Knowing and preparing your individual horse for competition is the key to an effective warm-up.
As a storm threatened on the horizon, the warm-up area at Cheyenne Frontier Days was peppered with horses moving in a jumbled yet fluid synchronization.
Barrel racers, calf ropers and team ropers alike took the opportunity to work around each other, focusing on preparing their equine athletes for that day’s rodeo performance.
Among those riders was 2019 Cheyenne Frontier Days Barrel Racing Co-Champion Shali Lord. According to Lord and futurity trainer Craig Brooks, preparation is the key to an effective warm-up. Despite their differing backgrounds, the two agree a better warm-up isn’t based on routine or length of time, but rather preparing your individual horse for the task at hand.
“The biggest thing I believe is to prepare them for the run—don’t just warm them up,” said Craig Brooks, RFD-TV’s The American qualifier and EquiStat earner of more than $899,000. “I don’t necessarily do a warm-up, I try to prepare my horse. To me it’s a bit different, it’s two different things.”
With EquiStat lifetime earnings of more than $236,800, National Finals Rodeo qualifier Shali Lord says in the world of professional rodeo, a consistent routine is beneficial.
Keep in mind that your routine alone is not what prepares a horse for competition.
“I think consistency is key to getting them warmed up,” Lord said. “I try to cover all of my bases of how [Freckles Ta Fame] is feeling, but sometimes the facilities where you’re at don’t allow you to do that. You have to work with what’s available, and sometimes that’s a patch of grass to warm up on.”
Prepared vs. Warmed Up
With two different styles and end goals, Lord and Brooks take different routes to one main objective—preparing their horses for competition. Brooks mainly rides young futurity prospects and admits his warm-up program might require more than an open horse.
“Most people with open horses pretty much lope circles each way, stop, turn them over their hocks and lope them off the other way and that’s kind of the extent of it,” Brooks said. “With an open horse, you might be able to get away with that, but with a young horse I think you have to play with their face a little more, because you don’t want it to be a surprise when you’re in a run. When I’m warming mine up I handle them a bunch, probably more than I anticipate having to do when I’m making a run, because I want to get that surprise out of them to where they come back to the pressure rather than pop their head up away from the pressure.”
There are certain maneuvers and cues Brooks asks of his horses while warming up that tell him if the horse is prepared for the run.
“I break mine over in the poll quite a bit,” Brooks said. “I want them to break over and be soft, not dumping over their front end, but breaking over in their poll. Depending on the horse, I typically lope mine around on a loose rein, square between the reins with a little bit of shape. I almost want to feel like they’re dumping their front end back into my lap, so I’m rocking myself back over their hip and bringing them back over my hip when I’m loping them around so the hip stays to the inside.”
Once they feel framed and collected in the way Brooks wants, he’ll move on to prepping for the run itself.
“A big thing I do is ride them one-handed and hold them up, shaping them when they are loping around so they’re not leaning on me, but just ready to turn over themselves,” Brooks said. “From there, I’ll kind of drag them into the circle and when I get them to drag and some commitment then I pick them up and catch them with that inside rein again. It would almost be like if you’re going around the barrels and you chicken out and you touch them too early and you’ve already dropped and gone to one hand, then you have to pick the horse back up. They might not necessarily move over, but you have to buy yourself a little time. That’s what I work on when I’m loping the small circles right before I go make a run. I should be able to pick it up and move it out of the circle or drag it into the circle.”
While Lord conquers some of the toughest fields in rodeo aboard a winning mount of more than $234,660 in EquiStat earnings, she still looks for certain objectives when warming up “Can Man” outside of just loping circles.
“I make sure Can Man is soft in the face and responding to leg pressure,” Lord said. “I make sure he’s giving in the face and responsive to leg pressure when I ask. I also want him paying attention to voice commands. When I smooch to him that’s a voice command.”
Since rodeo conditions and warm-up areas are inconsistent, Lord says she tries to make what she asks of Can Man during the warm-up as consistent as possible to prepare him for the run.
“Some of the exercises I do is lope a bigger circle and come into a smaller circle,” Lord said, which emphasizes rate for the turn. “Then I also like to do some counter arcs, that way his shoulder is up and he’s moving off my hand and leg pressure to do the counter arc each direction. This is all so he is paying attention. He is rating and whoaing, but also when I smooch to him he’s ready to go.”
If necessary, Lord will work on speed transitions to reiterate what she’ll be asking of Can Man during a run.
“I’ll do speed changes in a straight line,” Lord said. “If he’s feeling like he’s a bit more relaxed and not 100 percent focused, then I’ll go ahead and smooch to him. If he’ll take off, then I don’t do that anymore. I’ll [rate him] and stop him and use the voice commands to stop him, and then do rollbacks in a straight line [to keep his hind end underneath him].”
Once each expert’s horses are responding to cues and focused, they’ll typically end their warm-ups by giving the horses a chance to build their wind before the run.
“With [Grandiose Guy], I warm him up fairly far in advance—maybe 45 minutes out, and I’m off him about 20–25 minutes before he runs,” Brooks said. “I’ll stand him in front of a fan and let him get a breather so he has all his wind back and he’s cooled out.”
Especially with young horses, Brooks says a cool down isn’t always the case.
“I have some that I warm up until the very last minute I get to go down the alleyway, because I want my hands on them all the time and I want them backed off as much as possible—it just depends on the horse,” Brooks said.
Safety is Key
One vital aspect to success when warming up is preparing your horse for a safe competition. Without an adequate warm up, both experts say you could be setting you and your horse up for failure.
“Your chances are higher risking injury [if you don’t warm up your horse],” Lord said. “Your horse is not focused and physically ready for its maximum performance level.”
Brooks says being warmed up and prepared for competition goes beyond the day at the race. Having the horse fit and in shape before the day of competition strengthens the horse’s legs and builds up its wind for the high level of exertion.
“If you don’t have them warmed up or prepared enough and if they aren’t fit, then they can’t [recover] if they take a slip or a fall,” Brooks said. “I also feel that practice should be a little more difficult than what it is we’re trying to prepare for so that competition day is easy.”
How Much is Too Much?
What’s the magic number when it comes to duration of a warm-up? Our experts say it depends on your individual horse.
“I like to get on about 45 minutes to an hour before I run,” Lord said. “That way once I do my warm-up, keeping Can Man calm and quiet, then after my warm up he can stand and relax and take it all in before I have to run. Before I cinch him up I like to stretch his legs, check my boots, tighten my boots and clean his feet out. Probably 20 minutes of that is loping circles, and then I’ll walk and do rollbacks that might add a little time.”
Both Lord and Brooks say depending on the horse, a short break for the horse to catch its wind and get a drink is built into the warm-up time. Be cognizant that it’s not too long of a break. “I want Can Man to be warmed up as far as his muscles, so I don’t like to sit too long—10 to 15 minutes. If I think it’s going to be longer until I run, then I’ll just walk him around so he’s not standing there,” Lord said. “I like for him to stand and take it all in, but yet not be standing too long where his muscles are cooled off.”
This time can be adjusted depending on the weather and what each horse requires to be prepared and focused.
“I think there’s a fine line between too much and not enough,” Brooks said. “You can overdo it, but you can also under-do it where they just feel freedom and are taking off [once you get into the alley]. I think the main thing is to really know the horse. There’s not a generic form of warming up everything—it depends on the individual horse.”
This article was originally published in the October 2019 issue of Barrel Horse News.