Editor’s Note: Amy Skinner is a regular guest columnist and has been a horse gal since age six. She has presented twice at the Best Horse Practices Summit and is the author of To Catch a Horse: Finding the Heart of your Horsemanship.
She rides and teaches dressage and Western. Skinner has studied at the Royal Andalusian School of Equestrian Art in Spain, with Brent Graef, Leslie Desmond, and many others. Visit her website here.
Bored in the Arena? I hear about this all the time. So often, in fact, it’s a topic I talk about in a lesson nearly every day to somebody somewhere.
Riders who get bored in arenas would prefer to be on the trail, jumping, or out doing something more interesting than following the rail.
Horses are often those who’ve had mundane, dull, unpleasant, or downright terrible experiences in arenas.
Unfortunately, this latter case is too common, especially in performance horses whose drilling on movements and schooling has become painful and unpleasant, and in school horses whose life gets dulled away with every 20-meter circle. They learn the arena is the bad place and will exhibit anything from disinterest to downright panic.
I’ve never started a horse who hated the arena, because to me, the arena is simply a contained area in which to have a two-way conversation. It’s a place of relaxation and balance, with great, even footing for practicing new movements.
Do I love to be out on the trail?
Absolutely. If I could, I’d pack my bags and stay out in the hills ‘til dark. But with multiple horses to ride each day, the arena is a fantastic place to school quietly in an easy-to-understand way for the horse. Just like a classroom, the sentiment developed within its walls depends on the teacher and the mindset she fosters.
So firstly, do YOU hate the arena?
It’s okay if you do. I get it. But I find that teaching students to understand all the nuances of the seat and how much power it has to relax the horse’s back opens up an entire new world for riders. Learning about the miraculous results from riding over ground poles can perk trail riding devotees up, too. Understanding that riding in an arena is just a dance between two partners, with less interesting scenery, helps to gain perspective.
For the rider:
- Keep arena riding short. Don’t let yourself ride ‘til you’re bored, because I guarantee your horse is beyond bored by that point.
- Make it interesting with ground poles, cones, and other markers to give you visual markers
- Study up on equine expression and biomechanics to give yourself an idea of the feeling and look you’re after: a breathing, relaxed and swinging horse is quite the reward!
And for the arena-bored or stressed horse:
- Don’t initially make the arena a place of work. Maybe bring them in and just groom or feed them.
- Again, use ground poles and cones to give context to exercises, and to make them more interesting.
- Try bringing something extra to make it more interesting, I’ve taught horses shoulder in or leg yield with cows in the arena, by moving them down the long side of the fence in the lateral movement.
Make the goal of every session to be relaxation and balance, in whatever way the horse needs on that given day. Don’t get hooked on an exercise or pattern that you feel needs to get done, despite having a cranky horse.
Don’t forget to cross train! When you do go out on the trail, take the arena concepts and feelings with you. Don’t make arena the bad place and trail the fun place. Make everywhere you go a beautiful, fluid, and relaxed conversation between you and your horse.
If your horse has aversions, respect them, and don’t be afraid to back off. My gelding began rearing when going across the diagonal from having been drilled dressage movements, so for a while I found creative ways to avoid move until he learned the arena was a place of calm.
Be creative, make it simple, and don’t get boxed in to making the arena always about “training.” I love my arena. But I wouldn’t love it if it were always about sweat and riding patterns.