Q: So far I have only schooled my horse in an indoor arena. I’ve moved to a new facility that only has a 20-by-40 outdoor sand arena. Do you think it will be harder to ride dressage in the outdoor ring? I am worried that my horse will be so much more distracted and I won’t be able to get him to focus on the work. Do you have any tips that can help make my training successful in an outdoor arena? I am schooling Second Level.
A: With a little time and patience there is no reason why you can’t ride dressage in a 20-by-40-meter ring, and in time you might appreciate it. Every horse is different in his reaction to an outdoor arena, but you might be surprised to find that your horse likes it. Some horses can get distracted and some like that they can see everything so there is nothing to be scared of. A 20-by-40-meter arena is not a full dressage-court size, which would be 20 by 60 meters. But the smaller arena will help you to ride more accurate figures and corners. The confinement will help your horse find his own balance. If you are riding at Second Level already, you will appreciate the help.
If you decide to show, it will take a small adjustment to get used to the long sides of the arena, but that shouldn’t cause any real problem. As with any new environments and changes, the more gradual you can introduce them the better. When you move to the new barn, give your horse a week or so (possibly longer) before you expect him to have settled and work the way he did at the last barn. During this time, introduce the outdoor arena slowly. His first experiences in the new arena will be the ones he remembers. Start by hand-walking him around the arena, letting him look at everything. Good groundwork and respectful hand-walking are always good basic skills to refresh. Your horse should look to you for guidance and support. If he gets scared, take him to a more comfortable area in the arena. Keep his focus by doing walk–halt transitions with big rewards when he overcomes scary areas. He should back up and move away from you like he does under saddle. When your horse is able to relax and walk around the arena bravely, you can move on. Don’t rush this phase, as relaxation is a necessary quality in a good riding partner.
Ask if you can longe in the arena (some facilities don’t allow this as it can tear up the footing) and longe him in the new outdoor—at both ends of the arena—until your horse relaxes and swings and stays focused on you. If there is a lot to look at, be forgiving for the first day or two as long as your horse stays with you and is obedient. Horses are animals and new environments are quite interesting to them. By day three your horse should be able to focus more and you can start to get some work done. I will sometimes put a pole or a series of poles on the ground for the horse to focus on if he is easily distracted.
When your horse is able to focus on the longe line and seems confident, you should be able to go back to riding. The most important component of your training is to build confidence in your horse. Taking the time to build this trust will help with future outings if you show and go to clinics and, in general, this makes for a well-rounded horse.
Treats and feeding in the arena are always an option if your horse needs a good reason to go in there. But keep that only as a backup or for the first day. If he cannot relax and focus on your work, you might have to do more groundwork.
If you are schooling Second Level, you have been through some training with your horse already. You know the rate at which he learns and what it takes to get him to relax and be a good partner. Just think of it as another part of training to get him used to the new environment. A confident horse is much easier to train and ride, so this return to groundwork for a couple of weeks (or less) can help all your future training.
Jaki Hardy is a BHS Certified Instructor, a USDF Certified Instructor through Fourth Level and a USEF “r” judge. She operates JH Dressage out of Sporthorse America in Santa Rosa, California.