Warm Ups

This guide to warm ups is a combination of lots of resources I have. More detailed descriptions for various exercises can be found in the resources listed at the end.


A warm up is an activity that prepares the student for their riding lesson by warming up both their upper and lower body and introducing movements that will be used later in the lesson.


At the beginning of the lesson, right after mounting and post-mount tack check. (See The Basic Lesson Plan)


  • warms up both upper and lower body by increasing body temp, heart rate, breath rate, and stretches muscles
  • gives rider time to adjust to being on a horse and to find their balance and coordination
  • develops body awareness
  • improves rider’s position and centeredness on the horse
  • encourages flexibility and relaxation
  • increases joint range
  • builds confidence
  • begins the lesson with fun and energy
  • introduces movements that will later be used in the lesson


  • do several activities for both upper and lower body
  • do activities in both directions
  • include repetition (to the count of 5 or 10) to build up strength
  • incorporate into games to make it fun
  • choose exercises based on student’s disability, what they need to work on, and what skill they will be learning
  • exercises should challenge the student to stretch just beyond their current ability, without hurting them or harming their disability
  • use exercises progressively, such as an easy stretch to a harder one
  • give the rider time to process what you are asking
  • if needed demonstrate what you want the student to do so they understand
  • if needed have volunteers help the student understand the positions you are asking for by guiding their limbs
  • if needed do the exercises with the student if they don’t want to be the only one doing it, have volunteers participate too as appropriate depending on the assistance each student need (if the student needs the volunteer to support them with both hands, don’t have the volunteer let go to do a stretch!)
  • do exercises at the walk as much as possible, so the student gets the benefit of the horse’s movement. If they’re initially timid, do it at the halt then progress to the walk to build confidence.
  • teach the exercises slowly when the student first learns them, watching for how they affect the student’s position
  • you can combine exercises like a yoga flow
  • remind students to keep breathing! and breathe deep!

Off Horse Exercises (before mounting)

Exercise Ball

  • most of the exercises listed below can be done on a exercise ball before getting on the horse
  • exercise balls help the rider learn stability and lets you isolate one appendage/movement at a time without the added movement from being on a horse – works great for teaching independent hands!
  • for exercise ball activities, see the Special Olympics Equestrian Coaches Teaching Guide p.57-61

On the Ground/In their Wheelchair

  • if they are especially tight and need to stretch before mounting
  • use similar stretches as those listed below

On Horse Exercises

Upper Body Exercises

  • looking – down, up, side to side
  • look where you’re going – as leader does serpentines or crazy driving, student turns head and neck in direction horse is moving without moving the rest of their body
  • relax your jaw – don’t clench
  • shoulder shrugs
  • shoulder rolls – forward, backward
  • sit up tall – imagine you are hanging on a string from the top of your head like a puppet, relax your spine and let it move with the horse
  • arms up/reach for the sky (keep elbows locked and eyes forward!) – as high as possible without lifting shoulders – one at a time, or both at the same time
  • arms forward (keep elbows locked and eyes forward!)
  • arms back (keep elbows locked and eyes forward!)
  • airplane arms (arms straight out)
  • airplane arm twists (arms out, twist torso and arms to the right, left, right, etc.)
  • twists with arms crossed in front
  • arm circles – big, little, little spiral out to big, at the same time, one at a time
  • arm circle with arms moving in opposite directions
  • arm paddles (like you’re swimming but with straight arms) – forward, backward
  • hand on thighs while walking
  • hands on thighs through a series of starts and stops
  • follow with shoulders – as the horse bends they bring the inside shoulder back to match the bend, not leaning
  • hip flexion – bend forward (touch your horse’s ears!) and backward (touch your horse’s tail!) while keeping the lower body still and heels low
  • hug and roll up – hug horse then roll upper body up one backbone at a time
  • touch right toe with right hand, left toe with left hand
  • touch right toe with left hand, left toe with right hand
  • touch both toes with both hands
  • legs straight out front – hold for 5 deep breaths, strengthens legs and abs, don’t lock knees
  • use batons, rings, beanie babies, anything you can think of for the student to reach for or stretch it different directions
  • put clothespins on the horse’s mane and tack in different places, student stretches forward to take them off when asked (use marker or paint to color the pins’ backs for added fun: “everybody take the yellow clothespin off!”)
  • ring stretches (video)
  • ride without stirrups – at the walk, let the horse’s movement move your legs, put your hands on your hips and feel them relax, put your hands on your back and feel it move with the horse – count the beats of the horse’s walk; tell them which foot is stepping when until they can recognize it on their own
  • soft eyes – look straight ahead and relax your gaze being more aware of your peripheral vision than what’s right in front of you. instructor can stand in front of student and walk in a circle around them, asking the rider to tell them when they disappear and when they see them again in the corner of their eyes. This helps develop arena awareness by learning to see what’s going on in the arena even when you’re not looking right at it.
  • breath through your belly – like an accordion or balloon, not through your chest. Notice that your horse probably relaxes and breathes deeper, too. You can use this exercise when your horse gets scared.
  • find your center – put your finger just below your belly button and center yourself in the saddle, sit deepy and stable
  • play Simon Says, or Santa Says, or Pilgrim Says, or Easter Bunny Says, or Pony Says, etc.
  • passenger – put hands on horse’s shoulders while leader does crazy driving or serpentines for 1-2 minutes until the rider really relaxes into the movement
  • building blocks – stack yourself up in a straight line one block at a time: heels, hips, shoulders, head

Lower Body Exercises

  • ankle circles/rolls
  • toes up, toes down
  • toes in, toes out
  • toes circles – make the bottom of your feet look in all directions, don’t poke your horse
  • toes up while riding with bean bags or rings on their toes
  • heel to butt touches, one at a time or both at the same time
  • knee raises, one at a time in rhythm with the horse’s walk, or both at the same time, preferably without holding on
  • leg swings – no stirrups, pivot at the knee, don’t let your legs touch the horse, don’t force it just let the horse’s movement swing your legs like your foot is a weight hanging off your knee
  • pedaling – like riding a bike, stay loose and relaxed
  • thigh lift – a few inches away from saddle, one at a time, or at the same time
  • scissor kicks – one leg forward and one leg back as far as the student can go, with pointed toes, then switch
  • up, down, back – one leg at a time brought knee up and hold for 5, knee out without lowering it and hold for 5, knee and leg stretch back and down and hold for 5
  • 2 point
  • posting at the walk
  • 5-5-5 – 5 steps 2 point, 5 steps posting, 5 steps sitting
  • balanced posting trot – stay up 2 beats, down 1 – really helps to stabilize that lower leg and find your center of balance!

Whole Body Exercises

  • just walking – for especially tense muscles, just walking several laps in each direction may be needed until the student’s limbs are able to relax down into better posture
  • around the world (page 43 in Special Olympics Equestrian Coaches Teaching Guide)
  • tree exercise – imagine you are a tree, growing up tall through your branches as your straighten your back and open your chest, and growing down deep and stable through your roots as you lengthen your legs and sink into your heels – don’t force it, allow it
  • balance games – rings or bean bags or whatever you can find on their toes and/or shoulders

Review Previous Skills

  • reviewing what they learned last week, or previous skills that apply to today’s lesson, can also be included in the warm up


Are there any exercises you with your students that aren’t listed here? Please let me know or leave a comment!


Note: This is not professional advice, this is a blog. I am not liable for what you do with or how you use this information. The activities explained in this blog may not be fit for every rider, riding instructor, or riding center depending on their current condition and resources. Use your best personal judgement!

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