Warmups 2.0

Recently I realized that I treat the warmup part of the lesson as mostly a physical activity, rather than a mental one as well. Really, both aspects should be addressed!

Priming (The Backstory)

I listened to a podcoast that talked about priming your mental state. Often your success has to do with your mental state, which affects the strategy you choose, the stories you tell yourself, and the end result. If you start off with a poor, anxious, lowered emotional state, you may sit down to strategize but have tunnel vision about the problems, and tell yourself self-defeating stories, and ended up feeling even worse afterward. If you improve the mental state you started off with first, it sets off a series of positive events instead, and you’d be more likely to succeed! Priming can be defined as, at the simplest, “being exposed to a certain stimuli [which] makes a particular response to a second stimuli more likely to happen” (Generally Thinking). It brings new or old thoughts close to the surface of the subconscious, making them more likely to be used later. This is considered short term and usually lasts for about 24 hours. For example, if you think “Today I am thankful for bees” then later in the day when you see a bee you are more likely to feel thankful. Or how when you smell a burger in the afternoon, you later want a burger for dinner. For some people it’s physical exercise, something as simple as 5-10 pushups to focus you, or 20 minutes of sun exposure to warm you up, or using The 5 Minute Journal. (Tim Ferriss)

In fact, I started using the 5 Minute Journal after listening to that podcast and I really like it! It’s simple and based on scientific studies about how our brain works. It takes 5 minutes morning and evening – although if you have a toddler it may take 25. Every morning you write down 3 things you’re grateful for (because now you’re more likely to notice them during the day, and gratefulness leads to joy), 3 thinks that would make today great (only things you can control; now you’re more likely to notice them and do them), and 1 personal affirmation (your mantra for the day). At the end of the day you write 3 great things that happened today, and 2 things that you could do better. This way of “priming” my day has been really effective! I start off with a more positive mental state, stay focused on my top 3 priorities, and stay more calm throughout the day (probably because my personal affirmation is usually “Everything is okay, no matter what happens”). What more, when I had my husband join in the exercise, I discovered what would make his day great and started thinking about ways I could help him do those things.

Long story short, this all made me think about instructing lessons and how the warmups are not just about preparing the rider’s body, but also preparing them mentally to have a positive experience! I’m ashamed I didn’t think about this before. One one hand, priming your rider naturally happens when you chat with them about how they are doing, about their horse, about the plan for the day – but on the other hand there are ways to be more intentional at it.

Mental Warm Up Ideas

Here are some ideas from what I’ve done, seen others do, and adapted from priming articles.

Check In

Talk with the rider before beginning the lesson (this can be when they arrive, or while tacking or warming up) to see how they are doing, if there’s anything you need to address to help them have a good lesson, and to throw in your own suggestions (about how focused they will be, how we’ll work hard, etc.)

2 Questions

Based on the 5 minute journal, ask your rider 1 thing they are thankful for today, and 1 thing that would make this lesson great (then make sure to help them achieve or come close to achieving that thing!); or have the rider discuss these with their team (leaders/sidewalkers) while you are mounting the other riders, then share before starting the lesson. Remember, the “what would make this lesson great” needs to be something they can control, unlike their horse turning into a unicorn and flying around.

Visual Shedules

Use a visual schedule to prepare a rider for the order and expectations of the day so they are more likely to have positive transitions. Parents can do this before even arriving at the barn. Click here for the blog post on Visual Schedules.

Social Stories

Similar to the above, but uses a story to model appropriate social interaction. Click here for the blog post on Social Stories.

Leave Your Baggage

Remind them to leave their “baggage” at the barn door. You can yerbally remind them, or have a physical ritual of leaving it there – ask if there’s anything bothering them that they need to leave at the door, then pretend roll it up into a ball and put it down, or toss it in the trash, or throw it into the field.

Alone Time

Give them time with the horse to be quiet, go slow, and transition. I had one rider that would often come feeling anxious and rushed and it helped if I was calm with no hurries and let her take her time grooming and touching the horse and transitioning before jumping into the lesson. I also used that time to give her some heads up for the lesson – what we’d work on and the expectations.

Mental Imagery

Before getting on, have the rider visualize their ride. Or before riding a pattern, have them visualize it going positively. If they’re feeling down, visualize things that make them happy. And so on.

Create a Positive Intention

Together come up with a positive intention or personal affirmation, such as “I am capable” or “I am brave” – some type of mantra they can tell themself when they need it.

Create a Daily Goal Together

Although we are always working toward a specific riding skill goal, together create a goal for the day. Similar to asking them “what will make this lesson great,” come up with one thing to work on. It could be a skill, or a mental attitude, like staying positive.

Activate A Stereotype

In some studies priming people with words that evoke the elderly made them more likely to walk slowly later. “Being primed for a certain stereotype, the behaviours and traits we associate with that stereotype become active in ourselves.  We start to play that role” (Generally Thinking).  So, what if you primed your student with words that evoke a good rider, or certain behavior? Or straight up called them a good rider or hard worker to their face, or perhaps let them overhear you tell a volunteer? It’s worth a shot!


Slip in words that might prime them to do the same later. If you have a low energy kid, talk about what a “exciting” and “energetic” day it is! Or a slouchy kid, how tall and straight their horse is standing today.

Mental Actions

Involve them in something that evokes the same mental actions now that you will using later. I’m not sure the right word for this, so I’m just calling it mental actions. For example, if you will be working on making choices in the arena, give them an easier choice before mounting. Or if you will be having them choose which directions to turn while riding, have them choose which direction to walk their horse before mounting.

Physical Warmups and Movements

Some riders need a physical warmup to activate their brain processes. The physical input helps them coordinate their body and mind. So you may just focus on the physical side of the warmup.

You can incorporate movements before the lesson or during warm ups that you will be using later. For example, if you will work on posting, have them practice on the ground or practice some squat jumps to activate those thighs, or practice two point when on the horse.

In Summary

I had a lot more suggestions than I thought I would! But not a ton of experience in this. In what ways do YOU prime your students mentally for their lessons? Please leave a comment below!


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! If you would like to contribute an activity or article, please contact me here, I would love to hear from you!

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