How many times have you seen an eventer come into the stadium phase of eventing leading the pack, only to leave behind a ring punctuated by fallen rails as the victory goes to someone else?
While knockdowns can drop you in the final standings, a clear round means you'll at least keep your Sunday-morning ranking and even have a shot at moving up on someone else's error.
That's what happened at the Rolex Kentucky Three-Day Event in 2011 when Sinead Halpin finished her four-star debut with a perfect show-jumping trip riding Manoir de Carneville. She advanced from fourth to third as former Rolex winner Clayton Fredericks of Australia toppled a pole with Be My Guest.
Sinead, who gained instant celebrity and the US Equestrian Team Foundation's Pinnacle Cup as the top-placing American at Rolex, gives credit to a well-produced warm-up for enabling her to put in a memorable show-jumping round. Many riders don't realize that a competition preamble planned with thought can make the difference between winning and being an also-ran.
"The pressure of a show is already so great with its competitive nature, that added to the excitement of a change of scenery and a change of jumps, you really need to set yourself up to succeed," explains Sinead, whose business, Sinead Halpin Equestrian, is based out of Fieldstone Farm in Pittstown, New Jersey. "That starts in the warm-up, the one thing as event riders we tend to overlook."
Do Your Homework
Sinead's eyes were opened after attending jumper shows and seeing that show jumpers always seemed to have two staffers on the ground. At first, she figured it was overkill, "but the more I thought about it, how professional and seriously they were taking the warm-up, I knew that was something I could learn from," she recalls.
"When you go to an event warm-up, it's sort of every man for himself. Everyone's running into everyone else, and it's not perfect preparation for success in the arena," she says. "For the show jumping, you really have to do your homework."
A big part of that homework is developing and practicing a warm-up plan with the help of your trainer, who can objectively assess you and your horse. You can tweak your plan at the event, but it will provide a solid base from which to work.
As you start working on your plan, begin looking for a savvy ground person who can help you during the stadium warm-up, setting jumps and being your eyes on the ground. This doesn't have to be your trainer. He or she can be a friend, a groom or another competitor. Ask the person to watch at least one of your lessons at home to get a feel for your comfort level and your plan. This way, he or she can offer input at the competition about whether you should jump one more fence or look ready to go.
With your trainer and ground person in the loop, the next part of your homework is spending some time figuring out what your horse needs the day of stadium jumping from beginning to end. Is he usually tired or stiff the day after cross-country? If so, plan to take him for a short hack to loosen him up several hours before the formal warm-up.
An early morning hack also is a good idea if your horse is tense or high strung. You also might want to jump a few practice fences at that time, when the atmosphere is calmer. This can take the edge off horses who exhaust themselves mentally with nerves. A morning outing likely will lessen the need to jump a lot of fences later, Sinead says.
Next, think about how much time you'll need for the formal warm-up to prepare for the stadium phase. A 30-minute warm-up usually works for most horses, but tailor it for your horse's temperament and attitude, Sinead says. If he's spooky at competitions, in addition to an early-morning hack, you might need to plan a longer warm-up to get him more focused on you and his job. If he's a mellow type who knows his job, plan a shorter one.
During the warm-up, Sinead says she usually aims for about 10 minutes of flatwork and about 15 minutes of jumping, with a few breaks.
If you get nervous during the warm-up, build in a little more time for yourself. Sinead has some of her amateur riders arrive early, practice their flatwork, then jump a few fences to get into a rhythm with their horses and build confidence. Then they watch a few rounds and finish by jumping a few more practice fences tailored to the course. (More on this later.)
You also want to map out a general strategy for the flatwork and jumping portions of your warm-up.
Adjustability on the Flat
"As you start your flatwork in the warm-up, don't get caught up in the nitty-gritty details of your dressage work," Sinead says. "Go after efficiency and smoothness."
Start at the trot, asking your horse to stretch to warm up, but spend most of your warm-up time in the canter. "The jumping phases are all done out of canter. Don't tire your horse perfecting the medium trot--you won't be rewarded for it."
From the start, ask your horse to accept your aids at the pace you set. You need to be able to take contact with his mouth and put your leg on. "You want him to be able to go forward, back, laterally--as many ways as possible--so that he can cope with jumps, the terrain and the thing that will happen more often than not, a mistake made by the rider," Sinead says.
If you don't practice adjustability in the warm-up arena, your horse will be completely surprised when you go into the ring, and his reaction probably won't be a soft one, Sinead explains.
To test how your horse is accepting your leg and rein aids, practice transitions within the gaits and especially at the canter, "lengthening and shortening, getting his mouth supple and soft so he's willing to accept your opening right or left rein.
"If I take the inside rein and he answers my question about whether he's going to bend by sticking his head straight up in the air, I know I need to spend five more minutes making sure he's listening. In the arena, when I'm going to make a left- or right-handed turn, if he reacts this way, he's not going to have a clean jump."
Make Every Jump Count
Once your horse feels soft and supple on the flat, it's time to focus on jumping. The goal is to make sure every warm-up jump counts, something that is critical the day after cross-country when "normally your horse is quite a bit more tired than usual," Sinead says.
"You want to be prepared to go into the ring, but at the same time, you don't need to jump countless warm-up jumps. If everyone else is jumping crossrail, vertical, oxer, you need to stop and think, Why am I doing that? Is it helping me or my horse?'"
To answer those questions, first ask yourself about your horse's jumping style. Does he drift left or right? Is he a little loose up front or kicking quite hard behind? Is he good for the first 10 minutes of jumping but goes downhill after that? You need to take all of these factors into consideration as you plan.
Think about the type of fence that can correct your horse's shortcomings. A crossrail helps a horse who drifts. A vertical can sharpen a mount who is not very careful. An oxer, square or ascending, will create a shape with which he feels comfortable.
While many people always begin their warm-up with a crossrail, Sinead doesn't. "Crossrails aren't the most confidence-building of fences," she explains. "It's difficult to see a stride to a crossrail because it's hard for your eye to find a spot to focus on, and normally there is no ground line."
To demonstrate how to strategize the jumping phase of a warm-up, Sinead enlists the help of her working student, Young Rider Sarah Rupert, as an example, on a recent afternoon at her farm. In their imaginary warm-up, Sarah gets to the ring with 16 horses to go--a smidge early. After the flat warm-up, Sinead has her jump a few fences to gain confidence. "I'm going to let her jump a couple of jumps without the pressure of having them be perfect, so she feels this is the same horse I ride every day, and the same thing I do every day, as far as jumping a jump,'" Sinead says.
"For Sarah, because we want to keep her confidence high, we're going to start with having an easy canter over a low vertical, and she's going to do that a couple of times, just to get her rhythm, because rhythm and balance are more important than seeing a distance. She's going to catch a vertical a couple of times on her own, to work out the kinks since she just got out here."
After jumping a few fences, Sarah will "hop off and watch a round or two, then come back and be ready with a plan to jump some fences," Sinead says. "She'll jump from six horses out until there's two horses left to go, then she'll ride up, watch and go into the ring."
For these jumps, Sinead plans on replicating the challenging spots on course. "If you have a big square oxer off a right turn, it's just silly not to practice that in the warm-up," she says. Sinead decides the first fence on Sarah's imaginary course is a difficult long approach to a vertical off the left lead, with a short right turn to an oxer, so that's what she has Sarah practice in the warm-up.
"A long approach to the first fence is a nervous one," says Sinead, explaining the difficulty involves "going from a standstill at your salute right up to speed at the first fence.
"Practice what you're going to have to do in the ring and know it quickly, so you don't waste jumps. Every jump counts, but I want Sarah going in feeling like she has jumped enough jumps."
At the same time, she warns, "Every clean jump you jump in the warm-up could be one fewer clean jump in the ring, because your horse is going to be tired."
Continuing the warm-up, Sinead builds an oxer, asking Sarah to find a takeoff spot close to the base, which helps Sarah's horse elevate his shoulder and front end. The second time over the oxer, her horse really adjusts himself and lifts up his front end, producing a nicer, more mature jump.
After that, Sarah rides a vertical to test whether her horse can hold his shape and composure. Then they're ready to go into the ring.
While Sarah was early in her mock warm-up, you also want to have a plan in case you need to condense your warm-up if you're late, which of course is worse than showing up too early.
"It adds a lot more nerves to it," Sinead says. "But if you have a warm-up plan, you can condense it. If you already know, "I need to jump a crossrail twice and jump a vertical at a small height once and then I'm going to catch the oxer twice, once off a sharp right-hand turn because in the ring I have a sharp right-hand turn. You can get that warm-up done in five minutes."
As with all of your horse's training, you need to update your warm-up plan as you and your horse rise through the ranks and he becomes more mature as a competitor. Do you still need to jump 10 fences to be comfortable? Or can you go off five good ones?
Once you've taken all of these factors into consideration, done your homework and have a warm-up plan that suits you and your horse, you're well on your way to leaving the rails up in the stadium phase--and hopefully moving up the leader board.
This article originally appeared in the January 2012 issue of Practical Horseman.