Arena Geometry
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So just how accurate do I need to be, anyway?

Please don't be misled. Accuracy is not everything.

At home

When you're working at home you should always try to be as accurate as possible. You have to balance accuracy, however, against your horse's development and training. A new movement performed well is better than a new movement performed poorly at a letter.

That is to say, when a horse is first learning a new movement or figure, accuracy will suffer. It's like any other learning process: you start out awkward and end up good. When you were learning to play the piano or throw a ball, you were not expected from the beginning to hit the right keys or the strike zone every time. But as you became more practiced, you worked for more accuracy. Yet you tried to balance that accuracy with power, rhythm and sensitivity. Riding is no different.

Horses are always looking for the easiest way to perform. This is not to say that horses cheat -- they are for the most part incredibly generous. But they don't necessarily understand that there's a better or more correct way to perform a gait or movement. They're just as happy to go crooked and uneven, especially if they've always gone that way.

Requiring accuracy is a good way to ensure correct straightness and evenness. Can you ride the centerline or quarterline without drifting? Can you return to the rail at the same spot you left when riding a circle? Can you perform a transition at a letter? If so, you're well on your way to improving your horse's carriage and physique.

At the shows

In dressage competition, where you are required to perform specific movements at specific places in the arena, your scores will suffer if you're careless about your arena geometry. On the other hand, your scores will also suffer if you sacrifice balance, rhythm and brilliance for the sake of a deep corner or a square turn. Your ride should resemble a beautiful dance -- an accurate but mechanical, lifeless ride is not the goal of a good dressage rider.

However, I firmly believe that you do your horse a disservice if you only require accuracy at the shows. Your poor horse -- who never asked to go to this show in the first place! -- has enough to deal with: new surroundings, new feeding and riding schedules, new footing, new stabling. You can't control those changes, but you can control the way you ride. To ask your horse to suddenly produce a new level of accuracy because you're at a show only compounds his discomfort.

If you ride accurately at home, your horse will not be disconcerted by accuracy at the shows. You don't necessarily need to drill entire dressage tests, but you should try to put together series of movements. And practice being accurate for 5 to 10 minutes at a stretch -- the length of an average dressage test. 

* * *

How can you practice riding accurately if you don't have your very own dressage arena?

Secure a good meter tape or measuring tape. If you're not familiar with the metric measuring system, use the following conversion chart. If you're setting an arena for competition purposes, be exact -- it's particularly important to be exact if you're practicing or performing musical freestyles. If you're just walking off an arena to use for practice, and, like me, thinking in thousands of an inch makes your brain hurt, you can use the "close enough" approximations:

Metric Conversions
Metric Exact
(thousands of an inch, amirite?)
Close enough
6 meters 19.685 feet 19.5 feet
12 meters 39.3701 feet 39 feet
14 meters 45.9318 feet 46 feet
20 meters 65.6168 feet 65.5 feet
40 meters 131.234 feet 131 feet
60 meters 196.85 feet 197 feet

Find 8 (10 or 12 is even better) jump poles, landscape ties, 4x4s, or other reasonably straight poles. Make sure that, whatever you use, it won't splinter, break, or entrap your horse if he steps on it.

Go to a sporting goods store and buy at least 12 of those little cones used for soccer practice -- ahem, DO NOT steal traffic cones off the highway! If you can't find cones, save up your old plastic milk jugs. You can fill them with sand to keep them from blowing over.

You can use your cones in two ways: as circle point markers for your arena letters, or as steering guides for reprises, repetitive gymnastic exercises that will work magic.

Set up your own arena, using your arena diagrams. If you don't have room to build an entire large arena, try to at least build a 20m x 20m end -- this will give you room to practice corners and circles.

Now go out there and ride accurately! You'll be pleasantly surprised. I promise.

Dressage arena diagrams

Dressage arena "map"

Circle points

20 meter circles

15 meter circles

10 meter circles


Corners and half-circles

Okay, so just how accurate do I have to be?