Navigating the Crowds

Don't let frustration with crowded riding venues get you down. These three expert clinicians share their secrets for getting it done, even among the masses.

Let’s say that you find yourself at a busy training facility, in a crowded show arena, or at a standing-room-only clinic that only has one riding ring. Because of the high activity level, you find yourself riding in a busy, crowded arena with many people working on different projects who all have different agendas. As you navigate through the crowds of riders, you find yourself becoming increasingly frustrated with the whole arrangement. It’s easy for you to lose your training focus and find yourself wandering aimlessly around the arena, accomplishing nothing. In addition, you’re beginning to feel unsafe because some people seem oblivious to the tightness of quarters and race around, unaware of the danger that they and their horses may pose to the group. You find yourself accomplishing less and less as your ability to cope with the crowds also lessens.

Instead of finding a new riding facility, making enemies by yelling at other riders, or riding only at 10:00 at night after everyone else is done, let our trio of top trainers-Tommy Garland, Julie Goodnight, and Jonathan Field-help you handle the hordes. Take a read through these informative answers to our questions.

Question: From your experience, what are some of the most dangerous aspects of riding in a crowded arena?

Tommy Garland: The most dangerous aspect of riding in a crowded arena is the chance of getting run into by another horse and rider. At a lot of shows I go to, the schooling arena gets very crowded. Make sure to be aware of what’s going on around you. You can make this a positive experience by using it to desensitize your horse to other horses who are getting close, running by you, spinning, stopping-even a big saddle seat horse trotting by you.

Julie Goodnight: It’s just like driving on the highway-it’s all the other drivers I’m worried about. Collision is a big problem, especially when people stop and/or change direction abruptly without looking over their shoulder. I saw a rider get killed that way during a schooling session at a big multi-discipline horse show. Longeing in an arena while people are riding also is highly dangerous and the more disciplines you mix into one arena, the greater the concern.

Another concern is the danger to your horse’s state of mind. Is he used to the show environment and crowded arenas? Used to having horses coming directly at him, sometimes at speed? Is he likely to get overwhelmed and reactive? If so, someone may get hurt and at the very least, your horse is going to be emotionally traumatized and may forever think warm-up rings are death traps.

Jonathan Field: Bunching up of horses and riders is one of the most dangerous aspects of riding in a crowded arena. Both horses and riders need personal space to feel comfortable and confident. Most accidents occur when horses without strong leadership from their riders try to defend that space on their own, either by kicking, striking, or running away. Out-of-control riders and overly confident riders also present a hazard, as they’re usually unaware of their surroundings, putting everyone at risk.

Question: What can a rider do in the midst of a crowded arena to avoid getting hurt? How can a rider best approach and talk to those who create dangerous situations?

Tommy: A lot of times, the other riders aren’t aware that they are creating a dangerous situation. They are concentrating on their own horse, sometimes to the exclusion of what’s going on around them, so they may not be aware of the problem they’re creating. If you feel you’re in a dangerous situation because of another rider, you may want to consider going to an official person in charge, explaining the situation, and letting them handle the problem. That’s what they’re there for, after all. By doing this, you would be attempting to correct a problem for all of the riders in the arena, not just for yourself.

Julie: Here are some key points to focus on:

• Keep your eyes up and watching everyone else all the time.
• Always pass left hand to left hand.
• Give your horse calm but confident guidance. The horses are all watching each other, so make it clear by guiding your horse in a definitive direction that the other horses and riders all know the path you are taking.
• Know arena etiquette and share it with others. Particularly passing left hand to left hand when riders are going different directions; go to the middle of the arena if you need to dismount, talk, or adjust stirrups so you don’t block traffic; let faster horses have the rail-cool out by circling in the middle.
• Make polite suggestions to newbies, so they know procedures and etiquette. Riding instructors should teach more etiquette.
• Talk to show management. They should have a safety officer to monitor the warm-up pen and schooling sessions. There should be some rules, like no longeing (or have a separate longeing arena); no carts driven while people are riding; no jumping except at certain times or places (trainer must be present); schedule specific practice/warm-up times.

Jonathan: To avoid getting hurt, it’s important not to just jump in and ride without first assessing the situation and gaining an overall awareness of your environment. Who are you riding with? Which horses and riders are in or out of control? Where does everybody tend to bunch up? Are there any horses you need to stay clear of? This knowledge is paramount, especially when riding in groups, as it prepares you mentally and emotionally for what is to come and governs your plan for what you and your horse will do.

Next, focus on being a strong leader for your horse. Ride with a strong intent. It is easy to become sidetracked by every horse and rider that comes your way; however, not only will you become frustrated, but you will also create anxiety in your horse as he feeds off your frustration. If you do find yourself becoming frustrated or anxious, ask to follow a confident rider around for a while. This will take away the pressure of having to decide where to go and allow you to focus on you and your horse.

Question: What advice would you give a rider who must work in a crowded arena to avoid becoming frustrated?

Tommy: Remember that everyone in the arena is in the same position. Just give yourself extra time so that you’re not in a rush. I’ve found that this helps me. Be patient. Work on small things with your horse until you get comfortable with your surroundings. There have been times when the arena has been so crowded that I would leave and come back later. If this is an option for you, it’s not a bad idea. It’s not worth the risk of potentially causing a lasting problem with your horse-say for instance, if someone runs into you and hurts or scares your horse for future riding.

Julie: Go with the flow. Find a big quiet horse that is handling the crowds well and put yourself right behind him-let him ride interference. Identify someone who looks like they know what they’re doing-calm, cool, collected, confident-to watch and follow their lead. You can learn a lot from observing.

Jonathan: My advice to avoid becoming frustrated is to apply the lesson all great horsemen and women live by: learn to adjust to fit the situation. Be open to riding on and off the rail and to speeding up or slowing down as required. Most importantly, be prepared to ride the horse you have today, not the one you wish you had. Horses are dynamic creatures and so we, as horsemen and women, have to learn to be flexible and willing to adjust to the situation that presents itself, not the ideal situation we would like to have. A crowded arena presents an ideal situation to put this adage to practice!

Question: From your experience, what are the best exercises to work on that use the crowded arena to the rider’s best advantage?

Tommy: Start by working in the middle of the arena and let the others keep going by you. I would use lateral flexion, a lot of small circles, and just sitting to let your horse get comfortable with what is going on. As you both become accustomed to the surroundings, this will build confidence in you and your horse. When you feel comfortable, start working your way into the traffic, always being aware of your surroundings. Keep your eyes up and plan ahead.

Most of the young horses I ride don’t like other horses coming straight at them. They’ll jump sideways and try to go the other way. So just take your time and try to build confidence in your horse. Ride off the rail by at least 10 feet. That gives you a way out if your horse starts feeling pressured by the other horses who are crowding into him. With this exercise, your horse will develop confidence and become more tolerant of all the horses around him.

Julie: Practice at home by having horses come at you from another direction, crowd you from behind, etc. Work up to the crowded arenas slowly: go to shows without showing so you can pick your times to school; go to small schooling shows before attempting the big time.

Ride in good company. If I have a youngster or nervous and inexperienced horse, I’ll make sure he has a good role model at his side all the time at the show.

I’d rather avoid the warm-up pen altogether than have a negative or frustrating experience for my horse right before I go in the show pen. I’ll often just go on a long walk around the show grounds-just my horse and me. That way he is calm and tuned into me-not busy worrying about all the other horses. You’d be surprised how often you can find a quiet suitable corner to warm up away from everyone else.

Jonathan: When riding in a crowded arena, it is best to train from the big-picture point of view. It would be immeasurably frustrating and counterproductive in such a chaotic environment to focus on an exercise that required consistency and repetition, such as smooth transitions and lateral exercises. Instead, focus on being a strong leader for your horse in such an adverse situation, building relaxation, not tension. This is the time to show your horse what a great leader you are by focusing on riding around everybody with a strong intention, just as you would ride through a forest full of trees that you were dodging. These trees might be moving, but that makes it more fun! Start at the walk and build accordingly.

Building your confidence and your horse’s confidence in tight quarters is much more productive than building on the finer points while full of tension. Don’t worry about the finer points until you are in a more appropriate setting.

It’s easy to let your emotions take over and become frustrated when situational obstacles get in the way. But-as our experts attest to-go into that crowded arena, clinic, or show ring with a glass-half-full attitude. Use the crowds, commotion, and chaos to build confidence and teamwork with your equine partner