Article & Photographs by Tanya Randall, originally published in the December 2007 issue of BHN
Ever feel you’ve lost a race because of problems in the warm-up pen? You couldn’t get your hot rod to settle down or the slug in gear?
Futurity trainer and breakout rodeo standout Vickie Solmonsen, Riverton, Utah, shares the warmup and cool-down program she uses on her two Dash Ta Fame geldings and offers advice to avoid common pitfalls in the warm-up pen.
Solmonsen’s theory on the warm-up is rather simple – get the horse mentally and physically ready to run by treating each horse as an individual and keep it happy before a run.
Solmonsen says the hotter, more fractious the horse, the shorter she prefers the warm-up. Her 8-year-old, Dash Chantel (“Chantel”), is a challenge to warm up. How challenging you may ask? Solmonsen says people have asked when she’s going to run simply to watch her warm up Chantel rather than watch her run.
The Dash Ta Fame gelding is full of energy and loaded with personality, so Solmonsen has to prepare him for his runs without letting him waste his energy with his spastic antics or making him angry because she won’t let him be himself.
Solmonsen keeps Chantel focused during the warm-up by hand-walking the gelding before a run, so he doesn’t get “on the muscle” too soon.
“I hand walk him because I know he’ll walk quiet,” Solmonsen said. “Once you get on him, it’s a free-for-all. So basically, I just try to keep him moving, so he doesn’t hurt himself when he runs.”
If she does have to get on him before a run, Solmonsen tries to keep him focused without making him angry, which means letting him be himself as long as he doesn’t get out of hand and become a danger to others.
“I’ll just let him bounce around and do what he wants as long as he doesn’t get in anyone’s way,” she laughed. “I let him kind of get his energy out, and then I’ll try to do a big circle with him. When I feel like he’s doing a circle for me, I’ll let him go back to doing what he wants.
“My theory on a horse is don’t pick a fight that you can’t win. Why make him mad right before he goes in? If I have to start getting after him, he’ll bristle up and want to argue with me, but if I just get off and walk him in, for some reason, to him that’s safe, so he’ll follow me in.”
At home, Chantel isn’t as full of himself as he is at the barrel races, but Solmonsen still has to properly channel his excess energy.
“I don’t do a lot of barrels on him,” she said. “I’ll let him sprint down to one end (of the pen) and then gather him up. If he responds to that, I’ll let him sprint back. If I let him do that, it seems to be what makes him happy. He’s not being mean. He just can’t contain his energy.”
On the more manageable type of horses, Solmonsen says she likes to get on sooner and slowly build up throughout the warm-up just as a human athlete would.
Her 7-year-old superstar, Gonna Be Famous (“Famous”), is much more manageable than Chantel.
“I like to walk-trot him and then lope him,” she explained.
She prefers loping circles to long trotting, but notes that sometimes, like at rodeos, all you have room to do is a little long trotting.
For a super-laid-back horse, Solmonsen will try to find ways to get the horse “on the muscle” and ready to run without dulling the horse to the rider. This requires a little thinking out of the box.
For example, she had one horse that was extremely laid-back, but scared to death of tractors. Instead of aggravating him with whipping and spurring to get him “up” for a run, she would take the horse near the tractors to get him on his toes and ready to run.
“Ideally, you want to get the adrenalin rush just in the right place, so the horse goes in and makes a nice run, but doesn’t go over the edge,” she said.
Solmonsen also prefers to stretch her horses before she runs. This is especially important for the hotter horses that don’t have the typical “build-up” warm-ups that the more manageable horses do.
She uses many of the techniques she learned from equine muscle therapist Troy Brandenberg.
“He shows you how to loosen them and do stretches,” she said. “It does two things for them – theoretically, it can help them reach farther, and then if they slip or something, they have a little more elasticity.”
To cool her horses out after a run, Solmonsen will walk the horse until it’s “watered out,” or finished drinking, and then let the horse roll.
“When they come back from running, they are thirsty,” she explained. “I’ll walk them and let them drink a bit and then walk them some more before allowing them to drink again. When they’re done drinking, I let them roll if a place is available.”
Warm-Up, Not Tune-Up
One of the common mistakes Solmonsen sees people make in their warm-up routines is turning the warm-up into a tune-up session.
“To me a warm-up is not training,” she said. “It’s just to get their muscles ready, so they don’t hurt themselves during a run. It’s getting them mentally and physically set to go make their runs.”
For example, if she feels a horse is being a little stiff, she might bend it around a little, but she’d rather save it for the training pen. She’s found that trying to correct a horse right before a run generally leads to more problems.
“If you try to fix a horse right before a run, they just go back to doing what they’ve done before when you make your run,” Solmonsen said.
A common indication that your warm-up session is turning into a tuning session is drilling your horse before you run. Solmonsen says she often sees people over-drilling their horses before a run to a point that the horse has nothing left physically or mentally by the time it enters the arena. She says people need to ask themselves why they feel the need to drill. Is it for the horse or for them?
“Sometimes I think people try to work on their inadequacies, for lack of a better word, in the warmup, so they drill and drill, and pretty soon that horse is so sick of that person and drilling that by the time they go in the arena, they’re just shot,” she said.
“A lot of times we do stuff for us and not the horse. Sometimes you have to look at the big picture and ask yourself – who needs this? Me, or the horse? So if you’re constantly asking the horse to do something, it’s probably more for you because the horse should be trained.”
All that drilling generally accomplishes, Solmonsen said, is dulling the horse to a rider’s cues.
For example, a horse that’s drilled repeatedly to set before a barrel will still overrun the can during the run because its mouth is dull and numb from all the drilling.
Even without drilling, Solmonsen will often use a different bit to warm up rather than use her competition bit, so the horse’s mouth remains fresh and sensitive to subtle rider cues.
What Works for You
Solmonsen says trial and error at home, and the smaller jackpots is often the only way to develop a successful warm-up routine.
“Most of the time, if you’ve done your training and ground work,” she said, “you just need to warm up their muscles. You just have to read your horse. People kind of forget that sometimes.”