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How to Ride in a Small Dressage Arena

How to Ride in a Small Dressage Arena

If you’re a dressage rider facing the challenge of only having a small riding arena in which to school your horse, take heart from knowing that many of the best trainers in the world deliberately use small arenas.

For example, top trainer, Klaus Balkenhol, intentionally built his indoor arena shorter than the standard length.

In this article, we show you how to get the most from schooling in a small arena.

Benefits of riding in a small arena

Riding in a small arena has many benefits, including:

  • Improving your horse’s balance
  • Improving your accuracy in riding circles and loops
  • Helping a young horse to develop physical strength and balance
  • Improving your control over the horse’s way of going

Actually, it’s often more beneficial to school in a small arena than it is to always ride in a large one where there’s more room for error!

Using corners

By riding your horse well into the corners of a short arena, you can immediately make the limited space feel larger.

Also, if you get into the habit of using the corners of your home arena, you’ll find competing in a short dressage arena becomes much easier.

Ask your horse to move sideways away from your leg to put him deeper into each corner. Keep control of the horse’s body with your outside leg and rein so that he doesn’t overbend and fall through his outside shoulder.

Riding accurate figures

Using a small arena is perfect for learning how to ride precise circles and loops.

The standard short arena is 20-meters wide and 40-meters long. So, if you want to ride a 10-meter circle from any of the markers on the long side, you know that the widest point of the circle’s circumference must touch the center line.

Similarly, a 20-meter circle should take up half the length of the arena and touch both long sides.

The accuracy of the figures demanded in dressage tests is very important. That’s not because the judge is picky; accuracy demonstrates that you can control the horse’s body and shows that he is sufficiently supple and balanced to negotiate small circles and shallow loops.

Accuracy helps to build symmetrical muscle tone and develops straightness and connection through the horse’s back to the bit.

Accuracy tips and tricks

Here are a few useful tips and tricks that you can use to help you improve your accuracy when riding in a small dressage arena.

Tip #1

Immediately after the arena has been harrowed or rolled, ride a diagonal line across the school.

Look at the footprints your horse left behind.

Was your horse straight, or did he drift off a true line? Were the horse’s hoof prints on one track or was he crooked?

Now you know if your horse is moving straight, and if he isn’t, you can begin working to correct him.

Tip #2

Cones are great for marking where key points are such as where the 20-meter point is on the center line and long sides.

Tip #3

If your arena is wider than standard, use poles to mark off the correct short arena dimensions and practice riding within that space.

From time-to-time, use the outside area to refresh your horse.

Tip #4

Pick two points in the arena. There is just one straight line between those two points. Stay on the line you’ve chosen, whatever exercise you’re riding.

If you do that, every step your horse takes will be the same, helping to improve the horse’s balance and the fluency of the steps.

For example, if you’re riding shoulder-in from G to K, keep your horse’s shoulders on that straight line, and every step will be equal.

Tip #5

Don’t get into the habit of looking down at your horse’s neck!

Look at where you’re riding, and make the school figures accurate.

Useful exercises for a small arena

Here are a few simple exercises that you can try in your small arena which can help to improve your horse’s balance and suppleness.


Riding your horse in shoulder-fore is a very effective way of keeping him balanced and straight.

Ride the exercise in walk first, then in trot and canter.

  1. Use your inside leg and fingers to ask for a small amount of inside flexion so that you can see your horse’s inside eye. Be careful not to get too much neck bend.
  2. Use your inside leg to align the horse’s feet so that the inside hind leg steps between the prints left by the two forefeet and the energy you’re creating is captured and controlled by the outside rein.
  3. Your outside leg stops the horse’s outside hind from stepping out. If possible, use mirrors or ask a friend to video you so that you can see what’s happening.
  4. Keep the rhythm of the pace. Unlike shoulder-in, shoulder-fore is something you should ride in all the time because it helps to keep the horse in lateral balance, into the outside rein from your inside leg.

Shifting shoulder-fore

When you’ve mastered riding your horse in shoulder-fore, ride the same exercise on the long side.

Bring your horse off the track to the inside for a half-meter or less, and then put him back on the track, keeping in shoulder-fore all the time.

Repeat the exercise a few times to ensure that your horse is listening to your seat and leg and isn’t stuck on the track.

Riding spirals on a circle

Riding spirals is a beneficial exercise for checking that the horse is listening to your leg and seat.

  1. Ride a 20-meter circle in an active walk. Make sure that your body is aligned with that of your horse. Your horse’s ears should always remain on the line of travel and aligned with your eyes and body.
  2. Use bending aids to move the horse onto an accurate 18-meter circle. Hold your line on the inside track of your 20-meter circle.
  3. Now, use your bending aids to shift the horse onto a 16-meter circle, two meters in from the line of the 20-meter circle.
  4. Use the same technique to gradually reduce the size of the circle until it’s just 10-meters in diameter.
  5. Now, gradually spiral back out until your circle is 20-meters in diameter again.
  6. Repeat the exercise on the other rein, and then ride it in trot and canter.

If you have a large arena, you can ride all of these exercises, but you’ll find that keeping your horse balanced and accurately riding is actually easier in a small area. Who knew?!

In conclusion

Even though you only have a small arena in which to school your horse, there are many benefits to be gained!

Riding in a small arena helps to improve your horse’s balance and makes you ride the figures accurately. Both these benefits will ultimately help you to progress your horse’s schooling along the Scales of Training and will ultimately gain you higher marks in dressage tests.

Do you have a small home arena? If you do, we’d love to learn your tips and tricks for getting the most out of it! Share with us in the comments box below.

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