When I was in 3rd grade I started learning how to play the violin. In my very first week of violin lessons we learned the basic scales. Then for the next 5 years that I actively played the violin we started each lesson by warming up with the scales. That elementary exercise was just as important when we were playing Ode to Joy as it was when we were playing Twinkle Twinkle Little Star.
There are some basic elementary exercises that I use in Cowboy Dressage that are the same as that scale for the violin player. Each time I practice with my horse I start with some combination of these basic exercises before moving onto more advanced maneuvers. They serve to get the muscles warmed up evenly, help to establish communication between horse and rider and check the horse's balance and movement before the day's work begins.
1. Partnership on the Ground. For my horses, I always start with just a little bit of Partnership on the Ground. It may be just a few driving circles where I change the bend a few times, or it may be running through the entire Partnership on the Ground Test 1. I've found that it helps me to sync my energy to the horse's energy before I even put my foot in the stirrup. It allows the horse to tell me before I get on if something is bothering him. Sometimes this part of my day will take 3 minutes, sometimes it takes 20 minutes. It varies depending on my goals for the day, my time schedule (unfortunately) and the horse. But you should always start your day and your partnership on the ground. It really improves the quality of partnership you will receive from your horse when you step into the saddle. I don't do groundwork because my horses aren't "broke enough" for me to just step on. I do groundwork because my horses are broke enough that it matters where our heads are at in the game. When partnership and soft feel are your goal, you'd be crazy to forgo anything that would enhance that partnership when you step into the saddle.
2. Free Walk. I always start with at least a lap of free walk. Again, this for me is about syncing my energy to the horse. It allows the horse and I to establish a cadence, a feel for what the energy is between us that day and for the horse to loosen up and get settled to his environment. With my colts, it gives them a chance to check the arena for boogie men before I start asking for more concentration and effort with more difficult maneuvers. I tend to sing, whistle, yodel, bee-bop, anything to help my horses just settle into the day's exercises ahead of us. Having music on in the arena is a plus!!
3. One handed 10 m Figure 8. If we have our challenge court set up I like to do this exercise with my 10 m circles at H and M so I can utilize the poles and cones. If I'm on the regular court I like to do this exercise at 8 with my circles at B and E. It doesn't matter a whit where you do it, I suppose, as long as your goal is to soften and shorten your horse laterally one side at a time. Establish bend on your horse by shortening just the inside rein to a 10 m bend and then dropping your hand to the withers. There should be no pressure on the outside rein for this exercise. Create the bend with your body with your inside leg at the front cinch and your outside leg back towards the flank. Ride the bend forward. When you complete one circle, change hands and rein, change your hips/legs and ride the bend forward in the other 10 m circle. For young/green horses I like to really help them through the change of bend by riding straight for 2-3 strides before shifting my aids to the other circle. This creates more of a double D shape than a figure 8.
There are many wonderful things that happen during this exercise when you do it properly. First of all you soften the horse laterally and warm up those muscles. This is an excellent exercise for introducing or working on soft feel because you are working just one rein at a time. The goal of this exercise is not to hold the horse in bend but to ask the horse to hold himself in bend within your aids. If your horse is hanging on your hand or you feel any rein pressure at all, put some life in that rein and ask that horse to look for the soft feel. When he comes off that rein pressure make sure your hand is quiet and not pulling on him. That is his release. In this exercise the rein does not establish direction, it only establishes bend. Your seat and legs help the horse create the circle that you have started by asking for bend with the rein. If the horse falls to the inside of the circle, get your inside leg active. If the horse drifts out of the circle, get your outside leg active. If the horse is following your soft feel and staying on the circle make sure your aids are soft and quiet to reward him. The energy and cadence of the walk is established by your seat. Resist the urge to push your horse along with your legs or bump him forward with every stride. If you need more energy and your horse isn't listening to your seat, ask with both legs once with purpose, don't nag! Get in and get out and return to riding quietly so the horse seeks the quiet soft spot between your aids.
4. Big Circle, Little Circle: This is a variation of the one handed figure 8. After the horse has established good soft quality bend in the figure 8, I like to firmly establish body control with my seat and leg aids by shrinking the circle to about 5 m. After riding a quality 10 m circle to the right, when I come back to the center I will shrink that circle in to 5 m with my outside leg then take the horse back to the 10 m circle with my inside leg.
5. Long Diagonals: There are several things I work on in this exercise. Gait quality, transitions, 10 m bend and soft feel in the working gait and rein management for the rider. You can do this exercise at both the walk and the jog. Let's start at K in the free walk. Get a good quality free walk with energy, lengthening of the stride and stretching of the top line. Before you reach M, begin to pick up just your inside rein. At M apply inside leg and still your energy for the transition to the 10 m bend. Outside leg helps keep the horse from drifting too deep in the corner. Hold the bend to Y then pick up the outside rein to ask the horse to go straight to Q in the working walk. At Q lengthen the outside rein, hold the inside rein through the 10 m bend then lengthen rein to the long frame in the free walk at H. Repeat when you get to F. If you struggle with rein management and lengthening and shortening your reins without snatching at them this exercise will help you to think about the lengthening and shortening in more of a step wise fashion. It's also great for horses that are bothered when asked to hold soft feel in the working frame for a long period of time. That short 10 m is just enough to ask them to hold it with softness before they get bothered.
6. B/E 20m and 10 m nested circles. This particular exercise probably has as much to do with my geldings current state of mind as all of the other exercises put together. My horse was a terrible rusher in the free jog. Working with nested circles is an excellent tool for those horses that tend to get up a head of steam in the free jog rather than relaxing and stretching like they are supposed to! This is also the exercise that I personally find the most useful when preparing my horse for lope transitions. Begin with a 10 m circle at either the working walk or working jog at either B or E. Then step directly into the 20 m circle in the free jog. Remember to maintain bend. Don't do too much steering and LET THE HORSE GO. If the horse speeds up and begins to get too fast, worried, or bothered, sit, quit posting, pick up the inside rein (with soft feel, don't snatch!) and ask for a 10 m circle in a working jog. Wait for the horse to come back to a quality working jog and then return to the free jog like nothing happened. For the really rushy or worried horses I find doing a 10 m circle at not only B and E but I and D helps to keep the horse from getting too fast too quickly.
To be successful at this exercise you have to learn to prepare the horse for the transitions from free jog to working jog. If you wait until your stirrup is already at the marker you will be too late, pull the rein too hard and yank the horse into an unbalanced 10 m circle. Instead, sit a stride or two before the marker, breathe out, shorten the inside rein while applying inside leg and at the marker apply outside leg to ask the horse to enter the bend.
Once you are successful and the horse is transitioning with from free jog to working jog with soft feel going one direction, change direction through 8 changing bend in the working jog and repeat the exercise going the other direction.
Remember that the key to lightness and soft feel is the release. In the words of the great Jack Brainard, "Thou shalt not dwell with either leg or rein." If you feel like you are hanging onto your horse, kicking your horse or pushing your horse into frame think about your aids. Are you maybe doing too much? Most riders are. Try doing less and ask your horse to meet you in the middle.
There are many many more exercises that you can do using the Cowboy Dressage court, but these few basic exercises are part of our everyday warm up routine. Your horse is never too broke or too advanced to forgo a visit back to the fundamentals! Don't forget your scales before your concerto!