Saturday, December 25, 2010

Indoor Arena Winter Depression

There seem to be two types of winter eventers (not including those who leave winter for sun - grrrr at all of you!). The rest of us are either:
1. willing to beg, borrow and steal for just one ride in an indoor arena, or
2. bored to tears riding in an indoor arena.

Especially for eventers, winter indoor arenas are a bit like a jail cell. We live for the thrill of XC riding - fresh air, hills and logs, and scary horse-eating squirrels and deer! Locked in a box, we seem to loose a part of ourselves, or at least a big part of our motivation. Round and round inside 4 solid walls (and in my case, I don't even have mirrors to scowl at my sitting trot in!) - and before you know what hit you, indoor arena winter depression takes hold.

Your shrink is unlikely to fully grasp the severity of your depressed state. Laying in a tanning bed won't help. If you're brave enough for fox hunting - tally ho! That oughta fix you up right! But for the rest of us wimps who want to stay inside but be productive - the answer is easy - have a plan for each and every time you get on your horse and head into the indoor. Riding inside without a plan is sort of like getting into a row boat and letting yourself drift out into the lake, then realizing you didn't pack the paddles! Not a great plan. So, if just knowing that we've already passed the shortest day of the year - yes, folks! The days are getting longer! - isn't enough to curb your indoor arena depression, I thought I would share some ideas to battle your boredom that I have already been putting to use with my students and Katchi.

1. Test your moves.
Have you ever ridden a "real" dressage test (the USDF tests - not the eventing dressage tests)? There are new tests in 2011. Take a look at one appropriate for your riding level - what movements sound hard? Try them out. Dressage tests are meant as tests, but the movements are chosen based on the progression of training. So see what you find easy and what you find hard. If you plan to move up a level at your events next year, start practicing pieces of your new tests now. I caution riders about doing their entire test too many times just before a competition, because horses will start to learn the patterns and anticipate movements (and help you out by doing them early!). But, if you break the test into pieces and practice a few different pieces each day, the entire pattern will come together much easier in the spring.

I always have a terrible time finding the tests on the USDF site, but luckily PVDA has posted them on their site -

2. A circle is not an egg.
Can you ride a perfect circle? Did a dressage judge tell you your circle was too large or too small in portions - that means it was an egg, not a circle. Can you "feel" a 20m, 15m, 12m, or 10m circle? Set out cones, poles, or some other markers at the exact distances - seriously, be exact - get out your tape measure or meter wheel! Measure the distances so that you will ride just to the inside of your markers (it's too easy to cheat by 1 foot, 2 feet, 10 feet... if you are riding to the outside of the markers). Remember that small circles require a lot of balance and engagement to be correct - start by walking these circles and move to the trot and canter as your skill and your horse's training allows. Keep in mind - 10m trot circles first appear in Preliminary event dressage tests and 10m canter circles first appear in 2nd level dressage tests - so be ambitious but fair to your horse's level of training!

To clarify - Image at right contains CIRCLES (see "how to ride a perfect circle"). A circle is not an EGG.


3. Pole chaos.
Got poles? Throw them all over your indoor! No spacing, no lines. Now ride all over the arena: serpentines, figure 8's, wavy lines, diagonal changes, circles - everything! Start at a walk, then move onto the trot, and as your horse develops his balance and engagement - canter too! Your goal is to go over each pole absolutely seamlessly - no change in rhythm, balance, or tempo. This exercise will also help develop your eye for striding to jumps. Be sure to look right at the poles until they disappear between your horse's ears.

4. Pole precision.
Now take those poles and place them very precisely. 4 poles perfectly spaced around a 20m circle, for example. Walk & trot the 4 poles - then start by cantering one pole and going around the other 3. Then add in a second pole across the circle from the first. Then 3 poles - then 4. Always take time to reorganize when you need to. When you master this, move the poles around so you have a single pole on one side of the circle and 2 poles across the circle from it - set with one canter stride between (about 16 feet should work well for most horses). You can also set them on a 1/2 stride (for example 3 1/2 strides) and then work to compress the stride to get 4 or lengthen to get 3 - be sure to count so you know for sure how it's working out for you!

5. Relive your last round.
In your last show jumping round, what line was especially difficult? Recreate it. And build it in reverse too. If it was a bending line to the right - practice the same line to both the right and left.

6. Lucinda's skinnies.
Ever been to a Lucinda Green clinic? Planning on riding in one next year? Watch her clinics on Horse and County TV - Episode 1 & Episode 2 If you have blocks at hand, or skinny poles, build some Lucinda skinnies (set at about 6" - 12" tall) and learn to walk and trot them PERFECTLY straight! You'll be glad you did when you ride in her clinic next year!

7. Gymnastics.
Go to Buy Jim Wofford's book "Gymnastics: Systematic Training for Jumping Horses." 23 exercises. 1 a week for 23 weeks. Enough said.

8. Lunge a friend.
Take 20 minutes to work on YOU. Ask a friend (who is competent at lunging horses - it's harder than you think!) to lunge you while you isolate your focus to assess your position from head to toe - ask your friend questions if you think you feel you are doing something "weird." Even if they are not an instructor, they can probably still help describe what they see so you can compare it to what you feel.

9. Ride with one stirrup.
Ever ridden with only one stirrup?? It's harder than no stirrups! Mark Todd rode around Badminton with one stirrup - holy cow! If I were him, I don't think I would have given up the other stirrup to find out which was harder - I guess "easier" is all relative. Anyhow, cross over one stirrup and put yourself on a 20m circle (or grab that lunge friend again!). Pick up the trot and try to post! Most of us have one weaker side - prepare yourself - you're about to be $&*! slapped by it! And then you can thank Jim Wofford for advocating this fun little game.

10. Jump by the book.
And when you've done all these things - pull out your favorite eventing or show jumping book and pick an exercise! There are no shortage of clever ideas out there. If you're in doubt about which ones will best help you and your horse - bring the book to your next lesson and ask your trainer to help you pick out a few exercises that you can work on safely, on your own, between lessons. And have fun!!!

See, there are lots and lots of things to do in the indoor! But you must have a plan before you walk in there - don't miss a prime training opportunity that just might have helped you get a leg up on the competition in the spring! It's the days when the weather sucks, and winter sucks, and egg nog sounds so good, and spring seems so far away - it's those training days that you really want to make count. Because for every one you make count - one of your fellow competitors will have stayed in bed! And that will make you that little bit better than her (or one of the 20 him-eventers) in the spring! Collecting your blue ribbon, you won't begrudge those cold winter training days inside your boring indoor arena for one second!



  1. Wow--you can't go wrong with these great suggestions! I think the folks at EN need to link to this post!

  2. Hey, just found your blog and I really enjoy it! I love your blog header! That photo is awesome.

  3. Shane - so Caesar has no more excuses! He's in for it now!

    Katie - welcome! Glad you're enjoying the blog - I'm having fun with it! The top photo was taken by my student, Adrianne, at a horse trial in the rain in 2009 - she is something of an outstanding amateur photographer and got some really unique shots!