Work Space
©Thomas Ritter 2009

I want to say a couple of things about the proper work space for the training of a dressage horse. It is very important that the arena footing has the right consistency, neither too deep, nor too hard. Footing that is too deep can easily lead to suspensory ligament and other soft tissue injuries. Excessively hard footing will eventually contribute significantly to the development of arthritis. The consistency of the footing must be the same throughout the arena. If the horse never knows if the footing is going to be deep and soft or hard and shallow in the next stride, he will never fully relax, and he will never find a steady tempo. The surface of the arena must be level as well, because an uneven surface with holes and with hills and valleys makes it difficult, if not impossible, for the horse to keep a steady tempo, and consequently to find his balance. Every time the horse steps into a hole, or when the footing drops off, he will speed up, if he hits a very deep spot, he may lose momentum and slow down. Every unauthorized change of tempo is a reflection of a loss of balance. When you consider that balance is one of the cornerstones of dressage and the prerequisite for suppleness, a light, steady, even rein contact, impulsion, and collection, you recognize right away just how important it is to have the right footing to work in.

Every ride is a geometry lesson for horse and rider, because riding correct arena patterns requires the proper alignment of the horse’s hips and shoulders, which is the key to straightness and hence the lateral balance. Adhering to the geometry means that circles must be round, straight lines must be straight, the left pair of the horse’s legs must be on the left side of the line of travel, the right pair of legs must be on the right side of the line of travel, and the horse’s spine has to become a segment of the line of travel. That is not as easy to do in practice as it sounds in theory.

Designing precise arena patterns can be helped or hindered by the arena layout. The best dimensions for the dressage arena have a ratio of 1:2 or 1:3, short side : long side. These dimensions are reflected in the standard dressage courts that measure 20m x 40m and 20m x 60m, respectively. Bigger is not always better. From a geometric point of view, the 20m x 40m arena is preferable, because there is exactly one 20m circle in each half of the arena, and each circle can be further subdivided into four 10m circles. Oversized arenas can make it difficult to design patterns of reasonable size, without feeling “lost” in the large space. Circles tend to become too large and therefore lose gymnastic value in oversized arenas. Longer arenas have an advantage, though, for developing medium and extended gaits, as well as for teaching tempo changes and zigzag half passes.

If the arena has odd dimensions, where the long side is not a multiple of the short side, the rider will be forever fighting against these dimensions, and designing round circles that are the same size in both directions becomes much more difficult than it would be in an arena with proper dimensions.

Make sure that the arena is rectangular with four corners, not oval. Do not clutter the corners with jumps and other things, because the corner is perhaps the single most important arena pattern of all.

The arena should be surrounded by a solid kickboard that is 5-6 feet tall and slightly slanted, so that the rider can’t get pinned against the wall with his knee. At the very least, there should be a fence around the arena. Otherwise, it is impossible to do certain types of work in hand. The support of the wall is necessary at certain stages of the training.

It helps enormously to mark the so-called circle points, where the 20m circle touches the long side, as well as the half school line on the long side, i.e. there is a marker every 10m. On the short side, it’s a good idea to mark the center line and the two quarter lines that are located halfway between the center line and the wall. In a 20m wide arena, the center line is 10m from the long side, and the quarter lines are consequently 5m from the wall and from the center line.

The center line and the 10m markers on the long sides form a grid of 10m squares. In a 20m x 40m arena, there will be 4 squares on each long side, 8 squares total. In a 20m x 60m arena, there are 6 squares on each long side, 12 squares total.

The squares of the grid can be ridden as squares, or they can be filled with 10m circles. The squares can be linked together to form rectangles of 10m x 20m, 10m x 30m, 10m x 40m, etc. 4 squares together can form a 20m square. The possibilities are endless.

It’s a good idea to draw an arena on paper and then try to draw all the possible arena patterns and combinations that consist of circles, squares, and rectangles. This is a good way to become creative and to learn to see all the possibilities.

Practice accuracy by using the markers along the walls to design all your arena patterns. They become navigational points, and you can ride from point to point, just like a pilot flies a plane from point to point.

If you don’t have these markers in your arena, try to use trusses, fence posts, windows, trees, or any other architectural features, landscaping features etc. as landmarks.

When riding in a new arena, take a moment to find your bearings. Look around and find the circle points, the half school line, the quarter lines, etc.

To practice riding arena patterns, it can be helpful to outline specific patterns with the help of cones and/or ground poles, because it helps the rider to gauge his accuracy and to develop a better feel for the alignment of the horse’s hips and shoulders. Riding accurate arena patterns with the correct bend and proper balance will inevitably improve the horse, whereas riding inaccurate patterns, or no patterns at all, makes any progress nearly impossible.

Successful training begins and ends with riding correct arena patterns in a steady tempo with the correct alignment of the horse’s hips and shoulders. That’s why the importance of having an arena with the proper dimensions cannot be overestimated.

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Comment by Kinni P on November 21, 2009 at 11:33am
Well said. The quality of footing couldn't be more important. I moved my gelding to a new barn recently in search of better footing. The turf arena we were working in was not only lumpy, bumpy and full of rocks, it was dangerous. It's rained a lot here this year. Even when the arena seemed dry, it wasn't. Several weeks ago, my boy lost his footing (it just slid out from under him). We both ended up on the ground. We were very lucky that neither of us were seriously injured.

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