Columnists, Rider Health & Performance

In Your Right Mind: Warm-Up Ring Wins

Dear Dr. Bonomi,

I wonder if you can help me. I have a terrible time in the warm-up ring at the shows. I get so nervous and distracted, and I can’t find a distance to save my life! I get really frustrated with myself, and I can’t go in the ring until I get it right. What is wrong with me?


C.J., Southern California

Dear C,

Thanks for this question. There is nothing wrong with you; the warm-up ring is vexing for many people! I am happy to try to demystify it and bring a greater sense of calm to this whirlwind of emotion.

From my point of view, the warm-up ring is challenging for many reasons, among them—

  • The anxiety and emotion (yours and others) of showing
  • The expectation of ‘perfection’
  • The traffic (that is, other riders/horses)
  • The airy warm up jump
  • The lack of the rail

Ok, let’s start at the top. A warm-up ring holds a lot of anxiety because of the fact that everyone in it is preparing to go in the show ring. People’s emotions—usually nerves—are running high. Riders in the warm-up ring are preoccupied and tense. Once you step into the warm-up ring, you’re subject not only to your own nerves, but everyone else’s too.

I want to remind you that the purpose of the warm-up ring is to warm up. It’s not about getting it perfect. I think many riders make this mistake, of feeling that they have to have it all just right before they go into the show ring. Wrong. In the warm-up ring, you need to warm up: whatever that means for you. The warm-up is not a performance. Clarity about this fact will inform how you use your time in the warm-up ring and how you manage your emotions.

Personally, I do as little as I need to in the warm-up. Many times that is just a couple of jumps, and if they feel good, I’m ready.

Traffic in the warm-up ring can be stressful, especially for some of us. This is another reason to keep your warm-up short and to the point. If there is too much traffic for you, I suggest going to another ring, or managing it as best you can. A sense of humor is always helpful. Remember, there is no sense in adding additional stress to your plate. Don’t allow yourself to get frazzled by other riders’ (or trainers’) stress!

I remember one show in which a trainer was working with someone who was having a really hard time. There was so much stress and tension, and it continued to build as the rider couldn’t get it right. It wasn’t just the rider’s frustration, but the trainer’s level of angst that was impacting me. I left that ring and went to another to get some emotional—and physical—space.

Technically, there are a couple of other reasons not to demand perfection when you are warming up. Warm-up jumps are hard to judge for the eye, as they are typically simple fences in the middle of a large arena. Airy jumps are harder to find a distance to than solid fences, and the situation is made more difficult by the fact that you don’t generally have a good outside rail to help you get straight and judge the distance. As we know, to find your distance, you need to have the correct pace and track—both of which are harder to establish in a warm-up ring where there are riders coming at you, horse trainers walking across your path, no rail in sight, and lots of distractions.

I get rattled when someone walks across my path to a fence, so when that happens I just try to laugh it off, make a circle and approach it again.

Be Here Now

For all these reasons, I urge you to carry with you a good dose of compassion, reasonableness, and humor as you step into the warm-up ring. Don’t expect miracles, aim to warm up, and do your best to stay present with yourself and your horse. If things start to unravel, take a moment to breathe and regroup. Maybe walk around the ring once and then start again. Rather than feeling like victim of the warm-up, take charge and manage the situation as best you can. And, remember: the warm up ring is simply for warming up. That’s it.

Lastly, I encourage you to spend some time observing top riders in the warm-up ring. Take note of how they stay keenly focused on their job, don’t get emotional, and actively manage themselves and their horses to get what they need out of their warm-up. While it’s true that the pros don’t have the same trepidation about the warm-up ring as do amateurs, their deliberate approach to warming up can serve as a great model and inspiration for us all.

Darby Bonomi, PhD
Darby Bonomi, PhD. PC: Holly Cassner

Author Darby Bonomi, PhD is a Sport and Performance Psychologist. She works with equestrians of all disciplines, and other athletes, to achieve optimal performance in and out of the saddle. For more information or to contact Dr. Bonomi, click here.

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