3 Pros and 1 con to riding outside of arenas

Photo credit to Bigstock.com./ChrisVanLennepPhoto


3 Pros and 1 con to riding outside of arenas

My farm is nothing fancy, but it is functional. I have big, safe stalls for my horses, a nice wide aisle with good ventilation, and two awesome grooming stalls right near the tack room. Turnout space is adequate, with good board fencing. My husband generously made me a couple dozen schooling jumps with 10′ oak poles to match. However, I have no manicured riding arena with delicate chain fencing and dressage letters. Instead, I ride in an open grass field.

This is no new thing for me– I’ve been “arena-less” for possibly half of my riding career. When I first arrived at Dorothy Crowell’s farm, there was no arena…we did flatwork in the bottom of hillside bowls, roughly 20-30m in diameter. We jumped on ridgetops and hillsides. You learned to make do, and when you arrived at a horse show, it made you appreciate flat, level ground!

For the last several years, I’ve schooled exclusively in fields, paddocks, and on trails. In Ocala, riding in a grass field is actually pretty nice– the natural footing is even and fairly consistent (until you wear the grass away into sand pits). While some may see it as a disadvantage, I’ve learned that riding outside an arena has been a good thing for me and my horses.

Riding straight
I was reading over old dressage tests from the past several years, and one consistent comment kept popping up: “Straight.” I consistently earn 7s and 8s on my centrelines, with good remarks on straightness. Why is that? Because when you don’t have an arena, EVERY line is a “centre line.” There is no rail or arena wall to rely on– you MUST use both legs and both reins to ride your horse straight. I use distant visual markers– a tree, a telephone pole, a fence post– and ride straight for it. With no rail, there’s no “crutch” for my outside aids to rely on; and there’s nothing to draw my horse to, either. So we both must learn to be straight on our own, in every movement, for every ride, on every day. When I ride haunches-in, there’s no wall to keep the outside shoulder straight– I must use my outside rein or suffer from a wobbly shoulder-out. With young, green horses, it is TOUGH to develop that straightness…I’m fighting a wiggle worm who may not steer very well, has no idea where we’re going, who probably drifts toward home, and my goodness do I wish I had a proper arena some days! But by toughing it out for a few months, I end up with a much more correct horse in the long run. Trust me…seeing 8s for simple changes and centre lines (“Very straight!”) makes it all worthwhile.



Freedom: No claustrophobia
While I do miss a fenced in enclosure sometimes, the good thing about a wide open space is that there’s always plenty of room. When re-schooling TBs fresh off the track, most of them struggle to balance on a 20m circle, especially at canter. However, if I have 40+m, I can make gentle turns, learning to spiral in, and gradually help them gain strength and coordination in smaller spaces. This is quite helpful for teaching counter-canter, as well. No fences also means I can turn any direction, anywhere, anytime; if the horse struggles to hold the counter lead, I can circle off in the true-lead direction and maintain his balance. I can make circles and serpentines wherever I like, I have the freedom to adjust my figures to the size and placement that suits my horse at a particular moment. There is no single “across the diagonal”…my diagonal line can be anywhere in a 5-acre field, and I can repeat the movement again without having to go through a whole short side if I choose. I can practice transitions anywhere, whenever my horse feels balanced and ready, without the pressure of performing at a certain letter or place in a measured rectangle. In schooling, it’s more important to perform a CORRECT transition (balanced, forward, straight, through) than to make it happen at a particular location.

Challenge makes it easier
Of course, there are challenges when working in an open area. With no sense of confinement, it’s possible your horse will feel some “Wahoo!” in his blood. It may take a lot more half-halts, circles, and mind-engaging lateral work to keep him focused and controlled. As a rider, it’s easy to get frustrated (“He won’t listen!), but instead, try to appreciate the challenge. Find ways to get him to pay attention with lots of transitions, and most importantly, keep your own emotions under control. Resist the fear response of snatching the reins if he gets strong; use your weight, seat, and voice to slow him down. Riding in a field is no big deal; he needs to learn to work wherever you go, no matter the surroundings (or lack of fencing). Don’t expect a sudden improvement, but be consistent and persistent. Most horses will adapt to a new work environment within a week or two; and regularly changing your workplace (moving from field to field) will help both of you adjust when you must perform in new places–like when you go to a horse show. After all, many warm up areas are just semi-flat spots in a field… if you practice on that at home, it becomes much easier at events.

The downside: Accuracy suffers
The downside to all this open freedom is that you might notice some accuracy errors in your dressage test. With no letters to aim for, circles and serpentines may not be up to scale–it’s easy to forget exactly how big 10m, 15m, and 20m is. Also, a small dressage arena can feel mighty tiny on a big horse, and corners come up fast! Before your next event, do yourself a favour and throw some ground poles down to make four corners approximately 20×40– it will help immensely to practice a corner or remind yourself the proper size of a 20m circle. Another trick is to find a clump of grass, a post, or something visual and force yourself to perform transitions at that marker.

Yes, it’s true that I dream of a beautiful 100×200 flat space with all-weather footing. I’d love to not need studs every week to jump. But, riding in an open field has definitely helped me and my horses in so many ways. It’s made my horses more correct, and in the end, more rideable and more competitive. It’s taught me to ride straight out of habit and instinct, requiring less conscious control. My horses are stronger, by training on slight inclines and hills every day. I understand many riders feel safe and comfortable within their 20×60 sandbox– and there are times I wish I had that playground, too. However, I urge you to take a ride away from your regular work zone and see just how much else you can accomplish. It won’t happen in a day or a week, but over time, you will find that riding “outside the box” has a lot to offer in improving you and your horse.

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