DRESSAGE ARENA - how did the letters come about?

There are two sizes of dressage arena and all levels of test will be ridden in either a 20m x 40m or a 20m x 60m arena.  The letters appear rather random as they do not follow the alphabet and have no obvious pattern. Within a 20m x 60m arena you can fit 3 x 20m squares or 3 x 20m circles; X is always in the middle between B and E.

A 20m x 60m Dressage Arena has 12 letters:  A B C E F H K M R S V P
The invisible letters down the centre line are  D L X I G.
A 20m X 40m arena has 8 letters   A B C E F H K M 
The invisible letters down the centre line are D X G

There are many theories about how the size of the arena and letters came about.  Here are a couple so take your pick.

Theory One
The Royal Manstall (Stables), housing 300 of the Kaiser's horses, of the Imperial German Court in Berlin (prior to 1918) had markings on the walls (letters) which indicated where each courtier's or rider's horse should stand and await their rider. The 'Hof' (stable yard) was used to parade for 'morning exercise and assembly for ceremonial parades'.  The size of this area (Hof) was three times longer than the width in the same way dressage arenas are today. The markings on the walls of the Manstall were:

A  Ausgang (Exit)
K  Kaiser (Emperor)
F  F?¬∫rst (Prince)
P  Pferknecht (Ostler or Groom)
V  Vassal (Servant/Squire/Equerry)
E  Edeling/ Ehrengast (Chieftain or Honoured Guest)
B  Bannertrager (Standard Bearer)
S  Schzkanzler (Chancellor of the Exchequer)
R  Ritter (Knight)
M  Meier (Steward)
H  Hofsmarshall (Lord Chancellor)

Theory Two
The second theory involved the German cavalry in the 19th century.  It is claimed they were responsible for the arena letters.  The manege (arena) of the German cavalry was surrounded by barracks, each barrack having a letter designated to it. The letters (markers) in the arena indicated a reference point where a movement would be ridden, in the same way we ride dressage tests today.
Cavalry officials decided they wanted to compete with others and so the 20m x 60m arena became the standard size for all dressage competitions, including the Olympics in 1932. In the same way tests are ridden today, a series of prescribed movements was ridden at designated markers.  This demonstrated the training method, natural athleticism of the horse and it's willingness to perform the movements in a relaxed and effortless manner, so not a lot changed there!
Initially tests comprised of military combat movements which would test the horse for courage, calmness and obedience. (All of the qualities required by a rider as they go up the centre line towards the judge!). On the battlefield these skills would have been absolutely key, literally the difference between life and death. 
Movements also included collected and extended gaits, turning on the hocks (pirouettes) and four flying changes on a straight line.  I feel sure most riders will be rather glad the next element is no longer required in a test - the horse and rider combination had to jump five small obstacles, one of which included a barrel rolled towards the oncoming horse!!!
Up until 1952 only Commissioned Officers were allowed to compete at Olympic level.  Civilians or female riders were not even considered, let alone eligible.  This all changed when in 1948 the Swedish Dressage Team were disqualified.  Shock horror, a member of their team was not a Commissioned Officer.  However, this was a turning point and the rules were changed to include civilians and female riders.

dressage arena
                                                                                           A 20M X 60M ARENA (Image supplied by http://www.cykelvalg.dk/baner/

  Make yourself an arena 

If you have a flat area of grass you can construct an arena cheaply.  It will have the added benefit of being portable so you can move it around your field avoiding damage and increasing the chance of you having an area to school on most of the year. Arena boards can be made from one of the following:
* White plastic guttering - this is cheap, does not rot and can be secured into the ground with pegs.
* Scaffolding Boards - cheap and easy to purchase including brackets to make secure.  You can either leave natural or paint white and they should not get damaged if your horse stands on them.
* Plastic Plant Pots - this is another option if you do not want to invest in some ready made arena letters. The pots are filled with soil and used for the letters.  All you need to do now is select your area and set it out!

For more related dressage articles click here