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Experts Perspective Q & A:
What is Your Favorite Arena Exercise?

Cynthia F. Hodges, JD. LLM, MA


Published in Topline Ink Equestrian Journal, Sept/Oct 2011, pp. 23-24.

In choosing arena exercises, the rider should bear in mind that the ultimate goal of dressage is for the horse to attain balanced self-carriage under the rider. One should, therefore, seek out exercises that strengthen the hind legs, because strong hind legs are necessary for the horse to transfer weight from the forehand onto the haunches. The hind legs must be capable of carrying the extra load. The full pass is an excellent arena exercise to strengthen the horse’s hind legs, improve lateral and longitudinal suppleness, and increase the horse’s obedience to the rider’s leg.

The full pass is well-suited to strengthening one hind leg at a time. To execute the full pass, the rider halts the horse, then asks him to move sideways away from one leg for four to five steps. The horse should respond immediately (while remaining on the aids) by placing the targeted hind leg in front of the other, not over or next to it (to avoid injury). This exercise strengthens the hind leg in a manner similar to a one-legged deep knee bend. When the horse full passes to the left, for example, he places his right hind hoof in front of his left hind hoof. To do so, he lowers his haunches, bending in the joints of the right hind leg, to place it under his body mass. To straighten out the right hind leg, the horse must push up with it, lifting the added weight of his body. The reverse is true for a full pass to the right.

The full pass can also be used to improve the horse's obedience to the rider's outside leg and increase the lateral flexion. For example, the rider can test his or her mount’s obedience to the left outside leg by trotting right, then halting and immediately asking for a full-pass off of the left leg (outside leg) towards the right. The horse should move off of the left leg without hesitation, changing the flexion from right to left. If the horse is not sharp off of the rider’s leg, the rider can lightly tap with the whip on the left side behind the leg as a reminder to pay attention. To test the horse’s sensitivity to the outside right leg, the rider would trot left, halt, then ask the horse to full pass to the left, moving off of the right leg and flexing right.

The full pass to the right strengthens the horse’s left hind leg and sharpens him to the rider’s left leg. The full pass to the left strengthens the horse’s right hind leg and improves his sensitivity to the rider’s right leg. As the horse’s hind legs become stronger, he can transfer more weight onto them, and thereby move his center of gravity from the forehand and more towards the middle of his body. As the horse begins to carry himself more in balance, the quality of his gaits will improve.



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