally and emo­tion­ally. Say a horse is per­form­ing a half­pass. If you cut across his line of travel, he might lose fo­cus. Or imag­ine a horse pi­affing on the cen­ter­line, par­al­lel to the short side

of the arena. Even though the move­ment is per­formed “on the spot,” he should still ap­pear for­ward-think­ing. If you ride past his nose, his nat­u­ral in­stinct might be to re­coil and stall out. In turn, his rider will have to re­act with more leg or spur to re­gain the mo­men­tum. So, in essence, the horse gets pun­ished be­cause of you.

In cases like these, if you can’t pass other rid­ers who al­ready com­mit­ted to lines or move­ments by a wide mar­gin—at least a few meters—plan your own lines so that you pass be­hind, rather than in front of them. Give other rid­ers ev­ery chance to com­plete an ex­er­cise suc­cess­fully.

If you’re a more ex­pe­ri­enced rider, make an ex­tra ef­fort to watch out for lower-level rid­ers. They might be less ac­cus­tomed to the show at­mos­phere and there­fore more eas­ily rat­tled by a busy warm-up scene. You’re likely more skilled at ma­neu­ver­ing your horse through traf­fic than they are, too, so plan your track in the most pre­dictable way pos­si­ble and try to ac­com­mo­date these new­bies as much as you can.

3. Speak Up

It’s not al­ways easy to pre­dict what other rid­ers are go­ing to do next. So the more we com­mu­ni­cate with one an­other, the bet­ter. When­ever there’s a chance of some­one mis­in­ter­pret­ing your track—or when you sus­pect you might be ap­proach­ing a “head­less horse­man” (some­body clue­less about what’s hap­pen­ing around her)—it’s al­ways best to broad­cast your in­ten­tions. When ap­proach­ing some­one from be­hind, call out “on your left” or “on your right.” Be­fore you turn onto the di­ag­o­nal, call out “di­ag­o­nal.”

Some­times rid­ers un­con­sciously drift into each other’s lanes. If you sense this hap­pen­ing, make your pres­ence known with a “Heads up on your left” or “On your right!” Even if you think a rider is aware of you, if you’re still wor­ried that she’s get­ting too close, don’t be afraid to speak up.

sci­en­tious of oth­ers when nec­es­sary. Re­mem­ber, you paid a lot of money and put in a great deal of ef­fort to come to this show. You have a right to a fair, safe warm-up.

4. Give Oth­ers Plenty of Space

When I see rid­ers graze past each other within strik­ing dis­tance of a kick, my heart sinks. Yes, some­times they get lucky and the horses don’t re­act. But when­ever you put horses to­gether in such close quar­ters, there’s al­ways a risk of some­one get­ting hurt. We only have to think back to Nicole Uphoff’s Olympic gold-medal part­ner Rem­brandt, who sus­tained a hock frac­ture when he was kicked dur­ing an awards cer­e­mony in 1993, to un­der­stand just how real this risk is.

Re­gard­less of how trust­wor­thy you think your horse and the oth­ers around him are, al­ways main­tain at least one horse length be­tween him and any horse in front of him. When you over­take other rid­ers or pass them head-on, keep at least two horse widths be­tween you. If you can reach out and touch the other rider, you’re way too close.

Pay spe­cial at­ten­tion to po­ten­tial bot­tle­necks—for ex­am­ple, when you’re en­ter­ing or ex­it­ing the arena or when mul­ti­ple horses con­verge in one area. Stop, cir­cle or oth­er­wise change your track to avoid trap­ping your horse in a space that might be un­com­fort­ably tight—for him or for the horses around him.

When you walk, move over to the in­side, or “sec­ond,” track, far enough off the rail so some­body could eas­ily per­form a shoul-

der-in along it and still pass with two horse widths be­tween you. Be very con­sci­en­tious about where you per­form walk move­ments such as pirou­ettes. Watch out for any rid­ers who might un­know­ingly cross your line of travel.

If your warm-up space is a stan­dard 20-by-60-me­ter arena, do all of your ini­tial walk­ing on a long rein out­side the arena to avoid in­ter­fer­ing with other rid­ers work­ing at faster gaits. Exit the arena when you take walk breaks, too. I even do most of my col­lected walk work out­side of the 20-by-60-me­ter warm-up arena. There’s usu­ally plenty of room and the foot­ing is the same along the out­side edges of the arena as it is in­side. In fact, there’s quite a lot you can do out­side the arena. You don’t need arena bar­ri­ers to prac­tice ev­ery move­ment. Just try to vi­su­al­ize the let­ters and parts of the arena (cor­ners, cen­ter­line, etc.) in your mind as you ride. You’ll prob­a­bly find this more pro­duc­tive than cram­ming your­self into an al­ready packed warm-up ring.

5. Be Con­scious of Your Own Aura

When you en­ter the warm-up arena, take no­tice of the other rid­ers around you and con­sider how your pres­ence might af­fect them. Some rid­ers don’t even re­al­ize when they’re hog­ging the arena. This is not the place to ride through your en­tire test. You can do that plenty of times at home. To be fair to other com­peti­tors, break the test into sec­tions and prac­tice them one at a time.

This is not the place to cor­rect your horse in a dra­matic way. Al­ways use your whip dis­creetly so as not to dis­rupt other horses. And avoid cre­at­ing any sit­u­a­tions that might up­set oth­ers or put them at risk. Un­der­stand how you’re af­fect­ing the horses around you. If your horse is rear­ing, buck­ing, back­ing up un­con­trol­lably or be­hav­ing in an oth­er­wise un­ac­cept­able man­ner, be hon­est with your­self: You don’t be­long at this show to­day. If you can’t cor­rect him with­out dis­turb­ing oth­ers, go home and solve the prob­lem there.

WRONG: Here, Lori and Horses Un­lim­ited’s 11-year-old Zweibrucker Grace­ful Ren­di­tion HU, or “Grace,” are pass­ing in front of Reef, caus­ing him to lose his fo­cus, frame and for­ward mind­set. You can see by my rocked-back shoul­ders that I’m strug­gling to keep him in front of my seat. Mean­while, both horses’ ears in­di­cate that they’re now much more in­ter­ested in one an­other than their rid­ers.

RIGHT: When Hannah Michaels, right, rid­ing Mar­garet Williams’ 10-yearold Olden­burg Quin­tes­sen­tial Royale, no­tices Lori legyield­ing Grace to­ward her, she calls out, “On your left,” to let Lori know she’s there. RIGHT

WRONG: Here, Lori is fo­cus­ing en­tirely on her horse, com­pletely un­aware of her sur­round­ings. This is how many rid­ers un­in­ten­tion­ally put their horses and them­selves in harm’s way. WRONG

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