Training in the Right Way: Using the Dressage Arena To Maximize Your Training

Have you ever considered why the standard dressage arena is the very specific size and shape that it is? Spoiler alert: It does serve a purpose.

Dressage training is supposed to be the process of training ANY horse to be a better riding horse. The more the horse learns, in theory, the easier it is to communicate with and therefore complete more complex tasks with. Although competition dressage training often is more focused on training for the dressage test, that is not what the original intention (and original judging requirements) were for competitive dressage. Initially, it was designed to give riders and trainers a way to determine how their training measured up to the theoretical ideal of the training process. That said, it is critically important to understand the meanings and reasons for some of the terms we use to describe dressage training and what to look for when observing training and competition (and videos and photos), regardless of whether you intend to compete or just train your horse to be a better whatever you do with him. That, ultimately, is the main purpose of my articles. To provide education and knowledge for riders to understand and improve their eye and understanding of what dressage training is supposed to be. While there will always be some differences in practice and theory, good horse training is always recognizable to the educated eye. That said, it absolutely is necessary that we remember and understand that limited knowledge is limited judgment.

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You’ve probably noticed that dressage competitions are held in a standardized rectangle; the size and shape of which is consistently 20m x 60m. Sometimes, in the very beginner levels, the tests are sometimes held in a 20m x 40m arena.

Have you ever thought about why the arena is this specific size and shape? The arena could be larger or smaller. It could be a circle, or an oval, or look like a miniature race track. Why don’t we do dressage on a straight line or a narrow track? Perhaps you have also noticed that while dressage arenas are rectangular, jumping arenas are often square or oval shaped, definitely wider than 20m, and are generally just bigger.

The Standard vs the Small Dressage Arena. Photo (c) USDF.

In my experience of teaching dressage, I find that very few riders know why the standard dressage arena is the size and shape that it is. And, because of that, they often do not know that the arena is actually a size and shape that promotes the training of certain qualities. When you change the size and the shape of the arena, or whatever space you ride in, you are promoting different qualities in the training. Just as there are very good reasons to ride on a track, or in a field, there are reasons for riding in a properly sized and shaped dressage arena. Certainly, one reason most dressage arenas at boarding facilities and private barns are the standardized size and shape is to offer the riders the opportunity to school in the same space that they will be required to use in a competition, but there is much more to it than that.

An example of a standard sized dressage arena. Photo (c) Gwyneth McPherson.

The reason jumping arenas have to be larger is to allow for the obstacles to be placed at distances, and in combinations, that develop and prove the training of the jumping horse. This includes longer lines to develop the speed and power for wider obstacles, or in order to fit in a series of obstacles. Also, the obstacles themselves take up space and there has to be enough room in the arena to maneuver around them while preparing for the next jumping effort.

In a similar fashion, the size and shape of the dressage arena is such that it promotes and proves the training, though it is predicated around control and accuracy rather than speed and jumping power. The size of the arena creates boundaries that require the maintenance of control, accuracy, and speed. The rectangular space is specifically designed to promote impulsion building on the long lines (long sides and diagonals) with collection and rebalancing opportunities on the short ones (short sides). The open area in the middle allows for circles, changes of direction, and lateral work.

Gwyneth McPherson and Flair. Photo (c) Gwyneth McPherson.

Many folks often feel like their horse is confined by the limitations of the space that the arena is sized in. Others often feel like the long sides and diagonals go on forever for their horses. These are real challenges that the standard 20 x 60 shape creates to promote the education of the horse’s balance, suppleness, and impulsion. Put simply, when you consistently train in a space that is smaller than 20m x 60m, you lose your impulsion building opportunities. And when you train in a space larger than the standard arena you lose your accuracy, collection and suppleness opportunities. Thus, the 20m X 60m layout strikes the appropriate balance of these training objectives.

If a standard sized arena is not an option, most dressage trainers will tell you that they would prefer to train for competition in a smaller arena (20m x 40m), than in one that’s larger as it is generally easier to create and maintain impulsion for longer lines at the competition than it is to create more accuracy, suppleness, and collection. Essentially, it’s easier to adapt quickly to a somewhat larger space than a smaller one. That said, if you are training in a 20m x 20m square at home, and you have to ride a dressage test in a 20m x 60m arena, you are definitely going to have trouble adapting to that. The reason we have the 20m x 40m arena as an option in competition only up to Training Level is because the amount of impulsion is minimal at those levels. Impulsion building exercises (lengthening) make their initial appearance in First Level. As the European Warmblood has dominated dressage, the use of the small arena is less and less common. These horses have more impulsion naturally and are large, making the small arena a tough place to show them in even at Training Level.

Riders warming up. Photo (c) Gwyneth McPherson.

Now that we have discussed a bit of the why, let’s consider some of the specifics relating to the layout of the arena itself and how those specifics can be used to promote training in the right way.

Training Spaces and Their Uses:

  • Long sides develop forwardness and impulsion. These long lines allow enough space for the horse to develop longer more powerful strides.
  • Short sides provide collection and speed regulation. The visible shorter distance from corner to corner help the horse think about less forward power. Thus assisting the rider with riding shorter strides while re-developing balance and suppleness with the two corners.
  • Corners are for collection, preparation and rebalancing. The corners of the arena give the rider an opportunity to create bend and thoroughness, thus improving balance either coming into collection or developing impulsion or later movements coming out of the corner.
  • Large circles provide a continuous curve (no straight lines or corners) to develop consistency of speed and balance. 20 m circles are a size that is small enough to create suppleness in the horse with the least amount of effort and pressure. It requires a very minimal bend in the horse’s body. It also allows a young horse to develop balance on a curved line rather than having to continuously rebalance from straight to curve to straight to curve as in going around the arena.
  • Small circles assist in collection and suppleness. Smaller than 20m circles requires a degree of collection from the horse. Making a circle that is half the width of the arena is easy for the rider to gauge by using the letters. And, the horse must reach further under his body with the inside hind leg while turning and bending on the circle. While the circle itself does not create collection, it helps the rider produce some collection.
  • Long diagonals allow for large impulsion building efforts and repetition of an exercise such as flying changes. Long diagonals are much like long sides for impulsion building. They also offer an open space in the middle of the ring (off the rail) to repeat exercises, or produce lateral work off the rail. These exercises, because they are done without a wall help make the horse more “on the aids”.
  • Short diagonals help the trainer limit the development of speed and impulsion while riding in a straight line off the wall. Short diagonals have similar uses as the short side, but with the added benefit of being “off the wall”. They create a space where the trainer has more options than following the wall, but has the collection and slowing benefits of the short side.
  • Quarter and center lines give the trainer the opportunity to develop a greater influence of the aids on the horse, as there is no wall to assist in straightness and accuracy. Center line and quarter line work are similar to diagonal work. It is also a good place to start or end lateral work exercises, again with the focus of not being “on the wall” and requiring better aids from the rider and causing the horse to be more on the aids.

While the above examples are by no means an exhaustive list, they give you a fairly good overview of the types of ways you can leverage your arena to benefit your training. The more aware you are of your space and positioning in the arena, the better your ability to help effectively set your horse up for success in a given exercise, as well as modify said exercise when things get a little hairy. As an example, let’s look at the counter canter exercise (see image below). If you plan on riding a counter canter loop on the right lead, it benefits you to position yourself so that at any given moment that the horse may begin to lose his balance, you can simply make a 10m circle to the right to help rebalance before continuing on in the counter canter exercise. Without getting too far down the rabbit hole that is “why and how we train counter canter,” for the purpose of this discussion, the initial goal of starting to teach counter canter is teaching the horse to stay on the lead while changing direction, by learning to accept the greater effect of the outside leg aid. Most horses break or change in the counter canter in this stage of the training, and they do so simply because they can’t stay balanced so they “come off the aids” to “save themselves from falling.” Using your arena space to teach the horse how to stay balanced by teaching the horse to stay on the aids will lead to an easy counter canter later (see my previous article about the difference between goals the processes for reaching them). If you use the arena space to help make the exercise more understandable to the horse, you will have a faster, more successful training process than just trying to “ride it like it is in the test.”

Note all the opportunities you have to circle back to the true lead. Diagram (c) Gwyneth McPherson.

Ultimately, knowing the dimensions of the arena, the placement of the letters, and how to use the space you are training in is absolutely necessary for the development of your horse’s abilities and success in competition. This comes from an understanding that your arena space is meant to be used as an assistive device in your schooling and that using the space you have to promote certain responses will improve your training and, by extension, your competition results.

Remember: Limited knowledge is limited judgment.

Gwyneth and Flair in competition at Grand Prix. (c) flatlandsfoto.

Gwyneth McPherson has over 35 years experience competing, training, and teaching dressage.  She began her education in in the late 1970s, riding in her backyard on an 11 hh pony. Her first instructor introduced her to Lendon Gray (1980 and 1988 Olympian). who mentored Gwyneth for a decade during which she achieved her first National Championship in 1984, and her Team and Individual Young Rider Gold Medals in1987.

In 1990 Gwyneth began training with Carol Lavell (1992 Olympian) who further developed Gwyneth as an FEI rider and competitor. Gwyneth achieved a Team Bronze in 1991 and a Team Silver in 1992 in the North American Young Riders Championships, and trained her stallion G’Dur to do all the Grand Prix movements while riding with Carol.

In 2008, while Head Trainer at Pineland Farms, Gwyneth began training with Michael Poulin (Olympian 1992). Michael was trained by Franz Rochowansky (Chief Rider for the Spanish Riding School 1937-1955). Michael has shared much of Rochowansky’s knowledge and wisdom with Gwyneth, completing her education as a Grand Prix rider, trainer, and competitor.

Gwyneth’s teaching and training business, Forward Thinking Dressage,is based in Williston, FL. In addition to teaching riders and training, Gwyneth also loves sharing her knowledge of the sport and art of dressage as well as discussing relevant topics pertaining to the training itself and the current competitive landscape.