Exercises in the arena are an excellent way of consolidating the riding skills you have already learnt. You can improve your control and steering by working in rides and by practising simple turns and circles.
When your pony first comes out of the stable, he may be a little stiff. Treat him like an athlete and warm him up gradually at the beginning of a lesson. Walk for several minutes before you start trotting and trot for a while before cantering. There is no rule to say how long you should work in each gait: you must try to ‘feel’ when your pony is ready to move on.
As a guide, if it is a cold day and your pony is fresh, it is better to trot on earlier. If not, stay in walk until he is moving freely and you can tell he is ‘listening’ to your aids.
Working in rides
One of the problems of riding in a group is that your pony becomes too automatic. He learns the exercises quickly by copying the other ponies in the class, so he doesn’t bother to listen to his rider. Working ‘by rides’ helps to overcome this. It involves splitting up from the group and riding in opposite directions.
Start by riding in single file up the centre of the arena. The first rider then goes left, the second right, the third left and so on. This helps get your pony’s attention and also helps you ride to a good rhythm and control the speed of your pony. Imagine the chaos if half the ride went faster than the other half. You could end up with the riding-school equivalent of a motorway pile-up! There is a ‘rule’ to stop this happening.
When you meet a rider coming toward you, always pass left hand to left hand to avoid collision. This simply means going to the right, leaving the oncoming rider to your left.
Round in circles
When you are happy that your pony is properly warmed up and concentrating on the work in hand, you can progress to more advanced exercises.
Start off by riding ‘large’ round the arena, Which means all the way around the outside track. Then move on to 20m (66ft) circles. Use half the arena at a time either at one end or in the middle. Remember that a circle is round, without corners, so you should be riding smoothly and evenly in a regular rhythm.
Whatever you do on one rein, repeat the same exercise on the other rein before moving on to something more difficult. Complete the 20m (66ft) circle on both reins, and in walk and trot, then go on to 15m (50ft) circles.
Changing the rein
Once you and the pony are moving well, you are ready to try riding figures of eight. Changing the rein across the diagonal is not demanding for the pony but is a good test of your control.
Make the two ends of the figure eight the same shape as 20m (66ft) circles. This means that for two or three strides you will be riding across the school on the E-B line through X. This is the time to change the bend, still keeping a smooth, steady rhythm: no quickening! It is a useful suppling exercise and will help you get used to changing your aids from left to right.
You can build up from this exercise to riding a three-loop serpentine. Each loop goes to the side of the arena and is ridden like a half circle. The dressage arena is usually 40m (132ft) long, so this means that each half circle is about 13m (42ft) in diameter.
Improving your skills
The slower your pony moves, the easier it is to make small circles. A 10m (33ft) circle in walk, a 15m (50ft) circle in trot and a 20m (66ft) circle in canter are about the same degree of difficulty. So once you can ride smaller circles in walk, you can ask for smaller circles at faster paces.
Half circles are easier and can be combined with a change of rein – but only in walk and trot to start with. If you can ride a good 15m (50ft) circle in trot, then you should be able to manage a 10m (33ft) half circle and return to the track on a straight diagonal line. Technically, this is called a half circle and change.
When practising school figures, remember the basic guidelines for turns and circles. Your aids must be applied correctly so that the pony knows what to do. The most common mistakes are caused by riders applying too much rein pressure or the wrong leg aid.
Sensitive hands are important to good riding. With too much inside rein, the pony turns his head in and this makes his shoulder fall outward, spoiling the smooth curve you are aiming for. If you apply too much outside rein, the opposite happens: the pony has to turn his head out so that his shoulder now falls in on the curve.
Your leg aids are just as important. The pony may try to avoid bending along his length by quickening and shortening his steps and by falling in on the circle or trying to use a bigger circuit. Keep your inside leg against the girth to prevent this. Use your outside leg to keep his quarters in line with the curve.
Finally, keep your hips and shoulders square to the horse’s shoulders. If you lean into the circle the horse may do the same and fall in toward the centre.