Traffic control–how to negotiate the arena space

Dale Forbes:

As a Dressage Snob, I have many pet peeves.

(Almost as many as my actual pets which at this point include two cats, a 100-pound eight-month-old dog and a parrot.  That is just the indoor crew.)

One of my favorite peeves is people not understanding how to negotiate arena traffic.

Mirfield Show. Horses and riders entertain in the main arena at the show.

(This photo has nothing to do with what I am talking about, but it all looks so fantastically uncomfortable that I thought I would include it.  When I rode as a child there was a rule about capped sleeves.  I see the sense, though I also digress. . .)

Back to the arena.  Though I fear some of you, particularly the professionals involved, may feel scolded by what I post below, this is not my intent.

Just like learning to drive, riders need to be taught how to negotiate among others in a safe manner.  Sadly, the instruction of this is not routinely emphasized or practiced enough.  And this is not the fault of the client–but of the instructor.  Given that, I would appreciate a sincere effort on the part of the pros involved to put some time in on this–and I’m not talking about only your clients--some of you are very, very unskilled at this skill: teamwork.

Think about what you are actually teaching by example when you stand in the arena and monopolize one twenty meter circle for an hour.  And, unless you plan to be moving every three to four years, you are eventually going to have to ride in the arena with the people you have trained.  And it is not pleasant, so listen up.

(Re teamwork: Fran and Joe Dotolli’s Young Entry Stables, where I rode as a child, REQUIRED all riders in their summer program to watch all the other riders’ classes.  Every single one.  It was a team effort. They were great trainers–and eventually coached one of the winners of the entire Medal and Maclay finals.  (  This is the biggest honor of the junior equitation circuit–they were a hotbed of talent.  How’d they do that?  They paid attention to both the training and the character of the training.  We Dressage Snobs–budding and otherwise–should take note.)

So, on to the topic: just as there are rules when you drive a car, there are rules–we like to call them “customs” in dressage.  When you share arena space with others, you are not riding in a bubble.


You are not permitted to be a bore and think you are the only one entitled to space–and neither am I.  All riders are created equal–and thus share equal responsibility.  A mark of a really good rider is the person is easy to ride around and is considerate.  But this only works if we share certain assumptions.

The only exception to the patterning I talk about below is a rider on a very green, or obviously upset horse–a rider in trouble or a horse that is not steering.

(Parallel: If you are in church and have a heart attack, it is really okay to get up and stagger down the aisle–better yet, ask for help–say something!  A heart attack is not a normal time–rules suspended.  Other than that, mind your manners, listen, and look out for others.)

The correct action for the rider in trouble is to alert the arena.  If you are a definite risk, currently in dire straits, a quick, “Heads UP!” should be all that is necessary to tell the crew that care needs to be taken.  Something that would necessitate this is getting run off with, for instance.  I have done it myself and seen Rudolf do it.  Make it part of your game plan, but hopefully not your norm.

That said, the call “Heads up!” should come as no surprise to the other riders in the ring.

Because they should have known already, and already be taking either evasive or comforting action.

Why? Because one of your jobs when riding with others is not to be self-centered.  This is something that takes practice too–and dedicated practice!  It’s hard.

Directive: You must at the same time as you are riding your own horse, keep a weather eye out on every other rider in the arena.  Have a general idea of what level of skill they have, where they are, and what they are schooling.  This is why it is easiest to ride among colleagues within the same discipline–say all hunter riders, or all cutting horse riders.

So, riders of similar disciplines generally find each other easier to predict–unless they are budding dressage snobs looking to cut their teeth in the sport!  The budding dressage snobs have two things in common.  The first is they tend to travel, looking down, on endless 20 meter circles, frequently with their current trainer standing in the middle of that circle spewing forth good advice.

In this case there are two impediments in the arena: the client and the trainer.

(I know, that was very naughty.)  But here is the point: teachers think they have to stand in the arena for many reasons and the only really valid ones are to work on the longe line, do ground driving, or possibly briefly assist with piaffe.  A lot of the reasons they do it is actually so they do not have to talk so loud.  There are ways around that that are safer and more polite if you are sharing space.  I am going to write about that in the next post–How to hear and be heard.

So, unless there are jumps in the arena that need looking after, you are an official of the Spanish Riding School, or there has been an accident, people on foot do not routinely belong in the traffic pattern of the arena.  It is dangerous. Period, end of story, enough and goodnight.

Who taught me this?  Anders Lindgren during the Rocky Mountain Dressage Association instructor’s program in 1984.  Why?  Simple.

1. You are in the way.

2. You cannot see both sides of the rider, so you are in effect teaching blind.

Trainers who abide by this?  Oh, let’s see, Wili Schultheis, Rudolf Zeilinger, Klaus Balkenhol, Betsy Steiner.  There is a long list.  Please see posts on how competent people generally have humility and respect for others–another rant.

So, the trainer, who may misguidedly think that the client will not feel adequately attended to without being followed around,  is standing in the middle of his or her client’s endless twenty-meter circle at the end, middle or other end of the ring–doesn’t matter to them.

That means:

1. The center line can never be used by anyone else in the arena.

2. The diagonals are probably toast.

3, The full arena may be out of bounds as well, because it is common to hear the command from said two-legged creature planted on the center line: “Stay down at your own end!”

(This is a true disservice to their paying customer.  Teaching a rider that every one else gets out of YOUR way in all cases when you are mounted, is not teaching.  It is avoiding teaching.)

But other than that, why is it a sign of a very-probably professional nincompoop?

(Definition: nincompoop )

Because their rider never has to look up.

The rider’s focus will always be slightly positioned to the inside with their line of sight–downward. Often because that is showing respect for their trainer.


You remember that thing about bad habits and doing what you are practicing?

(See post on 10,000 hours to mastery. )

Yup, you’ve got it.  Having practiced no other skills, when that rider is loosed on the other end of the arena when not in a lesson,  he or she will be looking down and the the inside, probably softly leg yielding this way and that, “flowing”  from one shape of circle to the next, quietly practicing the sublime “quality of the gait” dance, UTTERLY UNAWARE OF ANYONE ELSE.

And the rest of us who depend on the projection of line will always be totally confused about where they are going and often seem to be in the way–particularly if their trainer is currently teaching at the other end!

Might as well go home.  It makes fewer enemies.  So, Bad Guys win again.

But note–don’t go try that tack with the real big boys and girls–it doesn’t work there.  And chances are, anyone who exhibits this lack of consideration hasn’t truly played with the big boys.  Check the scores–you’ll see.  Humility is a sign of real experience with horses, and real experience dictates other people schooling in the arena (Sometimes rather a lot of them).

Here is how it is supposed to work:


The trainer, if there is one, is neatly parked in the corner, out of the way.  Note in the photo above the middle rider on the left has already made plans to avoid the one approaching in the other direction.  The hall of the Spanish riding school is more narrow than a standard dressage arena, making it even more critical.

Projecting the line. Again look at the photo above.  Can you have any doubt about what direction each rider is intending to go? The riders are practicing rhythmically, looking where they are going, not only because they can avoid collisions that way, but also because it helps other people avoid them.  If you look where you are going, others can tell where you are heading!

Passing: left hand to left hand:

In the US and Germany, when you are tracking clockwise you will be passing toward the center of the arena. It is called on the second track, about ten feet in.

(Would those of you from Australia and England please chime in below about local mores?  Thank you.)

So, given that you will need to routinely yield space off the rail when going right, it makes a great deal of sense to ALWAYS ride a bit off the rail when going clockwise.  Particularly if it is crowded.  It also stops your horse from just paying attention to the visual clue of the wall and encourages it to pay attention to the you.  Hmmm. . .  Horse listens to rider and goes where directed–might be some value there.

When you are traveling counter-clockwise you will pass to the outer side of the arena.  If you are an utter beginner this is a very easy place to be, BUT you must not stop and walk endlessly on the rail.  Horses being cooled out or rested either take the third track near the quarter lines or go to  an interior circle.  That way everyone else can keep working.

If you are going to stop suddenly or turn, please be sure to glance behind you.

And what about an individual on a circle?

That’s easy.  Except in an actual show, the circle is not practiced all the way to the ends and edges of the school when others are present.  The person on the circle generally stays interior of the whole group, abandoning temporarily the left hand to left hand rule–except when it is obviously more convenient to adhere to it.

How do the rest of us know when you stop your circle?  You will show us a corner and a straight line, just as you would the judge.

On one of many memorably-humbling mornings, Rudolf told me, “You must practice your corners.  Every one must be perfect.  You THINK in the show you will do them correctly, but you won’t.  You must do hundreds of them–all correctly.”

That is indeed true–and the good news is knowing how to do your corners helps you have time to plan and to sequence your entry to the next line.

At one time I asked Herr Zeilinger, naively, “So, for half pass I should position slightly in front of the corner?”

Eyebrows up (bad sign, indicating impossibly stupid question has been asked):  “And what corner would you NOT position for?”  (Good point.)

So, Dressage Enthusiasts, re corners: sometime try one–they are the bratwurst of dressage. . .

And then, go in a straight line. They are fun too.

(This is not rocket science.  It just shares a similar number of zeros in the price tag.)

So end of rant.  Please do (please!) Ride Better!–and if you can’t do that, just ride–but do look where you are going.