Friday, March 29, 2019

Arena Anxiety in Our Horses

"Start her in the round pen, then get her out on the trails after a few days."
My farrier's advice about training Beautiful girl

But I didn't take that advice, and I didn't have a very good outcome either.

My trainer, who has started all our young horses, works on a ranch.  She gets the horses working from day one or two by ponying them out on the trails packing a saddle. When they learn to stand tied, pack a saddle, work from the ground, she moves to mounting--and then very quickly, she's out on the trails with them.  She trains 7 or 8 at a time, and has done so quite successfully for about thirty years--rain, shine, snow.

She has a great formula for a solid foundation, and she has sustained very few injuries in an extremely high risk occupation.

Sixteen years ago, I acquired Cowboy, my heart horse.  I was his fifth owner in 7 years.  He was a show baby, and he had won many awards from yearling forward.  He'd also been a stallion, and he even produced a live foal (I don't know where it is.) He had 120 days of "reining training."  But he was a challenge in the arena.  

In fact, Cowboy was such a challenge in the arena, that I was quite scared to take him out on the trails.  I could ride him at all gaits, but he was a fight.  

I confessed my fears to my trainer, the one who starts all our young ones.  She told me I might be surprised with his behavior on the trails---it might be BETTER.  

I was in SHOCK and DISBELIEF.  Better?  Hmmmm...I was skeptical.  

Long story, short--I loaded him up and took him out to our local trails, and  yes, he was better.  Much better.  A different horse.  From that point forward, I was a trail rider, and I never looked back.

Fast forward to today and Leah--and even Beautiful Girl--

Leah is golden on the ground.  I ask her to move half a step, she moves half a step. Stand with one leg on the bridge--she stands with one leg on the bridge waiting for instructions.  Calm. Smart. Trusting. Willing.  

Beautiful Girl.  Last year I started taking her to Riverside State Park to work the obstacle horse.  She did EVERY obstacle as soon as I asked it, and perfectly.  The tire. The bridge. You name it, she did it.

But the arena, in, there is another story entirely.

I've known this for a long time, and struggled with it. Starting Leah again, after four months off, I knew my challenge was going to be in saddle, and I was right.  Yesterday, when I mounted, I could instantly feel her tense up.  Then, she started to move, before I asked--something she does not do on the ground.  It's like she's over-anticipating, and she is such a sensitive soul!  She so wants to please.  Add to that the fact that she can't see me anymore, so she doesn't have visual cues which tend to soothe her.  

This isn't new.  We deal with it every season, and every season I try to find new ways to help her calm down--in the arena--with me in saddle.  

By the way, she is not like this on the trail.  It's only in the arena--and only in saddle.

I was talking to my daughter about it last night and we both think it  has to do with the fact that the arena means detailed work, whereas, the trail is, again, a visual, intellectually stimulating, relaxing job.  The arena is about doing circles, changing gaits, side-passing, opening gates, obstacles--well, you know what I mean.

Yesterday, in saddle, I did intuit that, and immediately shifted gears away from circles, and straight work, to obstacles.  It helped tremendously.  She takes great pride in working over an obstacle, and they're something she can see, concentrate on, and understand.  

When I first started her, I spent a year working with her in an arena as we were learning to communicate with each other.  Maybe that soured her and created this.  I don't know.  

However, the arena does serve a valuable purpose.  1. It's an enclosure-thus keeping them from completely running away with me. (although, Beautiful Girl tested that theory last summer.) 2. It has better footing.  3. It's close to the herd and barn. (That can be good and BAD.)

Tomorrow there's a group ride, and I'm not sure we're ready.  I rather prefer my first rides out to be in smaller groups of 2 or 3, not 12 riders.  I may take Leah and just see how she does, walk her around, and bring her home.  I don't know yet.  I'll go out and ride her again today, then make a decision.

But this year, I would like to finally say I've figured out how to help her calm down in the arena.  I helped her overcome her fear of opening and closing gates, allowing her heart rate to slow down between each step and side-pass, so maybe I'll get a grand epiphany on the arena, as well.

Please feel free to share your own wisdom on this topic in the comments. I read an article today that said the number one training issue with horses is anxiety--so I can't be alone here.  This over-anticipation in the arena is most certainly an anxiety--and anxiety is no small thing to conquer.


I rode Leah today and started her on an obstacle.  She did it, then trotted out, so I worked her in a couple of circles both ways and then took her back to the obstacles.  It seemed that a light went on for her that she doesn't have to trot circles as long as she just walks out and does the obstacles--which is all I'm asking for.  She walked the rest of the time and did all the obstacles really well, even side-passing over the hollow white tubes both ways--something she had just started doing well at the end of last season.  So, maybe this will solve it.  


  1. So Tristan says that a big problem is that we ask the same questions over nd over n the arena so horses aren’t sure what the answer is. On the trail the questions keep changing.

    1. I can see that, especially if the work doesn’t make sense to them or the release isn’t timed right. Leah loves to do obstacles in the arena because she is very clear on what constitutes success. But also, they’re not physically demanding, like working circles is.

  2. I think you've got her figured out with arena work. It might be that sometimes they get confused with what we're asking or trying to figure out why they need to do something that doesn't make sense to them.

  3. I like to pony my youngsters in the bush, even before they are big enough to pack a saddle. Babies don't need long sessions in the arena, but they can do a half hour ride being ponied. I hope you can pony T'weed lots this year. I even take them for walks in hand through the brush and down to the river, let them see the world away form the herd. Sounds like your trainer has a good program.
    Another thing is that horses pick up very quickly on our anxieties; even before we realise that we are anxious or worried about something. Gussie is an emotional horse , she builds anxiety. Even on a trail ride she can ramp up- usually if we are riding with someone else, or if she is ion heat, or if we are heading home... etc. etc. So I ask her to stop, and we just stand there, calmly waiting for her mind to return to center (me), to relax and breath. Every time she tries to move forward, I put her back in the neutral spot, until she takes a deep breath and relaxes. Then we are good to go! It helps that I have an understanding trail riding partner!

    1. The riding partner is an important factor. Those little rest breaks are always helpful. I rode with a group of 8 Saturday and Leah did very well for that situation, but it was a bit amped up, as you’d expect, so lots of rest breaks for them all to settle.


Please feel welcome to join our discussion by telling us about your own thoughts and experiences.