What are the origins of the dressage arena letters?
Being able to supply the answer to this question is a good way to astound your horsey friends with your knowledge of trivia, as it’s not something many dressage riders are familiar with.
We’ve done the research so that you can take all the credit!
What do the dressage arena letters mean?
The definitive origin of the dressage arena letters is unknown, but there are two main theories, both of which originate in Germany.
Before 1918, markings were seen on the walls of the stable yard of the Royal Manstall, the Imperial German Court in Berlin. The marks indicated where each horse was positioned by its groom to await its rider. This was essential, as the Manstall housed 300 of the Kaiser’s horses.
The yard itself was called the “Hof,” and it was large enough to allow riders to assemble and parade for morning exercise. The yard measured roughly 20 meters by 60 meters, the size of a modern long dressage arena.
So, the letters marked on the walls of the Hof indicated the following:
|E||Edeling/Ehrengast||Chieftain or Honoured Guest|
|P||Pferknecht||Ostler or Groom|
|S||Schzkanzler||Chancellor of the Exchequer|
That sounds like a reasonable theory, all but for the absence of the letter C.
The second theory involves the German cavalry.
The space between the stable blocks in the German cavalry barracks measured 20 meters by 60 meters and was used for general assembly and morning exercise.
It would be logical to assume that the cavalry would adopt similar markings to that of their predecessors in the Kaiser’s Court. However, in the German cavalry manual that was first published in 1882, you will see a diagram of the indoor exercise arena, the Reit Bahn, shown as measuring 40 meters by 20 meters.
In the Riet Bahn, the letters are shown as A, B, C, and D in each corner of the arena, and E and F as the middle markers on the long sides. These letters were used as a guide for riders as they practiced the school figures in training, rather than for competitions.
The competition arena and the first dressage tests
At the 1932 Olympic Games, dressage was included as a competitive riding discipline for cavalry officers.
The arenas used were measured at 60 meters by 20 meters.
Dressage tests made up of predetermined set movements were devised to demonstrate the correct, progressive training methods used by the cavalry, and to test the skills of combative riders and their horses.
There were five small obstacles to negotiate, including a barrel that was rolled toward an approaching horse and rider!
It’s likely that the Prix Caprilli riding tests, that are still used by some Pony Clubs today, originated from these early tests.
Right up until 1952, dressage at the Olympics was restricted to male commissioned officers only. Women and civilians were not allowed to compete! The rule was only changed when it was discovered that one member of the winning Swedish team in the 1948 games was, in fact, a non-commissioned rider!
So, next time you enter at A in collected canter or working trot and look for your first marker, you know that you’re riding in the hoofprints of those early cavalry officers!
Just be extremely thankful that you will only be facing the challenges of half-pass, shoulder-in, and perhaps a flying change or two, as thankfully, facing a rolling barrel and five jumps are not included in modern dressage tests, even at an advanced level!
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