Have you ever ridden in an open space, a large open space? A space with no boundaries, or fences, or hedges, or any natural ‘this is the end of this space’ obstacles. It takes a lot more focus to ride accurate shapes and straight lines. We tend to ‘wander’…
So many of us forget how beneficial an artificial aid the boundary our arena rail creates. Not only does the arena rail or fence mark the ‘end’ of our riding space, but it also boosts our confidence; “He can’t run away, there’s nowhere to go”
And it also helps us as an artificial aid. Something that will help us to strengthen and become more focused with our natural aids.
Size Doesn’t Matter All That Much
Last week I was working with a rider on another farm, and we didn’t have the luxury of a demarcated arena. We were working in a large paddock, which was wonderful. However, the ‘fence’ was quite a bit away from us. The exercise was to ride a 20m square in the walk.
What became apparent, very quickly, was that without reference points, the square was not all that square!
The size was changing, there were curved lines. It definitely lacked right angles at the corners. And, rather than riding the exercise to work on what we actually wanted to work on, all of the rider’s time was devoted to trying to actually visualize the square on the grass in this large paddock.
Riding straight lines is a difficult thing to do when there’s nothing guiding you and keeping you on track.
The good news is that the size of your arena is not what’s important here. A 20m x 20m space can be great when working on accuracy and suppleness. What is important is how you use the arena rail to being strengthening your natural aids. This is for those times when you find yourself without an arena rail to follow…
Your Arena Rail is an Artificial Aid
I love groundpoles. They help ‘mark’ things out for horses and riders. If you need clarity about where you should or should not ride, a groundpole is a handy thing to have!
The rail can provide the same clarity. Especially when combined with other aids to apply pressure. A ‘squeeze’ of sorts.
Think about a time when you were struggling to effectively communicate something to your horse about where you wanted him to go. By riding him closer to the outside rail and then combining the pressure created from that with your inside aids, you were able to successfully apply pressure.
Pressure is the ask. It is the question. And often, when our natural aids are a little less than clear, an artificial aid is a great way to clarify what we are trying to communicate.
Riding a Line
The rail is often a way to train yourself to begin riding straight (or a least straighter) lines on your horse. Think of when you ride down the centerline for example. The only way that you truly know you are still on the centerline is because you are equal distance from each of the ‘long side’ rails.
As soon as you find yourself closer (or traveling towards) one of the two ‘long sides’ rails, you know that your center line has gotten off track.
The same applies when riding the quarter line. This one takes a little more concentration as the distance of each boundary is different. It is also a great way to begin becoming familiar with ‘squaring up’ to the ‘short side’ rail of your arena.
By checking that you’re parallel to the long side. And then noticing if both you and your horse’s shoulders (and later hips) are perpendicular to the short side; you can ride a pretty straight quarter line with your horse.
Focusing on Your Straightness
Once you can recognize a straight line, your focus will then shift to you and what you are doing to achieve that straight line. I am saying straight line in the loosest of terms here… Most riders, once they put two or more meters of thin air between them and the rail begin to ‘wander’!
The good news is that the wandering is less about a lack of focus. It is more about your uneven aids and communication from the saddle. It is also about symmetry and strength.
I suggest riding the center line again. Notice if your hands are equal distance from your horse’s mouth and your tummy. Many riders travel with one hand further back, or more forward. Also, notice the height. Are they both equal distance from the ground?
From here, notice your knees. Are they equal distance from your horse’s chest? Or is one knee more forward than the other? How about height; is one leg/hip/heel/ lower than the other? You’ll see it in your knees.
Now, from here, recognize that your knees are usually a good visual representation of whatever it is that your hips are doing. And that your hands are usually a symptom of your upper body and shoulders. Are you truly straight?
Working on Your Straightness First
Once you can begin seeing your own crookedness, you can work on strengthening and straightening. I say strengthening because most crookedness comes from a weakness somewhere. Identifying what needs the work is vital so that you can then put a little more attention on that area as you ride.
A lot of weakness is actually the result of a bad habit that has been practiced over and over again.
Let what you can see directly in front of you (your hands and knees) help you identify any crookedness. And once you know it is there, the job becomes to figure out why. A habit? A method or basic you have outgrown in your riding? An actual issue in your body?
Or a weakness or lack of strength in your horse that you have compensated for?
I always suggest looking at the rider first. Most riders want to shift all of the ‘work’ to the horse. Be really honest with yourself here. It can sometimes feel like the chicken and the egg! A good way to figure this out is for you to ride a different horse. And to ask someone else to ride your horse…
The Magnetic Pull of the Rail
When we first learn to ride, we usually spend a lot of our time on the ‘outside track’. Simply put, we ride close to the rail (sometimes too close and get our legs rubbed). There are a few reasons for this; it is easier to direct novice riders when they know to ‘keep out. And, it allows us to become familiar with certain arena shapes and movements.
The arena wall acts as an anchor of sorts. Which is great… Until the pull becomes a little too much! Next time you ride, be a little more observant of how you ride on the outside track.
Notice how, for your horse, there may be a tendency to travel with the outside shoulder a little closer to the ‘wall’ than the outside hip.
This is because most horses are, generally speaking, more narrow in front. It’s one of those things that, once you see it, there’s no going back! You will be aware of it every time you ride close to an outside rail or track going forward. Which is a good thing, because now you can begin to actually strengthen your natural aids in order to correct this.
Strengthening Your Natural Aids
This is where your awareness of your own aids plays a big part. Once you see that the rail might be now hindering your progress going forward, you can begin to wean him from the rail. I believe that artificial aids are a ‘back up’ for natural aids. The rail of the arena is no different.
Once you are aware of your natural aids; it is important to begin using them more and relying less on the artificial aid that the arena wall provides.
Start with that common observation of how your horse travels when riding on the outside track. Move 2m in from the track (onto the ‘inside track’) and notice if you can maintain ‘straight’ when there. Then test your aids further by traveling 1.5m from the rail.
The closer you move to the rail, the stronger the magnetic pull!
Use this to focus your attention on asking your horse to go where you want using your natural aids, rather than simply letting the arena wall be ‘outside aid’. Also, notice how there is always a balance of the aids. Too much of just outside will not create or maintain straight. The same applies to the inside.
The Rail as the Boundary
Over time, you will wean both yourself and your horse off the artificial aid that the arena rail creates. Does this mean that you can now ride all the time in big open spaces? I am going to suggest not…! Once the rail has stopped being an ‘aid’, it can go back to its original use; a marker.
The rail’s true function is to mark out space you are working in. Using it for that is really helpful when it comes to being accurate and ‘measuring’ your progress.
However, once you have learned to ride a straight line using your natural aids, it can feel really good to do this regularly in a completely open space.
Other Useful Bits & Bobs to Help Your Riding
- One Groundpole Layout; Multiple Ways to Ride It – Free Riding Plan Inside
- Using Artificial Aids when Working with Horses
- Artificial Aids in Your Riding
- Connection; My Online Membership for Equestrians
- Online community for equestrians working on their mindset & fitness
- Online Community for equestrians focusing on re-schooling horses (and ex-racehorses