Bluebird Lane Blog
Bluebird Lane Blog

Warm-up for a Supple Topline

by Lori Albrough

The warm-up is one of the most important, and often overlooked, parts of the ride. Sometimes people approach the warm-up as something to be gotten through in order to get to the good stuff, but this line of thinking can be a mistake. Giving attention to warming up properly can set the tone for your whole ride, and really increase your chance of successfully achieving your goals that day.

In the warm-up we are preparing the horse physically and mentally for the work ahead. The beginning of the warm-up is the time for the horse to look around without constraint, and to become comfortable with his environment. On the physical side, we are getting the blood pumping and muscles loosened, and especially we want the big muscles of the back to start swinging. As well, it will take a full ten minutes of gentle activity for his joints to become lubricated with joint fluid.

A well-ridden warm-up is one that results in a horse who is happy and relaxed in both his mind and his body.

With that in mind, one of my primary goals for the warm-up is to structure it towards achieving suppleness of the topline, which I hope to maintain throughout my ride. The over-arching goal of the ride is contact that is flexible, elastic and chewing and a long, open working neck with positive tension, with the poll at the highest point. We get to this by first asking the horse to stretch forward-downward in both trot and canter in the warm-up and seek the contact with the hand.

Start the warm-up in walk, and walk on a loose rein (on the buckle) for ten minutes. During this time the horse can position his head and neck as he chooses, the only requirement is that he march forward energetically. If you are worried about your safety, of course take the contact, but as soon as the horse feels relaxed, give the rein.

After ten minutes, take up the reins and go into rising trot, asking the horse to stretch forward-downward. To ask for this stretch, you must first have a one hundred percent forward enthusiastic reaction to the leg. When you give a squeeze with your lower calf, you need to feel a surge of power going forward. Without this forward surge, the horse’s energy is not going through his body towards the bridle, and using a rein aid won’t have the desired effect. That one hundred percent forward enthusiastic reaction to the leg is the first prerequisite to the concept of riding from back to front. For help with achieving this see my article Putting Your Horse in Front of the Leg.

When the horse goes forward energetically from the leg aid, you close your outside fist, receiving the energy. The horse, who is committed to staying in front of your leg, will give in his neck and soften in order to move through this contact, at which point you can give forward a tiny bit. The horse will follow this giving hand, seeking the contact and moving his nose a little bit forward-downward. Subtle vibrations into the inside rein will encourage the horse to chew the bit, and little by little, you allow him to “chew the reins out of your hand” and take his nose forward-downward.

Through allowing with your hand you can show the horse the way by only “opening the door” in a forward and downward direction. As his nose goes forward and downward, and you keep him moving forward in a nice rhythm with his hind legs well-engaged (under the center of gravity of his body), his back will come up, and the large muscles of his back will begin to loosen and swing.

If the tempo is too slow or too fast, the horse’s back won’t be able to swing. If too fast, resist the temptation to take back on the reins (remember we want him to seek the contact and stretch into it) but instead use the rhythm of your posting to slow the rhythm of the trot. When I want to slow a too-hasty trot rhythm, I think to myself, “Hang. In. The. Air.” I stay in the air in my posting for just a little longer than the horse wants me to, to encourage him to stay in his period of suspension longer, thereby slowing his rhythm without any sort of backwards influence from my hand.

Too fast of a rhythm is generally associated with tension, and stretching forward and downward is a wonderful remedy for tension, so getting this right results in a a positive feedback loop, where improving the stretch improves the tempo which improves the contact which improves the length of stride of the trot which quiets the mind which loosens the back, and so on.

Spend a lot of time stretching like this on 20 metre circles in both directions, asking for bend through the rib cage (not the neck), working on changing rein without disrupting the quality of the stretch, then add in the canter, still asking for a stretch, and incorporate transitions between trot-canter and canter-trot.

Don’t worry if the horse feels somewhat on the forehand in this stretch, as he will in fact be carrying more weight on the forehand while doing it. However, if you ensure that the hind leg is well engaged, and the horse is truly seeking the contact and bringing his back up, then the stretch is effective and beneficial.

When you look at the horse in profile while he is stretching forward-downward, you want to see his neck falling down from the wither with the nose always in front of the vertical. If you draw a line on the front of his face, the bottom of the line should point slightly forwards, not backwards. In other words, your goal is to see the nostril is in front of the eye. This is the classical way, and proves that the horse reaches for the bit, and is not curling or rolling up behind the bit, or being held in a position.

Stretching in the walk

If the reins are loose, then the horse is not really stretching. He is perhaps pretending to stretch or perhaps just strung out and too long. To raise the back and get it swinging, there must be a connection between leg and hand, and the horse must reach for the bit.

If the stretch is not going well today, there is nothing wrong with spending the whole ride (interspersed with walk breaks) working towards it. Then, tomorrow it will come easier, better, and sooner. It does take some strength and balance for the horse to perform a full warm-up in trot and canter in a forward-downward stretch, so once you get a good effort, reward that and come back to it tomorrow.

Here we are done warming up, and show a walk on contact with the poll up, face on the vertical, and the neck soft

After your stretching phase in trot and canter, come to walk and let the horse stretch in walk for a nice while. Then, you can take up the reins and begin working the horse in the sitting trot and canter at a level of collection appropriate to his level of training.

After stretching in this way, his muscles will be loose, he will have a soft chewing mouth, and his neck should be free and unconstrained. Your warm-up goals will be achieved!

Now, tell me your thoughts in the comments!


5 Responses to “Warm-up for a Supple Topline”

  1. Kelly Pontbriand wrote:

    Hi Lori,
    Thanks for the wonderful blog! I have an 11 year old gelding that has primarily been ridden by a young rider who was not able to get him to move forward with energy. She has lost interest in him and I am starting to ride him and have been trying the suggestions in your article “Putting the Horse in Front of Your Leg”. I know that my timing is not always perfect, but I have consistently been using the whip to reinforce the light leg aid for a couple of months. I do not get much response with a very hard whack with the whip. I may get a slight increase in energy for 3-4 steps or a little buck. I am starting to feel abusive when I use the whip. Should I keep trying or just resign myself to the fact that he will never be a forward fjord? I would love to progress to your suppling warm-up, but we are stuck in a low energy cycle.


  2. Mary Larson wrote:

    This was the most beneficial article for me that I have read since joining your site. I don’t always understand the terminology but this article has given me valuable information & validated the need for the warm-up before beginning a trail ride. (I am a trail rider.)
    I did not warm up Peri last Mar. as I was anxious to to go out on the trail with my buddies. She threw me when we started to canter as she had pent up energy that I had not allowed her to work off before the ride. I broke my arm & ribs, just missed hitting a rock with my head & destroyed my helmet.I feel lucky as it could have been worse.
    We had a lovely, picturesque trail ride this past week after I warmed her up before going out. She is exceptional like all the Fjords you breed & train.

  3. daisy wrote:

    clear information and level of importance

  4. Lori Albrough wrote:

    Mary, that’s a very important point you made and one I should have mentioned in the article! The warm-up allows you to gauge your horse’s mood and energy level, and the process of warming up gets the two of you onto the same wavelength and working together. Also if there is excess energy, it helps you channel it and use it appropriately. Thanks everyone for your comments!

  5. Maueve wrote:

    My trainer just bought a fjord horse about 7 months ago and I have been riding him ever since. This year we decided we are going to take him to a local show and see how it goes. But my trainer nor I have much of an idea on how his head should be set. My trainer normally works with quarter horses so this is new to both of us. I want him to be looking his absolute best when I ride him at this show in about 4 weeks so if you have any suggestions on what it should look like and how to train him to that would be amazing. P.S he is a brown dun 14 year old Norwegian fjord with about 5 months of professional training and he was flunked out of the therapy program.

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