The Joys of the Warm Up Arena

This article first appeared in the March 2018 issue of Heels Down Magazine. For more stories worth reading, subscribe now in the app and get a new issue delivered every month.


By Wendy Angel

Horse shows can be terrifying. There are the usual competition nerves, plus dealing with the judging eyes of spectators and the look of disappointment on your trainer’s face when she sees how epically you’ve forgotten, well, everything she’s taught you. Then there’s the learning of courses and tests, and you have yourself a real circus of terror.

But nothing at a horse show is scarier than the warm-up ring. And if you don’t think it’s scary, then maybe you’re the scary one. I’m not accusing you… I’m just saying.

There are few places where chaos runs as rampant, and this is even with the knowledge of the existence of kindergarten classes and Wal-Mart on Black Friday. They got nothin’ on warm-up rings.

The wondrous place that is the warm-up ring is home to a stupefying combination of nervous riders, nervous horses, self-important riders and then those who are just utterly clueless. I don’t think it even matters what discipline you ride. I’ve seen them all display their own “Very Special Moments” over the years.

And regardless of discipline, there is apparently a portal that you pass through upon entering the warm-up ring gate that makes everyone forget which side of their body is the left side. I think this should be looked into immediately, as whatever device this is has got to be illegal.

I remember very clearly my first hunter/jumper show warm-up ring when I started riding again as an adult. Being in the baby beginner classes, it was first thing in the morning, and there was a good mix of beginner hunters and jumpers in there doing their thing. And by “good mix,” I mean that everyone’s vomit blended nicely in one collective heap on the ground.

The crazy riding and mix of rank, unsuitable horses could only be described as a Jackson Pollock painting come to life. People who were not calling jumps and ended up nearly colliding pony-head-first over the crossrail. There were riders who were attempting to form a horse centipede with the rider in front of them, completely void of spatial awareness. There were riders whose nerves rendered them both deaf and mute, and who ignored other riders’ pleas to move, or to call a jump for themselves. Then there was the horse with the red ribbon trotting around like a dragon/giraffe cross, threatening to end us all.

And by God, if you dared to so much as look at one of the jumps a trainer had peed on to claim it for her students, you might as well just scratch right then.

I quickly decided maybe warming up wasn’t that important and I’d just have a Bloody Mary instead.

A few years later I was introduced to the dressage warm-up. I found this arena to be a little more civilized, yet somehow even more riders were blissfully unaware. Whereas the hunter/jumper folks seemed to embrace and recognize the chaos, the dressage riders were too busy to notice the chaos being created. There’s always that person or two endlessly cantering a 20-meter circle without regard to any other rider, continuing that circle with all the vigor and determination of an alien tribe making crop circles. When the arena empties, you can usually see a perfectly formed set of interlocking Olympic rings, shining proudly in the afternoon sun.

There are also those riders who are predictably trotting down the rail and then suddenly get a rogue hair and start leg yielding into someone else’s 20-meter circle to form an ill-fated pas a deux. More like pas a don’t.

Now the eventing show jumping warm-up? I LOVE those red flags. One direction for jumping: red on right. So simple. But, there’s still that problem of the reality-altering device that mixes up left and right. Shoot.

Same goes for cross-country warm-up. But that has the added bonus of the inevitable horses who are saying “OH MY GOD OH MY GOD I KNOW THIS PART!” … and thereby treat the warm-up as a never-ending loop of startboxes, mowing down all others in their path. Good times.

Really, the warm-up arena is something that can unite all of us in our respective disciplines. We’re not so different. We all lose our crap in there. We all become deaf and dumb perhaps a bit blind. We all forget how to ride a little. And our horses become the basest versions of themselves.

But you know the saying, “What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger?” I think we’re all about 50/50 on the dying prospect in warm-up. Here’s to you getting stronger at your next show.

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