This summer I started teaching at Pony Clubs and it was the first time I`d really taught outside of an arena. Well, we used dressage letters, but it was in a big open field. I was quite impressed with how good the ponies were. I guess, they are used to the procedure and are in a big group, so will be more settled. Most of these kids would also compete, so the ponies would go out to shows and be used to working on grass.
When you think about it really, how many times as an aspiring rider, particularly in a riding school, do we ride outside the four fences of an arena. You may go on hacks regularly. But lets face it these are quite regimented – we canter up this hill … we trot along this path. Yes, it`s all weather dependent, but the horses know which gait is required on each route, particularly if you have limited hacking.
In the school riding school clients can be quite regimented, with their instructors telling them where to go and at what speed. I like to introduce independent riding fairly early – sometimes it`s a simple statement “change the rein however you like”, or “start riding some 20m circles at different points of the school”, but I like it to progress so that the riders are more aware of others in lessons or of how the movements help their horse warm up and improve their way of going. Last week I even used the long arena, which threw a few clients off balance as they had to work out how circles fitted into the longer arena.
When we were younger we used to have cross country lessons in the field and I can remember the first few cross country lessons I pretty much trotted around the edge of the warm up area, following the horse in front. As I grew in confidence I began to ride the odd circle, which progressed to more circles and even included the odd transition! It was good for us because we had to think for ourselves, and not rely on letters and fences to help. The horses were much more forward going in the cross country field, and it added a new dimension to riding – suddenly my kick along dobbin was a fire breathing dragon!
Now I enjoy riding in the school completely ignoring the letters and track – this is best done in our 60m x 40m arena as there is plenty of space, but it mimics riding in an open space when the ground isn`t suitable. Riding in a field, or warming up at competitions in a field, is also great because you engage the feeling part of your brain, to feel what is right rather than compare it to the track or letter or fence. I think it improves your awareness of your horse and how correctly they are moving.
At what point does riding in an open space become easy? I guess it depends on your terrain and horse, as well as your ability. As a rider you need to think about the effects of the terrain (don`t have that first canter on the downhill side!) or the location of a tree stump, which could be a useful focal point for spiralling circles, and which areas tend to stay the driest. The horse needs to not get overly excited when given a large field to work in, and the less spooky the better, as there is much more wildlife to jump out at you. They need to be sure footed, but that improves with practice. The rider needs to be careful that they still keep their horse focused, by riding various school movements and keeping the pony on their toes, particularly if the pony is thinking about their next canter opportunity. The biggest problem I find is that the first time people ride in a field the horse is overly excited, and the rider overly nervous, which is usually a recipe for disaster. Each time they leave the arena the rider should grow in confidence, and the horse learn what level of excitement is acceptable.
Even the most sedate riding school horse will find fifth gear when schooled in a field. The lack of boundaries and the excitement of a potential canter will put them on their toes and they will become more sensitive to the leg and less attentive. I do think it takes a special sort of horse or pony to be quietly schooled in a large open space.
Really, if you look back at the horse world, fifty years ago everyone had horses in the field behind their house and rode round one corner of it, rarely setting foot in a ménage. This was the norm, so horses tended to be quieter and more relaxed about the procedure, while riders were more used to using environmental markers to ride around and subsequently were more in control. Now horses, particularly riding school horses, go into the arena for an hour a day and drilled in school movements. They see a field and associate it with a good canter or a round of cross country, so become excitable.
It makes you wonder how much our dressage would improve if we schooled regularly on grass. The horses wouldn`t lean on the fence, they would be more sure footed, fresher when they go back into the arena, and more interested in their work, which subsequently produces better work and hopefully improving marks!
Does that mean that when looking at keeping a horse we shouldn`t worry about an arena? It would be a lot cheaper if we didn`t. But what happens if you lose your nerve? Or you are riding again after giving your horse a few weeks off? Or what about winter, when the ground is sodden. Years ago, there was ample land so you could pick a fresh, unpoached area every week, but now there is such pressure on land to be utilised this isn`t a viable option. For those happy hackers or fair weather riders who rarely ride in winter, facilities don`t need to be all-weather, twenty-four-seven. However, I still think it is a good idea to ask around and find out where the nearest arena is to your horse`s field, be it a livery yard or a rich neighbour, and make an arrangement that if necessary you can hire it. This then gives you and your horse the option of riding in a school for a change. You can then use the arena to fine tune your dressage test, or for a lesson or to lunge your horse.
Going back to the title of this blog. I think a lot of horse riders, particularly in the UK, are institutionalised. They are most confident riding in an arena, with a horse who knows their boundaries and doesn`t push their rider. With the recent focus on good bridleways, more people are hacking out and getting used to riding in the open, but there is very little time spent riding a horse in a proactive, focused way in the open. I think this means that riders are less confident in controlling their horse in an open space, which could be detrimental to the safety of both, or the enjoyment of the ride as a whole. I`m not saying let`s forget about arenas and let the foxes dig holes in them, but I think it would be nice if livery yards or riding schools had a grass arena or regularly took lessons outside of the ménage. Obviously this is weather dependent, and we all know how reliable the British summer is!