How to Train Your Horse to Hate Arena Work.

WMCayLesDoes 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.

23 thoughts on “How to Train Your Horse to Hate Arena Work.

  1. Lisa

    Thank you, Anna! I tend to be one of those giggly arena riders. Not because my horse is perfect, but because I feel like I’m a little girl playing every time I am near my horse and horse friends. Yesterday, he tried so hard for me, and we had a great ride. I decided to just get off then and love on him. I swear I could see a “thank you” in his eyes. It was one of those magical days. 😄

  2. Hi Anna, your blogs are always keepers–this is an exceptional one (but then they all are!) I always wondered why my horses and I all hated arena work. Now I know why! And it really doesn’t help being a perfectionist. One of the things that helped me was learning to wait until my horse was ready. I remember being at clinics over the years and we would be asked “when your horse is ready, do xxxxxxx” and I would take that literally, and so when neither I nor my horse was ready to do as asked, we’d get so behind the others in the same group and could be nowhere ready to learn the next exercise!

    Learning with you would be so much fun–I’d get such a kick out of your pithy humor (I’d give it right back!) and I can see we’re on the same wavelength, and I just wish you were closer. I hate trailering my horses over an hour and then expect them to feel good about being worked, so I was wondering if you ever come up to the south Denver area.

    I just read Tom Widdicombe’s book, “Baucher and the Ordinary Horseman” and that reinforces what you are talking about today. Slowly all the pieces are coming together.

    Thanks again for all your wonderful writings!

    Christina

    1. Much to my chagrin, being a perfectionist helps almost nothing!! Thanks for the compliment, Baucher is a genius. I’d be happy to come north, but it’s more affordable if there are more riders… Thanks, Christina, hope you and your horses are well.

  3. Yes! Yes! Yes! And a thought on trailering in: my horse will do nearly anything to get on a trailer – even if it means a looooong trip over the Sierra Nevada mountain range, because he’s so excited about the work that happens after he gets to the destination. His association with the trailer is “I’m going to have a BLAST, and be so happily tired.” I could see this association might begin to form after a lesson with Anna. Just a thought…. 😉

      1. Yep! I don’t know what he was like around trailers for most of his life, but when he got to his owner before me, he found great FREEDOM in being a horse. Her philosophy is very much like yours: make it fun, reward even the smallest try, don’t chase perfection without a good dose of humor….this is how he ended up being so excited by an open trailer door we almost loaded into someone else’s trailer, while I was on board. He thought maybe he could sneak in, and I wouldn’t notice, and we’d go some place even more FUN. In the arena or out, he loves to do stuff. Unless I relentlessly try to make myself perfect. Then he hates me and what he’s doing. ;).

  4. Suzanne in NC

    You say so clearly what my “cowboy” trainer has been telling me for such a long time. I hope you don’t mind that I printed some of this out and have it hanging in my work cube to remind me even when not in the arena. I am so very happy that I am understanding these things now….think I was a slow learner on a very tolerant horse and trainer. We are beginning to do really really well and she seems so much happier! Thanks for sharing your vision!

  5. What a wonderful way to say it . And your last comment brought tears to my eyes.

    I will surly put your words into my heart and remember them from now on, I am around my lovely horses.

  6. June

    Oh my how that resonated with me. I unfortunately sent my young horse to a trusted trainer to bring on after backing him which was easy and his attitude was great. I sent him there as I believed the trainer would be the best for my horse as this was the first young horse I ever had and I wanted to do the very best for him. He came back a wreck. Terrified of a rider on his back hated the arena with a passion. Never got to the bottom of what had happened. They say horses cannot speak but they can loud and clear. My lovely boy was telling me he had had a very bad experience. Anyway two years later he is loads better but still hates the arena and is very tense in there. This has given me a new idea to try. He is great when hacking out but resentful when being asked anything in a school. I have never tried riding him in the school with the mindset of being on a hack. Definitely worth trying. Maybe then we can get over his hatred of the school and start to introduce schooling slowly. Love your blog.

    1. First, thank you for sticking with him. Sounds like you did your best and he ended up in ‘military school’. So sad. Good luck. Another thing I do with young horses sometimes is take them to the arena, do some in-hand happy things, get on at the mounting block. Sit a moment, do some neck scratching. Dismount and go back to the barn. Meaning not every trip to the arena is a bad thing. Good luck. And thank you.

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