I am fortunate that the barn where Charlie Brown and I board has an indoor riding ring.  During the wet winters DC provides, we just wouldn’t make it without our indoor arena.  Whether it’s rain or snow, the unfriendly elements turn the footing in our outdoor arenas to the consistency of sloppy oatmeal that seems to dry out the day before the next major precipitation befalls us.  So the indoor arena is the difference between Charlie staying cooped up in his stall, or getting out for a decent workout — be it a hand walk, a lunge, or a ride.

The indoor is awesome. It’s definitely a cozy space, so it’s great for (re)building a rider’s confidence, or keeping a spirited pony a little more controlled. It measures between 19m and 20m wide, and about 50m long, so it’s just slightly longer than a small dressage arena.  Even during those cold and breezy days (and nights) that winter can throw at us, the indoor provides us a safe little cocoon in which to work out our winter yahoos. A full class is six riders, and it’s a tight fit to get us all in there — especially when we’re jumping. Any more than six, and it is sheer bedlam.

But now that the weather is getting nicer, our classes are beginning to venture down to “The Lower.” It’s an outdoor arena at the lower end of our parking lot, hence its name. It’s much bigger than the indoor. We can fit a full 20×60 dressage arena in here, and have plenty of room left around the perimeter for other riders to warm-up or stay loose awaiting their turn.

It’s surrounded by a fence, not the solid walls of the indoor, so there’s a lot more to contend with, especially early in the season, until it becomes the norm. From Charlie’s point of view, the lower can be sensory overload — especially the first time out. There’s a ton more to look at, more smells to take in, other horses going by from our public trail and pony rides (some of whom can be quite vocal), hikers, dogs (some of whom are off-leash), wildlife — even bicycles and scooters (in spite of the fact that they aren’t allowed on the trails).

Our very first adventure in the lower this year was in dressage class on a Wednesday night.  That was partially a blessing, and partially a curse. As I work toward my bronze medal in dressage, having a properly sized arena is a vital part of really getting ourselves ready to hit those magic scores of 60. It allows us to really practice our full-sized 20m circles, and get a feel for what it truly takes to move Charlie around the competition-sized arena.

Class that night was a limited success. In spite of the extra space, all the riders seemed to clump together like a kindergarten soccer game. A couple of us had a hard time squeezing a canter of any length in edgewise. And I never actually got in a full 20m circle, so there’s still a lot of practice left to do. But the sun set before class was over, and the shroud of darkness was enough to provide some of the coziness that we both remembered from the indoor. And given my frayed nerves from the crowding, that was a welcome respite.

This past Saturday, my jump class ventured to the lower. The difference here was two-fold.  First, the class was during the day, so no pending sunset. Second, we were jumping, not just doing flatwork. To really test our ability to remain calm, our class had a few horses in it who are prone to being excited, especially over jumps.

We began by walking Pony Trail. The point was to start our warm-up, as well as to help get everyone acclimated to the more wide open space. We’ve done that before going into the indoor when the weather was decent but the footing was poor outside.

Our warm-up in the ring was our usual on-your-own-type exercise — walk, trot, transitions off light aids, changing the size of stride at various gaits, moving away from leg pressure, circles.  Immediately, I could tell Charlie was sluggish. Since we were going in the lower, I had deliberately not worn spurs because I didn’t want to be goosing him in a more high energy environment, so it was up to my leg and whip to get the job done. I started with my leg, but Charlie didn’t really budge. Another big kick from my leg, accompanied by a tap of the crop, and we only moved forward a little bit. Harumpf!

Since that wasn’t an acceptable answer, I asked once more, only this time with a big kick and three sharp smacks with the crop. Finally, Charlie shot forward. I let him go for a few strides, then brought him back to a walk. Then we tried the light aid again. This time, he picked up a nice forward and energetic trot from my little nudge. At this point, it’s clear that the lower isn’t really over-amping him, so I’m feeling good about jumping.

Since it was our first class jumping in the lower, we started with a single jump, then a line of two, then a funky diagonal single. To avoid a case of nerves for either of us, I volunteered for Charlie and me to go first in the rotation, which was a good call. Instead of standing around while the other five in our class took their turns, and getting excited watching everyone else go before him, Charlie and I took the lead.

With it being everyone’s first foray jumping in the lower this spring, the instructor wanted us to keep things more low key until we had a sense of how each horse would react. So the intention was to trot in, canter out, and halt away from the group after cantering away. Charlie and I headed off to take the short side and the one warm-up jump. Positive attitude!  No sweat!  We got this!  And we did.

We trotted in, with good tempo to boot. We trotted deep into our fence, and Charlie waited for his cue to jump. I caught him a bit in the mouth because I was behind. He forgave my mistake, and cantered away nice and easy. Yeah! We continued the same way throughout the rest of class, even when other horses took things a little too hot. It was almost like Charlie was showing off how calm he could be for the other horses. I continued to work on my late and insufficient releases throughout the rest of class.

Hopefully we will keep the good weather going, and ride in the lower more often. And I’ll look to keep the positive attitude going, and keep us both moving forward.

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