Why do we ride arena figures?
Arena figures (or school figures) are a set of movements that are ridden in a dressage arena and make up the basis of all dressage test movements. But even if you are never going to ride a dressage test, riding arena figures gives structure to your training sessions by giving you a set of exercises that benefit both you and your horse.
Riding arena figures correctly helps develop lateral flexibility, suppleness, balance and straightness in your horse. Straightness means that a horse is straight on straight lines and bent on bending lines. Riding arena figures accurately will also help your horse become ambidextrous, meaning he can bend as easily to the right as he does to the left (bend refers to the horse’s lateral bend through the ribcage). Furthermore, riding arena figures develops obedience and responsiveness to the rider’s aids and helps assess both your horse’s training level as well as your own skill level.
The 20-metre circle
The 20-metre circle is usually the first school figure taught to novice riders and green or young horses. It is the most basic dressage movement and also the most important training figure as it is a great test of the horse’s suppleness and the rider’s ability to keep the horse between the aids.
The 20-metre circle fits into both a small (20x40 metre) as well as a standard (20x60 metre) dressage arena and allows the rider to use the letters on the arena walls to determine if the circle is the correct size and shape.
The 20-metre circle should always be round, not egg-shaped or pear-shaped or oval. This means that the circle touches each arena wall, or point on center line, only at a single point, for no more than one or two strides. There are no straight lines on a circle.
Sounds simple, doesn’t it? But riding a perfect circle takes a lot of practice. There are two aspects to riding the circle: how the horse is being ridden on a bending line as well as how the figure itself is being ridden geometrically.
A good way to start is by placing cones around the circle as visual reference, starting out at a school letter (e.g. A or C), which gives the rider an exact place to start and finish the circle. We prefer to mark the four quadrants of the circle. So if you’re starting out at A or C, your second reference point is a point on the wall four metres past the corner letter, not the corner letter itself. The third reference point is the spot where the rider crosses the centreline. The fourth reference point is on the other long side, four metres before the corner letter. A good tip to riding an accurate 20-metre circle is to always look toward the next reference point. Looking too far around the circle can cause your weight to shift to the inside and the horse to want to fall into the circle.
This four-year-old mare is learning correct alignment on a 20 m circle and shows a lovely degree of bend while the rider maintains correct position.
When a horse is travelling on a circle, it should be bending into the direction of the circle, with his body equally bent through his entire body from poll to tail, and his inside hind leg more engaged. In order to ride a horse on a bending line, the rider must know how to bend the horse correctly. For example, if you are riding a circle to the left, your aids should be as follows:
- Weight your inside (left) seat bone to encourage the horse to engage his inside hind leg. Draw your left hip back slightly and allow your right hip to move forward.
-Put your inside (left) leg at the cinch, asking your horse to bend around it as well as to maintain the activity of his inside hind leg. Place your outside (right) leg about one to two inches behind the cinch to prevent the horse’s hindquarters from swinging out.
-Gently ask for flexion to the inside with your inside (left) rein. This rein should remain slightly off the neck and you should just see your horse’s inside eye and nostril. Your outside (right) rein is your supporting rein and needs to be kept steady in order to limit the degree of bend in the horse’s neck. The outside rein also helps turning your horse’s shoulders in and should be closer to the neck. The smaller the circle, the more the outside rein will be needed to turn the horse’s shoulders.
In order to bend and turn a horse correctly, we need both inside and outside aids to work together, with your inside aids bending the horse and your outside aids turning him.
It is important to remember that while riding a circle you should always be turning your body from your centre (core), while your eyes are tracing the line of the circle a few strides ahead of the horse toward the next point on the circle. Every dressage test will have circles so make this a part of your regular practice.
This picture shows the inside rein off slightly off the next, outside rein lightly on the neck, with the rider's body running in the direction of the circle.
Photo Credit: Rebecca Wieben Photography
Lisa Wieben is a Level 2 Centered Riding Instructor, Chris Irwin Platinum Certified Trainer, and Equine Canada Western Competition Coach. She works with youth, adult amateurs and professionals as well as teaching a local 4H club at her facility near Bowden, AB. Western and English dressage has become her main focus, but many of her students compete in open competitions as well as obstacle challenges. Lisa has also added Somatics to help her students maintain and create further body awareness as it works to release muscle patterns in the body brought on by stress, injuries, surgeries, and repetitive movements that can be work related. Getting riders in correct balance helps horses develop correct balance. www.mountainviewtrainingstables.com
Birgit Stutz is a Chris Irwin Gold Certified Trainer and Coach and offers horse training, riding lessons, clinics, workshops, camps for kids and adults, as well as working student and mentorship programs at Falling Star Ranch in Dunster, BC. Birgit’s passion is to help humans have a better relationship with their horses through understanding of equine psychology and body language as well as fundamental riding skills based on classical dressage. www.fallingstarranch.ca.