How to Train Your Horse to Hate Arena Work.

Does your horse go better out of the arena? It seems like some horses just won’t go forward and no amount of kicking and yelling work. Sometimes they’re gate sour: fast toward the gate but then getting away from the gate is a wrestling match. Horses that are normally quiet and good become cranky and drag their toes in the arena, counter-bent and tense.

Riders tell me that their horse is bored in the arena. I notice that there is a predictable coincidence between how a rider feels about things and how her horse responds.

It goes like this: we head into the arena. Let’s say he’s sound and responsive most of the time. There’s no problem when he’s ridden in the pasture. Now in an arena, things change. Even if there’s no traffic, the rail beckons and for the first time, there is a place his feet need to be, so maybe we use our reins more than in the pasture. There are actual corners to navigate and he’s nowhere near where he should be, so even more steering is in order. We correct each stride, trying to get him to a particular place, not noticing it’s already too late for him to make it.

Maybe there are dressage letters posted. Even western barns have them because it’s easier for a trainer to say circle at B than circle at the fifth post. So we decide to circle at B, but start too late and act like there’s a cliff just past B. One more hard pull hard with the inside rein. He pulls back, of course, and tosses his head. Then we correct him even louder because the position of the silly letter means he’s wrong.

In the arena most riders feel watched, even if no one is there. So we get self-conscious. If there are other riders, or worse yet, a trainer, it means every stride is visible to the world. Of course they must be judging us…so we decide to out-judge them, as if skill is defined by being our own worst critic.

Then we drill it and drill it–closer to the rail, more bend, deeper in the corner, bigger stride, and more cross over at the leg yield. If we have a few good tries, we celebrate by doing more, just in case the crowd didn’t see the first few. Then the horse begins to dull, of course. He thinks he’s doing what he’s being asked for, but the cue continues again and again. There’s no release or reward, so he loses confidence and tries something else. While trying to find the right thing, he stops doing the right thing. Then we push harder, just one more and we can quit, but he has given you a stack of good tries already and now he’s as frustrated as we are. Nag-nag-nag. Who wants in the arena with you? Did no one ever teach you to say thank you?

The horse’s opinion of arena work is much simpler. “Everything I do is wrong.” And that sounds just like I hate the arena.

To add insult to injury, there is some idiot on a horse, smiling and laughing while her horse is doing beautiful, complicated work. She isn’t even trying and her horse likes the arena. Gotta hate that, when you are so serious and some giggle-puss, undeserving rider gets lucky. Add a bit of envy to the mix.

Sometimes riding in the arena gets too precious. And it’s my job to remind you that every time you’re in the saddle, you’re training your horse. So yes, congrats on training your horse to hate the arena.

But the good news is that every time you’re in the saddle, you’re training your horse! This is easy to fix.

If your horse is better out of the arena, that might be an answer. Ride AS IF you’re out. I’m not sure trail riding is more fun for a horse than the arena; I do know riders don’t constantly correct their horse’s every move on the trail. Ride in the arena as if it’s a huge meadow and there’s no wrong place to be. Let him move big–take up all the space you need. Go on a long rein and give him time to warm his joints. Then pat him and give him even more time.

Less correction, more direction.

Ride like nobody’s watching and if you aren’t prepared for the circle by B, then do it past B. Don’t punish him because you didn’t prepare in time. Have a plan for what you want to work on, but don’t care about it too much. In other words, set him up to succeed.  Relaxed and forward gaits are always a bigger priority than anything else, because they are required before a horse can actually do anything else.

Change things up. In dressage, we believe doing transitions is how we get a horse’s attention. The small print says that doesn’t mean the same transition again and again. Step one is to ride freely to encourage a supple and fluid body. Dressage rhymes with massage for a reason. Past that, it’s the rider’s job to get creative. When you canter, ride for the horizon. When you walk, breathe slowly like you’re passing a pond. If you get stuck in a corner without a plan, use the default plan–laugh and start over. Partners don’t blame each other.

And in this perfect moment, whether it’s a mountain meadow with wild flowers or inside a dark, dusty indoor arena, remember you are in a sacred, sweet place–being lifted and carried by a horse. Today is irreplaceable. Thank him every chance you get.

Anna Blake, Infinity Farm.

Reminder: If you like my blog, I have written a book that will be out this year. Follow that rodeo at annablake.com. Thank you.

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