...But the secret to great riding isn't to wake up on Monday and go for the flying change or push and muscle my client's horse through that half-pass. On Monday I wake up and practice my ABC's. If my horse can't do the ABC's, then I know I'm not ready to ask for the hard questions. Or I CAN ask for the hard questions (and push and muscle my way through it) but the quality will suck and that is the difference between mediocre and great, and winning and losing.
So you want to win and have a "quality" ride?
The first ABC is to check the neck. Do you have flexion each way? Can you flex and counter flex on a circle without any loss of balance? This is the difference between a green horse and a trained horse...a dressage horse and a not dressage trained horse. If you ask for the flexion, does your horse try to turn? If so, then you need a lesson on how to ask for the flexion, put your inside leg on, and keep the horse's shoulder up and balanced while flexing and counter flexing. It's that easy. That's the difference between young green horses learning to direct rein and a dressage horse learning to separate the neck from the shoulders and balance.
If you're horse fails this test - then you know you're going to be stuck on a 20 meter circle flexing and counter flexing until they can do it with suppleness and softness. If your horse is really resistive then you can plan some circle exercises and gently bend your horse in an out in shallow loop serpentines, progressive circles, etc. When you have the flexion you can proceed to the next test. How do you know when you "got it?" When your horse is relaxed into the bend and GIVES. You don't stop asking as the rider until your horse gives to the point of relaxation. Then you have positive reinforcement and an automatic built in relax button for horse shows.
The second part of my Monday morning ABC's is to test the shoulder. Can my horse do a shoulder turn? If so, how reactive and fast can my horse do this? If I move my leg forward, does my horse yield the shoulders? This is a great way to teach the horse to weight bear the hind legs. Eventually this will be your turn on the haunches, then your walk pirouette, and you will use the same idea and premise in your trot and canter work and voila, one day your canter pirouettes will be cake! If you don't desire to be a dressage queen, think of this as your rollback between fences - the difference between getting a rail after that turn and setting your horse up perfectly after that turn.
When you ask for the shoulders the horse's head will be flexed to the OUTSIDE. It's okay if their head is up, because this is a hind leg weight bearing exercise. If you are an oddly crooked rider sometimes it is easier to mirror the horse's counter bend and turn your shoulders and hips a little bit to the outside. I like to do sharp half turns at the trot with this exercise to test the shoulders. In the canter it is the FIRST thing I always test (I ask before the flexion) because I have the tendency to space out when I start cantering and let my horse go too long before asking for a question, and by that time the horse is already bumbling around on his forehand. So, think of it as an automatic half-halt for the canter - ask for your canter depart and turn!
The last and most difficult ABC is getting that hind leg!
Once upon a time I had a client horse that liked to rear anytime I asked him a hard question. His behavior continued until I finally connected his lil' brain to his hind leg and taught him that giving his hind leg created relaxation. Now he is a good pony that has no desire to rear because he understands how to use his hind leg.
Your last a most difficult test of the warm up is to get the hind leg. I usually do this on a small circle and you need a firm outside rein to control and block the shoulder from escaping. I move my leg back (because forward is for the shoulders) and ask for the hind leg until the horse gives and yields in their neck and lowers their head a bit. Then I ride them forward on the circle when they give me this release. If my horse creates drama I keep asking until they give me the correct answer. I usually ask three times in each direction and then proceed with my training goal for the day.
If your horses passes these "checks" then you can proceed with training. If my horse resists any of these questions then I repeat the question until my horse gives me the relaxation and thoroughness that I am looking for. Only then can go ask for my flying changes and half-passes and favorite little tricks - and THEN it's quality work.
I am available for dressage lessons and I teach all types of riders. Text if you're interested in scheduling a lesson. (607)743-1309