“Practice makes perfect.” A phrase we’re all familiar with, but perfection is unattainable! Think about this: if you practice in good form, you improve; if you practice in poor form, you learn bad habits. A coach once said to me, “You perform the way you practice.” This made more sense! For those of us looking to improve our riding skills and competition scores, let’s set ourselves and our horses up for success by practicing the way we want to perform.
Gymnasts practice balance and tumbling tricks on gymnastics equipment. Basketball, volleyball, and football players practice on regulation-size courts and fields. Depending on what discipline you ride, there are common or standard sized arenas used for competition. It only makes sense to practice in a similar setting.
When it comes to dressage, a 20 meter-wide space is difficult to work in! It requires balance, strength and focus for horses to relax and perform. Here are five reasons why it’s important to regularly train in a dressage arena.
1. Get familiar with the flow and timing of your test
Get familiar and comfortable inside the dressage arena before your show. Movements and transitions come up quickly and you must allow adequate prep time. Maybe your horse goes behind your leg one direction or needs some extra support in a certain spot. Know those things, train for them, and do your best on show day.
2. “Poor use of corner.”
Sound familiar? If you’re competing in dressage, you’ve most likely heard this comment. Riding turns and corners is something everyone should practice. Corners and turns are used for rebalancing, setting up other movements, inside leg use, proper bend, among other things.
Training in any sized arena with 90˚ corners is a good start; you have something to work with! Access to a true 20×60 or 20×40 meter dressage arena allows you the time and space to practice getting that huge horse into that tiny corner. Get used to riding from a straight line into the corners, back to a straight line. Use the corners to set up lateral work, and rebalance your horse. Find out what’s difficult for your horse and work on that. It will improve your riding in more areas than just the corners.
3. Learn your letters
Who chose these letters and why? That’s a discussion for another day. You just need to be familiar with what and where they are. Don’t forget about the center line letters and the quarter lines!
When you regularly ride in an arena with letters, their location becomes second nature. On show day, don’t rely on your reader if you choose to have one. Practice your test from memory to gain confidence in where you’re going so you can focus on the quality and accuracy of the movements; you’re reader becomes more of a reassurance if you suddenly go blank. Riding through a mistake and moving past it for the rest of the test is a skill in its own, so give yourself some real self-care and learn your test before hand.
Knowing the letters can also be helpful during lessons, clinics, and riding in an arena away from home. Maybe the arena there doesn’t have all of the letters posted, maybe some are worn and faded, maybe your glasses broke before you got on and now you have to ride blind and orient yourself purely by the horizon line (I mean, unlikely but it is possible). If you’re told to do something at a letter, or a series of letters, it’s a nice feeling to know where their directing you to, instead of panicking and trying to figure out where you’re supposed to be.
4. Geometry & Lines
More comments everyone has seen on their score cards: “Circle too square,” or “Not straight.” Gauging straightness and size outside of an arena is like eating something savory when you have a cold. You can’t tell!
Practice straightness in an arena where you have straight sides to reference. Drag the arena and look at the hoof prints in relation to the rail. Use mirrors or ride toward someone down the centerline to know where your horse gets crooked. Ask a friend to film you so you can see what you can’t feel or aren’t aware of.
Practicing a 20 meter circle in a true 20 meter wide arena is harder than it sounds, but can tell you a lot about what’s going on with you and your horse. Making a round circle isn’t just about getting the line in the right place. Think about how your horse moves across the line. Maybe your horse braces, drifts out, or ignores an aid. Are you leaning, using too much of one leg, turning too early or late? The classic pyramid training scale is a great tool to simplify all of this.
As the tests get harder, the circles, turns, and lines get harder too. A 20 meter-wide arena makes 20 and 10 meter circles pretty straight forward. Now think about doing 15, 12, and 8 meter circles, loops, serpentines, leg yield from the quarter line, etc. Just as you need to practice straight lines with a reference, you need to have an accurately sized space to practice the size of your movements.
5. Do it for your horse
For those of us who have young, sensitive or spooky horses, giving them every opportunity to get comfortable in a new space is a must. When your horse isn’t worried about the arena or the flower boxes because he has seen them before, then you have all the more chance to ride a better test. Getting your horse used to riding close to the rail, and not having a meltdown if he does tap it with a hoof or kicks dirt up can be a huge advantage when you are juggling all the other complications riding a test can throw at you.
Teach your horse to respect the shorter rail. Goal: stay on the inside! We’ve all seen the videos of the horse jumping out of the arena. Training full-time in an enclosed arena can lead to problems when you suddenly don’t have that outside wall or fence. Walls and rails provide a nice boundary and can help us by acting as a crutch for the outside leg, help us control speed, or lessen distractions by creating a sort of bubble. However, riding in a 15” tall arena can when you and/or your horse aren’t used to it can feel very exposed.
The bottom line is that in order to find your peace within the white rectangle, you must actually ride in the white rectangle. So, get out there and ride some corners, trot some circles and leg yield to your heart’s desire.