Exercises for a Small Arena

Jennifer Williams provides beneficial exercises for riding in small arenas.

Exercises ridden on a 20-meter circle can develop adjustability and elasticity in your horse.

Q: Which Exercises Can I Ride in a Small Arena?

Our riding arena is small, and sometimes I am confined to riding on a 20-meter circle. What are good exercises to practice in such a small space? My horse and I are schooling Second and Third Level.
Name withheld by request

Jennifer Williams

A: When I first started riding and training, I often had to work in areas the size of a 20-meter circle due to footing issues in certain parts of the arena. There are some good exercises you can use to develop adjustability and elasticity in your horse even in a smaller space. The following are some exercises I find helpful at most any stage in your horse’s training, but especially when he is beginning to pursue a higher degree of collection in Second to Third Levels. I have included three exercises I use on a regular basis. 

When working and riding my horses, I am always looking to make them more responsive and more elastic, but most of all, more adjustable. The first exercise I employ for developing the adjustability is trot–canter transitions. Ask for a specific number of trot and canter strides on a 20-meter circle. Try riding eight canter strides followed by eight trot strides throughout the circle, repeating that sequence until you are able to just think about the transition in order to execute it. You would be amazed at how aware you become with the slightest delay in the responsiveness your horse offers. 

One of the problems you might encounter is that your horse is delayed with the downward transition. You may have to start the process for that transition to trot on stride number four to execute it in time by stride number eight, and so on. You can then play with the number of strides to increase or decrease your horse’s attentiveness. Instead of eight strides in between the transition, change it to six or even four strides. By reducing the number of strides in between transitions on duller horses, you are able to quicken their response time.

If your horse is hot and takes over at the thought of a new transition, he may benefit from a higher number of strides in between transitions: say 15 trot, 15 canter, 15 trot strides until you decide he is respectful and waiting for your next request. This also helps your horse to be able to relax in between each transition. The objective is to figure out what stride count works for you in order to get in tune with the timing of your aids. You should feel that your horse is being honest with the timing and that you are not working harder to execute the aids effectively. 

The second exercise I recommend to improve the adjustability of your horse is tempo changes. This builds on the transition exercise and can be done on a 20-meter circle as well. Develop a big, forward canter in those first eight strides. Make sure your horse is really pushing from behind and offering a response that feels forward and attentive to the leg. When that is achieved, follow it up by developing eight collected strides of canter until your horse is transferring weight back onto his hind legs and compressing his body.

Ask yourself if you are able to get true collection happening within the first two strides of your collected eight strides. This might not happen right away. It is likely to take the entire eight-stride portion to obtain your goal of truly transferring the weight back to the horse’s hind legs. You also want to feel that your horse compresses and lightens in the hand simultaneously. As he becomes more aware of your body language, he will begin to respond within a shorter amount of time. Continue to repeat until your horse is truly sitting, compressing and soft in your hand. Then you can move him more quickly forward and check the response again from your leg, keeping him forward for the next eight strides. 

When asking for tempo changes in the trot, ride a medium trot for eight steps, then try to collect your horse by incorporating a shoulder-in for eight steps rather than just pulling the horse back into a more shortened step or frame. Here you work to keep the rhythm of the trot in place while incorporating the shoulder-in, all while helping your horse transfer his weight back and more underneath his body. 

What I love about these exercises is they can be ridden for as long as needed on the circle until you are satisfied with the result. Continue with the exercise until you feel you are able to clearly count the number of strides of either a more collected gait or a more powerful, forward gait. 

The last exercise I enjoy when working in a smaller space is to create a simple square. This can be executed at walk, trot and canter, and it is always surprising to students how difficult it is to create four straight sides. Not only do I try to emphasize the straightness on each of my four sides, but also try to execute a very crisp corner. In the beginning, I tell myself I must complete my turn from one straight line to the next straight line within three or four strides. Then, by the end, I want to be able to touch the outside rein maintaining my inside-leg connection and be able to execute a simple, crisp turn within two strides before going onto my next straight line. 

Give these exercises a try. They give you some real homework on helping your horse become more adjustable, supple and responsive. They can be a bit of fun added to your mundane everyday circle, improve your timing and clarity of the aids all while helping your horse improve his strength and balance as he moves up the levels. 

Jennifer Williams is a USDF gold medalist and has competed at the CDI Grand Prix level. Her current mount, HS Wrevolution, is competing at the Intermediate level and schooling Grand Prix. Along with her team, she runs Summervale Premier Dressage, a training and sales operation in Roy, Washington (

Credit: Mary Cornelius






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