My favorite dressage exercises for a small arena

Having an indoor arena in which to ride is awesome. When it’s 20 degrees outside and the wind is blowing 15 miles an hour, it’s miserable. While it isn’t much warmer in the arena, it’s a lot less windy, which counts for a lot! 

Gina appreciates the indoor!
However, the indoor isn’t very big. It’s smaller than a small-sized dressage arena. It gets uncomfortable when you have more than one horse in there- especially so when the other horse and rider are beginners with questionable steering skills! (It isn’t quite so bad when the other horse and rider are capable of avoiding you!) 
Since I ride early in the morning before anyone else is at the barn, I have free rein in the indoor. I typically work on my dressage skillz. I don’t have a lot of space, so I don’t do a lot of work on things like extended trot, or even much leg yielding along straight lines (like on/off the rail or on the diagonal) since it’s such a small space.
Here’s what I do instead;
Spiral in/spiral out at all gaits: I particularly love this exercise. It’s very effective for getting Gina supple and bending. It also helps engage her hindquarters, which is something we sometimes struggle with!
Transitions: I feel like half of my ride is spent doing transitions. I do them on the rail- sometimes every 15 strides, sometimes in each corner, sometimes at E and B. Having a small arena really prevents us from getting strung out or stressed out. 
Square corners: I’ll ride very, very deep into the corner, halt, and do a turn on the haunches, then proceed at a walk or trot. I find this to be helpful in getting Gina focused if she gets mentally zoned out with circles and figure-eights! 
No reins/no stirrups: When warming up, I frequently knot my reins and drop them. I stretch my arms up, make big circles with them to loosen up my shoulders, and twist back and forth with my arms out. I’ll also ride with them clasped behind my back for a bit. The arena is small enough that Gina sort of putzes around at an ambling walk or trot and I never feel like she’ll get away from me. (It’s a lot like being on a longe line!) When we’re both warmed up and working, I drop my stirrups and work on sitting trot and canter. I sometimes feel like a sack of potatoes, but I can tell it makes a difference in my riding! When I really feel like torturing myself, I drop both at the same time.
Anyone else stuck in a tiny arena? What kind of things do you like to do?

Wedding Wednesday: What to register for when you have everything

Johnny’s aunt is hosting a wedding shower for me in March; she emailed me yesterday with a few questions, one of which was “Where are y’all registered?”

This isn’t the first time I’ve been asked that question; in fact, I’ve been asked so many time that I finally created a small registry at Williams-Sonoma. It has about 5 things on it.
Before living together, Johnny and I were separate, functional individuals with complete sets of dishes, cookware, silverware, sheets, and towels. (True story, we have two identical Dutch ovens.)  In the five years we’ve cohabitated, we have accumulated even more dishes, cookware, silverware, sheets, and towels. We have a food processor (we have two, in fact: a mini and a full size). We have a stand mixer. We have a blender. We have a slow cooker. We have a great cutting board and knife set.
The only things we could really use are an immersion blender and a cast iron skillet.
I understand that people want to wish us well by purchasing a gift. I think that’s nice, and I appreciate their generosity; however, I do not want to register for things I don’t need or want. I also don’t want to end up with 8,000 picture frames (I’ve already received four as engagement gifts…one has a picture of the horse in it already) because no one knew what to get us.
What do I do, y’all? 

Jumping exercises with only a few jumps

I board at a dressage barn, so it isn’t surprising there aren’t fields of cross country jumps to school or a variety of show jumps to arrange and rearrange. The barn has two sets of barrels, two sets of standards, and a few ground poles. I’ve built myself four sets of standards, purchased jump cups, and provided half a dozen or so ground poles. 
I’m welcome to set my jumps up in the outdoor arena- in fact, they’re often reset to tiny crossrails when I’m finished so that kids and horses can get some variety in their training. Since I’m the only one that jumps seriously, I’m also the only person who sets and breaks down courses. Because I’m essentially a lazy person, I don’t do a lot of jump moving. It’s time consuming, and I’d rather get straight to riding!
I’m always looking to do more with less, so over the weekend, I spent some time visualizing different jumping exercises before I tacked up Gina. 
You can see three of the four jumps that I had set- the fourth is a vertical off to the right. The barrels are set on a bending line from the unseen jump to the right. The other verticals are set about two strides apart. The verticals are all between 2’6 and 2’9; the barrels are only about 2’3. 
Jump setup
Here are my basic tenets of working with a limited amount of jumps:
  • Verticals are your friend. They can be jumped either direction and I find they’re excellent tools overcome fear or nervousness about height. They look much scarier and larger when they’re airy- without filler. 
  • Clustering jumps is beneficial. I don’t scatter jumps around the arena, as it’s easier to practice the twists and turns necessary in the show jumping arena when the jumps are close together. I set my jumps in the middle of the arena so if I need to make a wide turn, I can do so without feeling like I’m running into the fence.
  • Related distances are key. You can practice counting your strides between fences. You can practice adjusting your horse’s stride. You can practice leg yields by jumping a single element (always the second one- no one wants to teach run outs!). I usually have a 2 or 3 stride set, because the arena isn’t huge. Related distances really give you a lot of bang for your buck!
Onto the exercises.
Figure 1

This is a very easy, straightforward exercise that I use for warm up. It can be ridden either direction (all of these courses can). It’s essentially a big oval and it’s great for feeling a pace and establishing a rhythm.

Figure 2

This exercise gets a little more technical. After the first jump, I have to really get Gina’s attention to execute a good turn to the left. I don’t have a lot of space to cut in the line, so this is where all that dressaging comes in handy. I leg yield a little left to get straight for the jump, then carry on. It doesn’t always go as planned- sometimes that second jump is crooked and ugly, but that’s why we practice!

Figure 3

This course begins by jumping across the first vertical. Gina thought I’d lost my mind and tried to wiggle herself straight, but I firmly applied leg and hand, and we sailed over. (I’m certain she did the horse equivalent of rolling her eyes.) This aligns you nicely for the next jump, which I had set about 4 strides away. That jump is followed by a tight rollback turn, which is great practice.

Figure 4

This course looks harder than it is, I promise. The turns are all fairly easy, except for the last one- like the second course, it requires you to leg yield your horse to get straight to the second element of the combination. This is probably my favorite exercise!

These exercises can easily be stacked on one another to form complete courses- additionally, it’s easy to incorporate another jump somewhere or turn a vertical into a square oxer. 
What kind of jump setup do y’all like? 

Friday Five

With low temperatures and an even lower windchill, I’m living in long johns and layers. My boss calls from sunny Wellington, Florida nearly every day, which definitely makes me jealous. Le sigh- maybe I can convince her that I need to fly down to sunny Florida soon!

Here’s what’s on my radar this week.

ONE Kiwi the mini vs. the tablecloth

I saw this on Horse Nation this morning. I’ve watched it at least 5 times. I’ve showed it to my coworkers. I’ve sent it to my friends. It’s so cute. It’s so funny. You can’t go wrong with adorable minis doing adorable things.

TWO What do the different dressage judge ratings mean?

Practical Horseman answered this question and explained what those mysterious letters mean for both USEF and FEI judges. Now I can be suitably impressed when the Oklahoma Dressage Society has clinics with an ‘S’ judge!

THREE Dressage boots

A couple of months ago, Horze was having a sale for its dealers and I scored a pair of fluffy white dressage boots for around $15. I think their benefit is primarily psychological; Gina doesn’t interfere, but strapping these things to her front legs makes me feel like a total dressage queen. And that’s like, half of successful dressage, right?

FOUR Riding and training the senior horse

As the owner for two senior horses (Moe is 20; Gina is 18), I’m always interested in how riding, training, and competing older horses is different from doing the same with their younger brethren. This excellent in-depth article from Horse Channel discusses some things I hadn’t considered, like how older horses’ thermoregulation is not as good as younger horses’.

FIVE SmartWool neck gaiter

You know that song from the musical Oklahoma! ? “Oklahoma”? Well, they weren’t kidding with the “where the wind comes sweeping down the plain” part. Wind regularly whips around at 15+ miles per hour, which makes already cold temperatures feel miserable. I bundle up with layers and layers, but I dislike wearing scarves while riding. They’re either too bulky or bounce around too much. This neck gaiter from SmartWool looks like a dream- lightweight, warm, ugh, I should probably just order one right now…

Throwback Thursday: Silk Pajamas

Midsouth Regional Pony Club Rally, 2002, Kentucky Horse Park. I think this was my very first recognized competition at Novice level. Excuse the quality; it’s a video still.

This is Silk Pajamas, a Thoroughbred mare who belonged to my high school English teacher. At this point in my riding career, I was between horses.

My English teacher was a pleasant woman who knew I rode, because I went to a K-12 school with approximately 70 people in my graduating class. Everyone knew I rode. I don’t recall how I ended up being offered the ride on her horses, but I remember the horses themselves: Andy, a elderly, heavy-boned Thoroughbred gelding who seemed like he would have made an excellent field hunter had he not been in his early 20s; Shalimar, a devilish 20-something chesnut pony who was convinced he was half his age and not broke; and PJ, a chestnut Thoroughbred mare who’d done everything from dressage to polo while my English teacher’s son had ridden her.

PJ was a sweet and willing mare who certainly knew more about eventing than I did. Despite being 24 years old, PJ was nimble and spry, scoring good marks in dressage and clearing every jump handily. I did my first Novice event on her after years of being stuck at Beginner Novice. I even managed an individual ribbon on her- that brown 8th place ribbon hangs in my living room to this day.

PJ was a special mare who taught me many things: dressage isn’t about going slow, 3′ jumps aren’t that high, and most importantly, horses over the age of 15 (over the age of 20, even!) can still compete successfully! (In my youthful ignorance, I assumed anything over age 15 had three hooves in the grave. Joke’s on me, I guess.)

Silk Pajamas died about a year after this photograph was taken. She was 25. I was very sad, but part of me hopes that for the last year of her life, PJ enjoyed having a job. I know I enjoyed her company.