Not having a designated space to ride in, like an arena, can often feel like a big disadvantage. If you have been riding in an open field or been confined to roads for any length of time, you’ll probably know what I mean! However, while an arena does help with some aspects of riding, having no arena will also force you to think outside of the box.
And this literal ‘out of the box’ thinking when applied to your schooling can often be a big plus when it comes to riding your horse as well…
Arenas are wonderful to ride in, the surface is prepared for optimal performance, the rails and letters remove any guesswork when it comes to accuracy, shapes, and sizes. The centre line is exactly that – the centre line of the arena. X is always at the same place…
Having an arena allows you to focus entirely on the actual riding end of things – or does it?
While many riders see having no arena as a massive drawback and negative aspect of riding, there are a similar number of riders who will happily tell you the opposite. In fact, they often chat to anyone who will listen about how their riding improved tenfold once they got out of the arena; whether by choice or necessity.
Riding in an Open Field
Now, obviously, you don’t want a field or trail with holes and ‘dongas’ all over. But riding in a fairly flat field has its merits if you can overcome the initial challenges that will arise when you begin. These challenges often occur when we have become accustomed to riding in a more enclosed space. Or when we ‘believe’ that we need a perfectly manicured arena to truly work and train our horses.
First and foremost riding in the open, whether it be in a field or on the trail, strengthens both horse and riders core a lot more. This is due to the necessity of correcting the balance because the footing is not 100% even.
Riders who spend their time schooling in fields have the ability to ‘adjust’ a lot quicker to the changes in the horse’s balance underneath them. From doing this over time, they also notice the subtle shifts that happen when their horse begins to lose its balance. This allows them to make the necessary corrections BEFORE the movement or gait is ruined due to being unbalanced.
And just like riders, the horses who are worked in on a less than perfect footing have the advantage of becoming more ‘sure footed’. They also learn to adjust and re-balance where necessary
Let’s Talk Straightness
Riding in the open also teaches both you and your horse to go ‘straight’ without the stabling or ‘hand holding’ effect of hugging the rail. Riders have to focus more on maintaining the straightness for both themselves and the horse. This is usually a little challenging at the beginning! It can feel like both are weaving all over the place. However, with a little practice and something to focus on, you will find that you will both improve your ability to ride ‘straight lines’.
And if you are consistent and diligent, this improvement may even develop more quickly than if you rode in an arena.
The key part to making this work for you is finding something to ride towards. Focus on something in the distance and work on riding a straight line to it. Once you have mastered riding towards it, reverse the process. Do the same this time riding away from it.
I find that placing a marker on one end of your line and having the focus point on the other really helps you to remain on the track you have chosen. Use a plastic cone, a jacket, a tire, or even a taller weed or tuft of grass!
Once you feel confident about riding the line in the walk, try it again in trot. Then later, ride the line in the canter. You can then begin adding transitions onto your line as well in order to truly test your straightness.
Out On the Trail
On the topic of transitions, a narrow trail can often be a great help when riding a horse that is very crooked through transitions. Moving up and down through the gears while on the trail will force him to remain straight. Use a narrow path or trail to first explain to your horse what you are looking for.
Then, once you feel that you and your horse are a little straighter, move into a more open place and ask again. This can be a field, a wider road or path, or an open space.
I am going to suggest transitions between walk, trot, and halt initially. Start with your own straightness first. Then, from there, begin assessing your horse’s straightness. Oftentimes, both horse and rider have weaknesses through transitions. The narrow path will help you to begin strengthening these for both of you.
Extending Your Exercises…
Another advantage o the open field or a trail is the fact that you can ‘stay going’ through an exercise. If for example your three looped serpentines are feeling a little stiff or the loops lack symmetry, why stop at loop three. Continue on to a 10 or 12 looped serpentine if necessary to really perfect the movement.
The open space allows you to change things up, not having to stop every 40 or 60m. Instead, you can rather stay moving forward. This allows you to ride through the problem, until you have remedied it.
If you have ridden in a smaller or enclosed space such as an arena before, you will probably have experienced this. Thoughts like ‘If I could only try for a few strides more before transitioning into something else, or having to turn…” Having a longer and bigger area to work in can truly help you and your horse to find a flow to what you are doing.
Including Accuracy in Your Ride
The one thing that is missing when riding with no arena is accuracy. Everything can feel wide and open, loose and free. And while this is great initially, over time it also allows both horse and rider to be a little less diligent and consistent when it comes to questions, responses, and quality of work.
The good news is that you can easily remedy this. Begin creating your own ‘corners’ or ‘markers’ from cones, poles, gutters, tyres, even a jacket or two. Years ago when we (my sister and I) rode at home without an arena, we made use of whatever we had available that day. ‘Tufts of grass’, weeds, and even piles of droppings in the fields acted as markers for accuracy.
The choice is up to you. Whether or not you see this as an insurmountable obstacle, or as a novel way of working your horse a little differently to get the same, or even a better, result.
No Arena = Extra Energy
The final benefit to getting out of the arena and working in an open space or on the trail is how it all feels. I know that many riders often become worried or anxious when they feel the difference in their horse. However, in most cases, I think there is rather an opportunity here for you both.
Learn to allow any excess energy to flow forward, into the contact. From there, you can then gather it and use it to improve the quality of the work.
If you block this energy, intentionally or not, with your seat or your hands, it often results in an explosion of sorts! Rather than allowing this energy to build, and build… Let it flow forwards, underneath you. Soften through both your seat, your body, and your hand.
Once the energy is flowing through your horse from back to front, then being using a combination of your aids to influence it more. Focus on gathering and connecting it. This ‘excess’ energy is now going to help you to actually develop, strengthen and improve both your and your horse’s overall way of working.
In fact, this energy is often how you will first experience true self-carriage, lightness, space, and connection while riding your horse. Embrace it :)
Get Out of the Arena This Week
So, that all being said, the next question you need to ask yourself is how you can begin seeing this as an opportunity, rather than a hindrance. What changes can you make to your ‘riding space’ that will help you to begin using it as a training ground? Not just an empty open place to ride…
You and your horse’s training and development are only limited by what you believe and, from there, the actions you choose to take.
Explore and examine how you have been thinking about having no arena. Then challenge yourself to see things differently the next time you’re with your horse.
- Schooling on the Trail
- Stop Wasting and Start Investing Your Time with Your Horse
- Free Resource:- One Exercise Multiple Ways
- Connection; the Online Membership for Equestrians
- Lunging for Riding – 4-week program that gets results
- Groundwork for Riding – 4-week program (no arena required ;) )
- Daily Strides Premium Newsletter
- Online Community for Equestrian focusing on Planning and Mindset
- Equestrian Virtual Lounge Online Community
- The Daily Strides Podcast on iTunes
- Daily Strides Podcast on Google Play
- The Daily Strides Podcast on Stitcher Radio