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Arena Rules
Paul Kathen © 2005


    It would be interesting to see what a highway looks like if there were no rules that everybody driving is aware of and follows. Would it look like a warm-up ring at a dressage show? Probably not, since the cars on the highway would have come to a stop for fear of bumping into somebody and causing a great deal of damage and maybe even physical harm. Nobody wants to expose oneself to such consequences and, therefore, everybody stops.

    Observing behavior in the dressage warm-up also clearly indicates that there are no recognizable rules and yet nobody slows down. Is it because we trust our horses to be smart enough not to run into each other? On the other hand, is it that the result of such a collision is not quite so great and we are willing to ignore the risk? I refuse to believe that it is lack of courtesy. It must be ignorance of arena rules and failure to recognize the damage done to the person who became the victim of such reckless riding. This victim is usually an inexperienced rider, a timid person, or someone sitting on a young or excitable horse.

    The purpose of the warm-up is to supple the horse, put it on the aids, and prepare it for the show ring. This horse must relax into a rhythm and begin to focus on its rider. That is not possible when the horse has to focus on the other horses in the arena and constantly has to change gears to avoid colliding with its neighbors in the ring.

    We are terribly spoiled. In most other countries riders have to share the arena with many other riders all the time. In order to be able to work their horses correctly they have established arena rules and everybody has to abide by them just like the driver on the highway. When observing these rules you will find it amazing how many horses can work in a relatively small arena without getting in the way of each other.

    The most important rule establishes the right of way with horses moving in opposite directions at the rail. Just look at the two tracks at the rail as a two lane road. Like on that road, you stay on the right side. This way the rider whose right shoulder is at the rail has the right of way. This is also explained as passing left shoulder to left shoulder. This means that the rider whose left shoulder is on the rail must leave the rail far enough for the rider coming towards her to pass unimpeded. That is the rule. Courtesy will make sure that there is enough room at the rail for even a timid horse not to tense up. It also is a good idea not to whip your horse just as you pass.

    The horse at the rail always has the right of way over a horse on a circle, on diagonals, or any other line. Again, that is the rule. Courtesy makes sure you do not squeeze in at the rail just in front or behind a horse. Like changing lanes on the road, you must take into account the speed with which you and the fellow rider move as you steer into traffic.

    Another important rule is that a horse at a walk leaves the rail for the horses at faster gaits. You must move over far enough to allow at least two horses to pass between you and the rail. Courtesy will tell you that it is not a good idea to practice the rein-back in a very crowded arena.

    When you drive your car along a busy road, you do not spend much time looking at your dashboard. It is an equally bad idea to look at your horse’s neck when you are riding in a crowded arena. Assume that your fellow riders do not know the arena rules and, therefore, may turn anywhere at any time. Awareness of their whereabouts is still the best way to avoid trouble and assure a relatively smooth warm-up. We know this as defensive riding.

    You may have noticed that there are relatively few rules and we leave most of the behavior in the arena to common courtesy. Two areas that come to mind where we often fail in our courtesy are the gates and riders standing on the rail talking to someone, often their coach or trainer. That hurts because these professionals should know better. Nothing disrupts the flow of traffic more than a horse parked on the rail. Anytime you need to stop your horse it should be done either in the center of a circle or on the center-line.

    In Europe you are expected to shout, “Door free,” and wait for the response of, “Is free,” before you enter the arena. The reason is just simply that in Europe most arenas are totally enclosed and the rider entering cannot see the rail without halfway entering the arena. Here we do not have the custom of not entering until invited by someone inside the arena. Unfortunately, many of us just barge in and our horse gets a rude jerk in the mouth when we have to make an emergency stop to avoid a collision with a rider working along the rail.

    “Eyes open in street traffic,” is a warning often seen on signs along the streets of Germany. That and a little reminder of the Golden Rule should give us all a chance at better rides in the show ring due to a horse that is more supple and focused. It is show time again, and I wish everybody a great season.

P.S. Thank you so much for the kind words at the Awards Banquet for these articles. I truly enjoy writing them and I learn so much in the process. Thank you again. Should you want to go back to one or the other of these articles you may find them on my website at



Arena Rules
By Paul Kathen © 2005

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