Arena exercises to make your schooling more fun

Arena exercises to make your schooling more fun

Misty Kale

Does the thought of doing more arena exercises have you and your horse bored and falling asleep at the rail? Do you struggle with knowing what to work on when you have the arena to yourself? If so, here are 10 basic arena exercises that will be a breath of fresh air to your usual routine and get you moving.

With these exercises you can increase or decrease the level of difficulty and skill needed. You will also improve your horse’s responsiveness, suppleness, and muscle tone, plus polish your own horsemanship skills. To add even more interest, combine two or more of the exercises together.

TO GET THE MOST OUT OF THESE EXERCISES:

Be sure to always ride each exercise in both directions.

Use your inside leg at the cinch to bend your horse on circles and through turns, and your inside rein to tip his nose in the direction of travel. Use your outside leg just behind the cinch, plus your outside rein against his neck to reinforce his bending. Use your leg at or just behind the cinch and the same-side rein against your horse’s neck to ask for lateral movement. 

Work to make your cues as light and subtle as possible.

Look ahead to where you’re going (not down at your horse or at the ground).

The Basic 8 

Make a figure eight, using the straight line of the center (marked X) to change your horse’s bend before heading in the new direction. 

This exercise improves your ability to bend your horse, guide him precisely, and keep him straight between your reins (“straight” on a circle, meaning bent to the curve of the circle). This encourages him to bend equally both ways and stay attentive to your steering. 

Focus on keeping your circles round and equal in size. Pay attention to the amount of rein and leg needed to get the right bend. Add a cone at the arena’s center for a visual cue. 

 

Big Circle/ Little Circle

Go down the long side of your arena, making a smallish circle in one corner, then a larger circle in the diagonally opposite corner. 

This enhances your ability to bend your horse to varying degrees. 

This will increase your horses suppleness thanks to the smaller circle and teaches him to balance on circles of varying sizes.

Choose “landmarks” around the arena to help you circle at the right point for the correct size circles. 

To change it up, vary which corners you ride the small and large circles in. Make it more challenging by varying your speed, or canter the large circle and trot the small one.

Loopy B 

Go down the long side, turning the corner as if to make a circle, but instead angle back to the rail. Go straight a stride or two at the rail, then angle back out and circle around toward your starting point. 

This improves your precision in bending and straightening your horse. 

Prompts him to “listen” rather than assume he’s to make a full circle; if you two-track him (using your outside leg and rein to move him laterally back to the rail in a forward and sideways motion called a side pass), it improves his lateral flexibility. 

Try to make each end of the loop the same size and shape. 

Keep it simple by staying at a walk and trot. Make it more challenging by riding it at a canter and changing leads on the straight line in the center. Up the ante at any gait by using your outside leg and rein to move your horse laterally into a side pass back to the rail.

Snaky Serpentine 

Make a series of connected S’s back and forth across the width of your arena. 

This forces you to focus on each new turning point, changing your rein and leg cues at each change in direction; really sharpens your horse-bending skills. 

This will Improve his lightness and flexibility as he bends, changes direction, and listens to your cues. 

Try to make each loop the same size and shape. 

Keep it simple by making only two or three loops. Up the ante by making four or five narrower loops. This exercise is very challenging at the canter, where you must repeatedly change leads on each straight line, or ask your horse to counter-canter (cantering on the “wrong” lead) around every other loop.

Off-the-Rail Rectangle

Rather than staying directly on the rail, ride a parallel path, about 8 to 10 feet to the inside of it. 

This teaches you to keep your horse straight between the reins—with no rail to guide or support you or him. 

It teaches your horse to rely on your cues, rather than “coasting” on the rail. 

Start at a walk, then move to a trot, then canter. 

Make it more challenging by varying your speed along the straightaways.

Spiral

Move from the outside of a large circle to the smallest circle possible by spiraling in toward the center; then spiral back out.

Improves your horse' bending and collection, plus his responsiveness to your outside leg and rein (to spiral in) and your inside leg and rein (to spiral out); keep him supple and limber and engaged behind. 

Focus on maintaining a consistent speed. 

This is challenging at any gait; stay at a walk until you get the hang of it, before attempting it at a trot or canter.

Longways Serpentine

Make a serpentine the length of the arena, rather than across the width. At the X, “do something”—stop; perform a maneuver (side pass, pivot, back-up, whatever you choose); or cue a lead change. Then continue down the remainder of the center line, turning back up the rail in the opposite direction. 

This makes you work to keep your horse straight down the center of the arena, before and after the maneuver at X. 

Enhances your horse' bend, traveling straight, and transition skills. 

Add a pylon at the center for a visual cue. 

Keep it easy with a simple stop or gait change at the X. Make it more challenging by varying your speed and/or performing lead changes at the arena’s center.

Cadence Builder 

Increase speed riding down each long side of the arena; slow and collect around the short sides. 

This helps you learn to increase and decrease speed smoothly, and encourages your horse to collect himself. 

And teaches him to increase/decrease his speed without excitement; helps develop the muscles he needs for collection. 

Steady your horse just before the slow-down going into the corners.

Keep it simple by staying at a walk and trot. Make it more challenging by riding it at a lope, or loping the long sides and trotting the ends.

Transition Tuner 

Work on the rail, performing gait transitions at the mid-point of each straightaway. For example, start at a walk; at the first X go to a jog; at the next X return to the walk; and so on. Or, make it walk, trot, canter, walk, or in any combination you feel like. 

This will help you smooth your upward and downward transitions, plus enhances your overall control. 

This will help your horse maintain his focus; improves his collection; builds his hind-end muscles. 

Make mental notes of transition points before starting, so you can begin prepping yourself a stride or two before each X; add visual markers, if need be. 

Make it more challenging by working at faster gaits, or asking for complete stops at some of the X’s.

Squared-Off Circle 

Think of a square with rounded corners. Ride straight to each corner, bend your horse through the turn, then realign him for the next straightaway. 

This is more challenging than riding a circle, it keeps you thinking and really riding.  And helps your horse understand the difference between bending and traveling straight. 

Make it easier by keeping to a walk or jog and/or widening the turn at each corner. Make it more challenging by working at a lope and/or making the turns a bit tighter.

 

Hopefully these exercises will freshen up your daily routine and make it more exciting for you and your horse.

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