Ah, the corners of the riding arena…so often haunted by bogeymen and other mysterious “somethings” certain to cause a scoot or a spook. By a year or so into your riding career, you’ve surely discovered that all things scary reside in the perpendicular meeting place of wood or vinyl. And perhaps your pony is also inclined to shave off excess ground any way he can. (The inside track is the shortest track, after all.) Whatever the reason, on horseback, corners get cut.
“It is common to see riders straining to ride complicated figures accurately while neglecting their corners,” says FN-certified riding instructor Julia Kohl in her book Creative Dressage Schooling. “Their horses ‘fall through the corners,’ for example, with a complete lack of bend through the body, become unsteady in the contact, or lose either their rhythm or their impulsion because their riders attempt to ride as deep into a corner as possible.”
Kohl asserts that it only takes a few trips around the ring, focusing on correct corners before you will notice a positive change in your horse. Each corner is a test of whether the horse can maintain rhythm and connection in a turn. Each corner also improves his lateral bend and the activity of his inside hind leg.
Here are step-by-step instructions from Creative Dressage Schooling that tell you how to really, truly, ride a great corner—and how to practice it until NOT cutting corners becomes your new best habit.
1. Trot down the long side of the arena on the track. As you approach the first corner of the short side, use half-halts to prepare for a transition to walk. At this point the horse should not have noticeable flexion toward the inside of the arena.
2. Half-halt to the walk before the corner. Maintain your rein length since you will trot again right away.
3. Push your inside hip (the one toward the inside of the arena) forward. Apply your inside leg at the girth, to drive the horse forward, and maintain your outside leg in the guarding position to prevent the horse’s hindquarters from falling out. Use the inside rein to ask the horse to flex to the inside while the outside rein allows for the flexion to happen. Note, however, the outside rein should not be slack, or the horse will “bulge out” with his shoulder, and the contact and connection will be unsteady after the corner.
4. In the corner, bring your inside shoulder back (which causes the outside shoulder to be slightly forward). Slightly flex your inside wrist toward the horse’s withers. Neither of your hands should move significantly forward (toward the horse’s ears) or backward (toward your torso).
5. Upon reaching the deepest part of the corner, “give” with the inside rein so the horse leaves the corner straight on the short side. The horse should be predominantly on the outside rein as he comes out of the corner.
6. After the corner, ride straight on the short side (again without flexing to the inside). Both your seat bones should be equally weighted, while both your legs hang down at the girth, driving the horse straight forward. Both reins should be of equal length as you ask for a transition back to trot with a half-halt to prepare, followed by quick pressure with both calves and “giving” with both reins equally.
7. Before the second corner on the short side, balance the horse with a half-halt and ride through the corner as described at the beginning of this exercise, but this time in trot. Repeat the exercise in both directions, riding the first corner in walk and the second in trot, gradually shortening the distance between your transition to walk on the long side and the first corner.
Although they may seem trivial, the corners of the arena count as turns—and every good turn requires the horse to be on the aids and accepting increased weight on his inside hind leg. As Julia Kohl reminds us, “this should be possible even for horses that don’t compete and are only ridden for pleasure.”
This excerpt from Creative Dressage Schooling, by Julia Kohl, reprinted by permission from Trafalgar Square Books.