A Dressage Trainer with No Arena?
Everything about the possibility of running my dressage business from this property suited me perfectly—big pastures, access to trails, trailer parking. Or I should say everything except one glaring absence: an arena. A usable ring with good footing sat in the back of the property but in addition to being pretty tiny it was a round circle. It struck me more as an area to longe horses rather than attempt dressage workouts.
I stared at it while pondering a year without defined corners or long diagonal lines to practice trot extensions. Yet, without clear answers for how we could fare as a dressage business without a proper arena, I leapt with faith in to this facility. That initial trial year flew by, became two, and then what I’m hoping is permanent residence. Two things happened when I moved in to our lovely serene facility in Larkin Valley that has led to this hope. First, the horses became happier and healthier than ever. Second, I thrived as a dressage trainer without a dressage arena. This absence, and its unexpected benefits, has sharpened my daily focus, allowed me to fully embrace cross-training, and opened my eyes to some new ideas along the way. It’s these ideas I want to share here since I know many of you readers have also creatively overcome challenges to training environments.
First, as I became more creative using any available area (field, driveway, paddock) for schooling, I got a while lot more at ease with working with unseasoned horses outside the arena. This in turn helped me convey a better sense of confidence to them. During the previous years when I spent an intensive amount of time in the arena, I grew a little apprehensive of all the distractions and excitement outside the fenced world. That of course perpetuated me spending more and more time in the arena and less outside. Now as I viewed our entire property, not just the tiny round ring, as one big schooling area, these boundaries between the safe confines of arena and the world outside dissolved.
Next, I tractored up a 400-meter track in our front pasture. The footing is not perfect, but suitable enough for moving the horses out at speed. Unexpectedly, I fell in love with riding on that track. My dressage horses enjoyed gallops and long forward stretches of trot. Pretty soon, I realized that they were staying fresher and energetic even during hard work weeks. In dressage it can be tempting to go in the arena every day to fiddle around trying to perfect one or another skill. Between not having a formal arena, and now enjoying so much freedom of movement on the track, I was avoiding the repetitive schooling that dulls many horses. With my assorted schooling areas including trails, we were living and breathing my fondness for cross-training and for utilizing varied footing surfaces.
Another unanticipated outcome of being a dressage trainer with no arena has been entering a tight-knit horse community. My neighbor down the block allows me to ride over and use his big beautiful arena when I wish, which involves a brief warm-up jaunt down the road while planning my schooling session. Not only do I enjoy Bobby’s groomed arena, but I also savor the feeling of being connected to a wider horse community than just my own barn and always thinking about how we can help each other out. After all, our industry is more sustainable and healthier for this kind of teamwork.
And, lastly, being without a formal arena forces me to stay laser focused in my training. For instance, when I enter our small round ring with a plan to work on something specific, I get right to it and abide by a cut-off time which is usually 30 minutes. I refuse to drill horses around and around on circles or in small areas, so I give myself a time limit for each day’s formal schooling, after which I’ll ride elsewhere on the property for additional exercise but not for drilling or tinkering around with dressage maneuvers.
My horses’ training has progressed at a pleasing rate, which shows me all those years of fixated schooling for hours at a time inside an arena could have been trimmed to save the horse from repetitive movement. So, how about you? I’m interested to hear what kinds of insights you may have had in regards to your schooling environments as dictated by weather, facility limitations, or anything else. Perhaps you have experienced similar insights? Or maybe you have additional ones to share?
Score Your Horse’s Body Posture
Optimizing how a horse uses his body often relies on making the most of every chance you can observe him. For me, training plans benefit enormously from noting how horses stand at the grooming area and while roaming around the pasture. This can be the purest time to evaluate how they are using their bodies during a given phase of training or life. It allows me to maintain an on-going report for how they seem to be doing or where I might need to shift the emphasis of their training.
I’ve noticed, too, that as students start this practice, they manage to be more consistently engaged in their horses’ development. Without relying on a trainer’s feedback, they start to determine if/when their horses are moving well. For the sake of simplicity, I encourage students to scan through a four-point checklist during these moments of evaluation. Indeed, there are plenty of nuances you can add to the following checklist if you are so inclined. But this simple outline below will give you a good report card for your horse’s current body postural health, use of his joints, muscular recruitment.
Here are the four questions I ask each day observing equine athletes: Is his topline and bottom line appearing equally muscled?, where is he carrying his head/neck, where is he carrying his thorax?, where are his hind legs?
Generally, by asking these questions, you will arrive automatically at some ideas of exercises and tools to apply during your next few rides, since you will have identified areas of his posture that may or may not need focus. A little further fleshing out of these points follows.
- Symmetry of Muscling Between Top Line and Bottom Line of Horse. The horse’s extensor muscle chain (all the muscles above his spine) and his flexor muscle chain (muscles below his spine, including quadriceps, shoulders, etc.) should have the same amount of tone and development. This balance of muscling allows for harmony and ease of movement in various gymnastic tasks, especially gait transitions, lateral movements, and extending/collecting the horse’s stride. Stand back and look to see if your horse appears to carry similar amounts of tone/muscling along the top and bottom of his body.
- Where Is his Head/Neck? Look at the horse standing and also in motion. Where is his preferred head and neck carriage? Does he prefer to carry it high or low? Tilted to one side? An ideal natural posture is a neutral alignment with the neck sloping outward from the shoulder with poll and withers on more or less a level plane and the head carried in the midline of the body, not twisted off to one side.
- Where is His Thorax?. Note how your horse carries his belly and back when he is standing or moving around on his own. Does he appear to engage his abdomen and walk regally like a big cat prowling? Or does he appear “saggy” in the belly and dipped downwards in his back? Does it look like his torso is held static like a motionless block or that movement flows through it, that it swings freely?
- Where are his Hind Legs? Again look at your horse both standing and in motion, and note where he places his hind legs. When he is standing, does he splay his legs out behind him? Or stand with them drawn forward under his body? When you ride transitions, does it look like his hind legs are trailing out behind him? What about his toes—does he drag them in the sand? Or are his hind joints flexing well? How about each hind leg individually? Does it look like he weights each one equally while at rest and while moving?