Western Dressage Exercise – Arena Diamond
At some point, most riders have wished for something like a magic pill, a solution that will instantly alleviate nagging training issues. Since that is impossible to find, the next best thing is an arsenal of arena routines that improve your horse just by executing them. These are exercises almost too good to be true, ones that give you a looser and more balanced horse, ones that create engagement without excessive effort.
This is the secret all good trainers know: ask a horse to perform exercises that manipulate his body the right way and results fall in your lap, often rapidly. If you have ever had the chance to string together a few key yoga maneuvers yourself, you have likely experienced this effect on your own body. Regardless of how perfectly you perform them or how deep your understanding of yoga runs—or doesn’t—your posture, balance, and strength feel immediately improved by what you just did.
This pattern, what I call the Arena Diamond, asks the horse to make frequent adjustments of stride, which recruit different muscle fibers at varying rates of effort, eliminating any tendency to get blocked against the rider, dull to the aids, or listless. This consistent re-organizing of his body creates energy in the hind legs and lightness in the forehand while preventing the flat, heavy movement that arises from repetitive motion.
Because of how interconnected the horse’s muscular and skeletal system is, relatively simple yet strategic maneuvers can have far-reaching effects on his body. I call this working smarter, not harder. Let’s jump in and get started. There are several ways to vary the specifics of these exercises while maintaining the overall theme. For purposes of clarity, I have presented them in their most simple version below.
- Develop working jog or lope, tracking right.
- At A, turn off the rail directly towards E. (You will be riding a mini diagonal line, do NOT ride in the corner between A and K).
- Arrive at the rail at E and proceed only one stride.
- Then turn and ride towards C.
Continue following this diamond pattern as shown in the diagram. If your arena lacks dressage letters, set up cones at the markers specified in the pattern.
Once you are riding the figure accurately and hitting the markers, add the following challenge:
At each of the four points of the diamond at C, B, A, and E slow down to a slow jog as you round the turn and then immediately lengthen the strides between each point. Once this is going smoothly, canter the figure with the same variation.
Check points for success:
- First of all, you need to turn your horse from your seat, not the reins, at each diamond point. At each turn, be sure to close your inside bending leg against the horse’s ribcage while positioning the outside leg slightly back and using it with light thigh pressure to turn the horse’s withers to your next focal point.
- Think of steering your horse’s withers, rather than his head and neck, where you want to go.
- To ride your horse accurately between each turn, ride as if you intended to ride straight through the fence at each letter. Do not start turning before you get there, otherwise your horse will drift out through his outside shoulder.
- Keep your rein contact absolutely equal throughout the pattern. A common error is to take up rein contact in the turns but then throw it away on the straight lines between diamond points.
Western Dressage Exercise – Controlled Wandering
Riders and trainers alike sometimes blur together the loosening up and warming up phases of their sessions. Except for horses that live only in pasture, these two phases of a workout must exist distinctly. Even horses that live in small paddocks or daytime turnout spent most of their days at rest. Physiologically, a horse at rest cannot perform well without first increasing muscle temperature and circulation.
Studies show that at rest only 15 percent of horse’s blood flows to his skeletal muscles, the ones responsible for moving his limbs and creating movement. During exercise, that percentage shifts to roughly 85 percent as blood moves from organs and metabolic functions and postural muscles out to these larger muscles. This is what nourishes and powers them, but it takes several minutes of warming the body for this shift in circulation to occur. Hopefully with this information you can see why you should not jump into immediate activity with a horse that has been mostly idle for the last 24 hours.
He needs to first loosen up, a phase during which the emphasis on slow and gentle movements increases circulation of blood, water, joint fluids. Then he needs to warm up, a phase of active and sustained exercise aimed at raising body temperature and creating pliability. Note that these two phases are separate. Your warm up can and should be plenty active—brisk jogging, lope transitions, circling, transitions. But it should be preceded by five to eight minutes of loosening up, which consists primarily in slow and easy walking and calisthenics (backing up, carrot stretches, stepping over ground poles). This is outlined below by a phase of what I call Controlled Wandering.
Your horse’s body will remain far more pliable, comfortable, and injury free if you follow this system for loosening up first and then follow it up with active warming up. It also benefits your horse psychologically because it gives him a period of being at ease without jumping immediately in to training or active movement. This will allows his neurosensory system to remain relaxed, rather than tense and reactive. This translates to his mind being in a happier state, which in turn leads to a body that is less tense and rigid.
- Mount up and give your horse a loose rein. Ride “on the buckle” as you walk around the arena.
- Now wander around the arena in creative loops and turns. Stretch your imagination to ride figures and patterns that you do not ordinarily ride in your schooling. For instance, I wander back and forth in the middle of the arena, from side rail to side rail because this is not a figure I ride in regular schooling.
- Use only your seat and legs to guide your horse. Use as little guidance from reins as possible.
- Don’t worry how the horse carries himself or whether he is “on the bit.” Just let him saunter.
- Give him as few cues as possible walking from point to point. Sit relaxed and deep in the saddle.
- Set the clock for seven minutes. Go.
Western Dressage Exercise – Serpentine Three Ways
Blending arena figures together allows us to shape our horses’ bodies under us. Whether we want more bend or impulsion or roundness, we should remember that well ridden figures are our sharpest tools. By well ridden, I mean accurate and rhythmic. More often than not, riders end up with vaguely defined figures: wobbly circles, wandering turns, and so on. The downside of this, aside from being unclear to the horse, is that the rider loses communication with the horse’s hind legs and the horse adopts poor alignment, usually getting crooked in the direction of his dominant side since horses are as naturally crooked as their human partners.
My solution has always been for riders to practice figures that force them to pay attention to this. The following is an excellent tool to coordinate a rider’s aids. It requires making subtle but clear shifts in geometry that bring more control and engagement to the horse’s hind legs. When this happens, other delightful things start happening such as collection, self-carriage, and lightness. Practice alternating between the following figures during a session.
3 Ways to Serpentine
A. 3- Loop Serpentines
- Begin in working walk or jog, tracking right.
- At A, begin a 3-loop serpentine. (for an accurate 3-loop serpentine, you ride three 20-meter half circles connected together). Be sure to touch the rail at the apex of each loop. If you are not reaching the sides of the arena, your loops are too small.
- Be sure to change flexion/bend through your horse’s entire poll and spine each time you start a new loop; do not just turn and drift in the new direction.
- All three loops should be EQUAL size and shape. Arrive at the end of your serpentine with the SAME rhythm that you started in.
B. Square Serpentine
(image only shows how to make your corners, does not necessarily follow the instructions below)
- Ride the above pattern again, except in the place of rounded loops, make box turns across the arena.
- Begin at A in working jog traveling right.
- Between K and E, ride a square turn to the right.
- Proceed straight across the arena to the opposite rail.
- Turn left and ride straight down the rail.
- Half way between B and M, ride a square turn left and again ride straight across the arena.
- At the opposite rail, turn right and proceed along the rail.
C. 5-Loop Serpentines
- Again begin at A in a working walk or jog, tracking right.
- Begin a 5-loop serpentine. If you are in a standard large dressage arena, this means each loop will be like riding half of a 12-meter circle…
- … then proceed straight for 2-3 strides while you change your horse’s bend. Then begin a new 12-meter half circle the new direction.
- Carry on like this until you arrive at the end of the arena at C, having ridden 5 equal sized loops.
- Be sure that each loop touches the track of the arena.
Remember to support your horse with your outside leg during each turn or loop. Many riders struggle to create an adequate bend with their horses due to not getting their own outside leg far enough back and against the horse during the moment of the turn. Think of your outside leg like a guardrail. It keeps the horse’s haunches aligned, maintains his momentum and defines the amount of bend or sharpness of turn you want.
Western Dressage Exercise – Lope Paperclip
This week’s exercise is a good shake-up to the usual routine of circles and straight lines we often get stuck in. It is an exercise that I like to call a double whammy because it improves the horse’s performance as well as the rider’s aids and effectiveness. Quite simply, if the rider is out of balance or weak with her aids, the pattern will not work. Also, if the horse’s lope is suffering from lack of impulsion, roundness, or uphill balance this exercise will be a challenge. But it is a good challenge, I should add, because it will lead to a more balanced lope, one where the horse is squarely under the rider’s seat instead of rushing out the front or bulging to one side. I have seen this exercise brighten up many horses’ lopes. By that, I mean I have seen it create more clearly defined steps and a slower cadence from lopes that were otherwise not very lovely to begin with.
For the sake of accurate riding it helps to have access to an arena with a fence or wall around the perimeter. These visible, solid corners give riders the target and boundaries needed to execute this pattern without morphing it into an entirely different shape, which often happens when riders have too much open space to work in. When that happens, the figure is not serving its gymnastic purpose. In the absence of a fence, though, you can set up corners for yourself with ground poles, cones, or even a dusting of flour on the sand.
Before we begin, I want to quickly review the rider’s position while in the lope. Especially when riding figures that involve any sort of turning and bending while loping¸ the rider must keep her outside leg behind her inside leg. It should remain slightly further back in order to guide the horse’s outside hind leg– which is the propulsive leg and driving force—straight under the horse’s body, to act as a guardrail preventing the haunches from swinging outward.
- Begin in a working lope tracking right. At A, ride a 15-meter circle to establish your rhythm.
- Then ride a horse’s length past K and turn across the arena diagonally. You will be aiming for the corner between C and M. Aim to arrive at the rail just past C.
- Turn right to ride through the corner between C and M.
- Then at M, turn back across the diagonal to return to K. Aim for the corner between A and K.
- Your figure should look like a paperclip. Please note that you DO NOT change your lead on this exercise; it is NOT a direction change. You are simply loping from corner to corner, making a tight bend (while maintaining your lead) at each corner.
Western Dressage Exercise – Five Daily Essentials
A cornerstone of dressage is the requirement for your horse to carry himself in a particular posture, one that demands and increases the strength and flexibility of his back, topline, and abdominals. Unfortunately, achieving this posture while under saddle is where most riders get stuck and frustrated.
To help speed the journey along as you embark on dressage training, I have developed a mini-conditioning plan, what I call my Five Daily Essentials. It is made up of five basic exercises that will help get your horse’s body fit and prepared for what you’ll be cuing him to do under saddle. You will get the most benefit it you commit to doing these exercises daily. And truthfully there is no excuse for skipping them since they require less than five minutes of your time. Trust me, these simple exercises will help your horse’s training as much as anything you do under saddle.
1. Backing Up, 30+ steps
Equine chiropractors and body workers agree that backing up is one of the most important exercises that a rider can do with her horse. Walking backwards improves a horse’s overall strength and suppleness. When done properly with the horse in a low neck position, it puts the same demands on a horse as sit-ups or crunches do for humans. Backing up requires the horse to firm up and engage his stomach and back muscles while simultaneously stretching is hamstrings. Further, backing up causes the horse’s lumbar sacral area to swing back and forth in the way it needs to stay loose.
Aim to back your horse up 30 steps consecutively each day before you get on. If you’re already backing up regularly, add an uphill slope to your routine.
2. Wither rocking
Asking your horse to round his back and topline relies on his spine being loose enough for him to do so. Even with correct training and exceptional care, horses develop tension and restriction in their neck/shoulder/withers junction. With this simple maneuver daily, you can prevent this inevitable restriction that might otherwise lead to shortened strides, loss of impulsion, and trouble bending. Rocking the horse’s withers daily helps maintain looseness in the horse’s spine and rib connection.
To do this, rest your hands on top of your horse’s withers at the highest point. Now make gentle motions back and forth to rock the withers from side to side. Start with small movements, and go slowly so your horse can relax into it and not feel like you’re trying to push him over. Rock back and forth 10 times or more, as long as your horse is enjoying it. Once he begins to relax in to it, you will see his head and rump waggling side to side as you bring motion to his spine. This is a good indication of looseness.
3. Pelvic Tuck
Most equine body workers today will agree that the single most helpful thing we can do for our horse’s performance is to ask him to do the horse equivalent of sit-ups. This is done by asking him to tuck his pelvis deeply while standing squarely without a rider on his back. Not only does this stretch the longissimus dorsi—the horse’s largest muscle, but it also tones up his psoas muscles deep within his abdomen and stimulates flexion in his sacrum. These are all critical ingredients for collection and proper movement in dressage.
Stand behind the horse and find a point midway between the point of hip and the sacrum that is responsive to you pressing in against it. For some horses, this is right at the top of the poverty groove. Press down firmly with either your thumb or middle finger (you may need to use your fingernail to initiate a good response). You should see your horse’s lower back hunch upwards and the dock of his tail meanwhile drop lower. If your horse is not sensitive to a firm touch, try using two pen caps. Obviously you will want to make sure your horse does not over-react with you standing behind him, though. Do three pelvis tucks per session.
4. Side Stretches (commonly called ‘carrot stretches’)
Interestingly, almost all riders can enumerate the benefits of daily side stretches, yet a teeny percentage of them actually perform them consistently. These maneuvers are too valuable to be avoided and too quick to skip over. So do your horse a favor and make them part of your routine while grooming or un-saddling. Doing so will create more flexibility on his spine, tone up his hip stabilizing muscles, and encourage abdominal lifting.
In fact, these simple maneuvers have been proven to increase strength in the small connective muscles of the horse’s spine which we otherwise would not be able to access with precision. Greater tone in these highly innervated cybernetic muscles leads to better spinal stabilization and ease of carrying a rider and rounding the back. Studies have shown that by doing these Carrot Stretches three times per day, horses were able to maintain topline strength and suppleness, even when not ridden for periods of time!
Ask your horse to stand still and square. Then use a cookie or carrot piece to lead his nose around to his flank. Give him the treat slowly, trying to keep him in a stretched position for 3-5 seconds. His feet should remain immobile while reaching back to take the treat. Execute on both sides at least twice daily.
5. Walking ground poles
This is something you have already heard me endorse if you read this blog. So, just a short recap: walking your horse over ground poles allows the horse’s sacral region to rock side to side, thereby loosening his whole spine. Few other exercises except backing up and riding down hills have the same effect. Top dressage riders have been using walking warm-ups over ground poles for decades because of its benefit for equine athletes. Place at least five (or as many as 8) ground poles on the ground parallel to each other. The poles should be placed approximately three feet apart—the distance of your horse’s average walk stride length. Mount up and walk your horse on a loose rein over these poles at least 10 times.