You don’t need a precisely measured rectangle with fancy letter markers and an ankle-high fence to practice your dressage tests at home. You simply need a set of eight or 12 cones and a big flat space with good footing. You don’t even need a tape measure, let alone some poor assistant to hold the end of it.
Orange soccer cones can be purchased in sets of four for $5 at most sporting-goods stores and at electronics stores that sell radio-controlled model cars. Your investment for your practice arena becomes $10 to $15. You can mark the letters on the cones with a permanent marker if you want, but most people memorize tests by patterns rather than by letters, so you probably won’t need the marker.
A standard dressage arena is 66 feet by 198 feet (20 x 60 meters). The shorter arena used in eventing and some lower-level tests is 66 feet by 132 feet (20 x 40 meters). All these dimensions are multiples of 33 feet.
It’s easy to lay out a dressage arena by using strides in the same way you would step off the distance between jumps, and with practice you can finish the job in 10 minutes. The average person’s stride is 3 feet long. You just march along counting 3-6-9-12, up to 33 feet, and then repeat. Do your counting out loud, ticking off sets of 33 feet on your fingers. Practice this on a line of 33 feet so you can adjust your stride if necessary.
1. For a standard arena, set a cone at one end of your space where you would picture the judge sitting (the letter “C”). Step off 33 feet (or 11 strides of 3 feet each) in each direction away from the C cone to establish the first two corners. Eyeball the three cones from one end to make sure they’re fairly straight.
2. Stride away from one corner down the long side of your planned space, counting to 33 three times (three sets of 11 strides), and set down a cone. This will be the “middle” letter (E or B), which is 99 feet from the corner. Continue on that line, again counting to 33 three times. Set down a cone for the third corner. Eyeball the 198-foot line to see that it’s fairly straight.
3. From your third corner, turn 90 degrees and step off 33 feet. Set down a cone for “A.” Step off another 33 feet for the final corner. Look back and eyeball your line across the short end of your “arena.”
4. Complete your second long side. Step off 99 feet to E/B and set down a cone. Then step the rest of the way to your first corner. You should be close to 99 feet. If not, you’ll need to go back and adjust the first long side or check your angles at the corners.
5. Since you don’t really need the corner cones, you can use them to become your corner letters, which should be 19 feet down the long side. Pick up each corner cone and step off 19 feet (6 meters).
6. If you want to place the RSVP markers, you’ll need four more cones. They are located 39 feet (12 meters) between the middle letters E/B and the corner letters. From E and B, step off 39 feet (13 strides) in each direction and set down a cone. You can verify your measurement by then stepping off the distance to the corner letter, which should also be 39 feet. Again, eyeball your line down the long side so that the five letter cones are fairly straight.
7. Double check your measuring accuracy by striding across the ring between opposite letters, which should be 66 feet apart. If you want to get fancy you can:
• Use two cones centered at the space for “A” to create a “gate.”
• Use jump rails to form corners.
• If your arena is in a field, you can mow your rectangle so you have a semi-permanent edge.
If you share the space with people who jump, you may be able to preserve your arena by placing jumps around the outside. If that won’t work, set some up opposite the letters, just inside the track, which should still give you the space and lines you need to ride most of your patterns. The trick here is to keep the jumps off the diagonals and the center line.