Dressage 101: How to Create a Lesson Plan for Each Training Session

Hilary Moore Hebert explains that with just a few simple concepts you can ride with purpose.

Have you ever found yourself literally riding in circles, unclear of what the goal of the ride is for the day? It is not uncommon to feel confused about how to create a plan, but with a few simple concepts you can ride with purpose and use the tools we have added to your toolbox.

(Credit: Terri Miller)

Let us begin with a sample outline of a ride that is easy to remember so you have a jumping-off point:

1. Walk Warm-Up. 

2. Working Set One. 

3. Walk Break. 

4. Working Set Two. 

5. Walk Break. 

6. Working Set Three. 

7. Cool Down.

Walk Warm-Up: In general, every horse and rider needs time to prepare for the first working set. Take approximately 10 minutes to walk on a loose rein (an older, stiffer horse may work better with 20 minutes of walking).

Begin by focusing on your horse and your ride. Forget about what you have to do when you get home, what went wrong that day, etc. Next, review the sample outline mentioned above and prepare for Working Set One by confirming that you remember how to properly ride USDF Introductory Level, Test C (Read it here!).

Working Set One: Simply ride the test from start to finish. Because it asks for a walk, trot and canter in each direction as well as transitions, straight lines and 20-meter circles, it is a nice go-to warm-up set to test your horse in all three gaits.

Walk Break: As soon as you are done riding your USDF Introductory Level, Test C, walk on a long rein and spend this time allowing your horse to catch his breath and thinking about how you felt about your first working set.

It may be tempting to start correcting everything that you felt went wrong in the test, but the goal is to make the most of your 45-minute ride. Trying to fix everything at once is not going to achieve the best results.

Instead, catch your breath and ask yourself the following two questions:

1. What was the best part of that set? The reason for this question is to identify you and your horse’s greatest strength. It is essential to feel positive while you are riding, and highlighting what went well as your first task is a great way to feel good about the test you just finished.

2. What needs the most improvement? Your response can be only one sentence long. Anything longer and you will return to the fix-everything approach that will result in confusion.

Working Set Two (Troubleshooting): Once you have answered the question of what needs improvement, your next job is to ask: How do I fix it?

The fixing takes place in Working Set Two (and maybe Three), so your walk break is the time to assess which one thing needs the most improvement and how you will do so in your second working set. To assist you in understanding how to troubleshoot your ride, here are several common responses and solutions based only on exercises we have already reviewed. Notice that all of them require you to reride the test as a baseline and to add problem-solving tips relevant to your specific issue.

Too fast: “My horse runs through the test movements.”

The answer: Reride the test and add five steps of walk (covered in the April issue) when you feel that he is rushing in the trot. Add five steps of trot when you feel he is rushing in the canter. The transitions will help him balance when he’s inclined to run during the test. For example, turn right at C and ride five strides of walk at M before returning to trot and circling in the center of the arena. Ride five steps of walk over centerline and return to trot for the remainder of the circle. Repeat this approach throughout the test as needed to confirm your slowing aids.

Too slow: “My horse felt too sluggish and ignored me when I tried to get him moving along.”

The answer: Ride quick transitions throughout the test to sharpen your horse’s responses to the aids and get him moving more actively.

Too stiff: “I am riding a stiff board, not a supple horse!”

The answer: Add bending lines like figure eights to stretch your horse in a Jane-Fonda-style routine (as reviewed in the February issue). You can do this by reriding your test and throwing in a figure eight to each trot circle before continuing on to the next movement. Another way to add bending lines is to ride a three-loop serpentine in trot before and after your test.

Too wiggly: “My horse felt like he was falling out on every bending line.”

The answer: Reride the test in Working Set Two and replace the circles with diamonds to regain control of your horse’s line of travel and prevent him from running through your outside aids (covered in the May issue).

Too clever: “My horse anticipated every transition and figure, as if he has the test memorized.”

The answer: If you feel that you could ride the test with your eyes closed, it probably means you need to increase the level of difficulty. Try continuing the canter beyond the 20-meter circles:
1. Develop the canter on your 20-meter circle at A.
2. Do not transition to trot before A. Instead, stay in canter and ride down the track.
3. Ride half of a 20-meter circle between E and B.
4. Continue straight and transition to trot on the long side of the arena.
5. Trot through the corner.
6. Pick up your Introductory Level, Test One where you left it at A.

Surprise! You are now riding canter pieces of Training Level, Test One.

Walk Break: Once you have finished your second working set, again ask yourself what went well to keep a positive outlook and then ask yourself whether your approach improved the issue identified as your problem of the day. If the answer is “yes,” then you can use the third working set to play with a new exercise or refine your position.

Working Set Three: If you do not feel that you have fixed the problem, the third working set is the time to skip the test and focus completely on improving your issue of the day. Do not hesitate to review this entire series to come up with a more complete list of exercises that are most helpful to you and your horse.

Cool Down: Finish as you started, with a 10-minute walk on a long rein. Reflect on what you achieved and come up with a rough plan of what you might need to work on. This will give you time to do your homework so you are prepared with even more tools to achieve success.






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