You’d rather be out on the trail or hauling your horse to some fun riding event. Instead, you’re stuck riding in an arena. And merely going in circles seems boring. One dictionary defines being bored as “tired of and slightly annoyed by a person or situation that is not interesting, exciting, or entertaining.” Another dictionary says, “Tired and uninterested from being unoccupied or under-occupied.”
If you’ve ever been around a teenager who says she’s bored, you know that she rummages around in the refrigerator, complaining that “we never have anything good to eat around here.” She whines at her little brother, grumbles at the dog for making so much noise when he drinks water, and then she finally flops down on the sofa to surf the TV channels. Of course, if her boyfriend calls, she’ll be a different person, even though nothing will have changed in the refrigerator, or with her brother or dog. The change will have happened within her.
When we talk about busting the boredom of arena riding, we have to first realize that we’re talking about changing our feelings. We have to find a way to spark our interest even though the activities or environment may not seem exciting. So the challenge is to find entertaining ways to do something familiar or to add some variety to our everyday activities.
If riding is normally a work time, try changing your focus to make this next ride fun. Many riders, especially those working toward a goal, end up drilling when they ride, focused on finding faults in their riding or their horse’s performance. Before long, riding becomes a chore. No wonder that arena riding isn’t fun for them. (It likely isn’t fun for the horse, either.)
You can lighten up by interspersing serious training with five minutes of “recess,” playing with one of the activities we list below. Then both you and your horse can go back to class refreshed.
On the other hand, if you normally think of riding as off-duty time and you depend on the trail or riding companions to keep you interested, this is your chance to realize how much fun working in an arena can be. You pick a small task and then see how well you can do it. As you buckle down with a specific objective for a few minutes, you become engrossed in what you’re doing. Before long, you’ve been riding for an hour or two, and you haven’t been bored for a minute.
Here are a few suggestions to help spice things up. Keep in mind that every time you ride, you are training your horse. So think in terms of quality riding, not just activity.
1. Pick a small goal and achieve it. How about stopping with your shoulders aligned with a certain fence post? Easy to do at the walk, but how about at the trot and canter? Now how about doing it with a beautiful stop, not just a crash landing by the post?
2. Do something better, not faster. See if you can ask your horse to go from the walk to trot smoothly, without him raising his head. Now how about downshifting from trot to walk, instead of trot, pause, and then walk?
3. Use this time to improve your horse’s tolerance for “stuff” around him. Try riding with a fly whisk, for instance, and whisk him all over, front and back. Or tie a towel to the end of a longe line and see if you can drag it from horseback. See if you can pick up a foam “noodle” from someone and carry it around. Try picking up a bottle of water from a fence post or barrel. Now try riding by and putting it back on the barrel without breaking stride.
4. If you’re a get-on-and-go type of rider, work on teaching your horse to stand still for mounting, and to stay still until you give him the signal to walk. Maybe just standing still whether it’s for mounting or not is a big enough goal. Be sure to do it with a sense of humor, not as a taskmaster.
5. Cones, cones, and more cones. There are a zillion patterns you can set up. Play games like “in and out the windows,” trying to see how smoothly or accurately you can ride. Ride around obstacles or barrels. See if you can ride forward between two barrels, stop, and then back between them. How about walking around makeshift articles, or through a maze of foam noodles? Be sure to tell your horse “good job” and give him a soothing stroke when he does what you want.
6. Try using different signals than you usually do. If you normally direct rein (riding with a rein in each hand), try neck reining. If you normally neck rein, try using weight or leg cues. If you use voice cues, try using your reins or leg cues. If you usually use leg cues to ask your horse to sidepass, see if you can do it with just rein cues. How about trying to ride circles using just one rein? Make it play-not work-for your horse (and keep in mind that your goal is always to try to use the lightest cue possible).
7. Ride with music. This one is really fun. You can try to match your horse’s stride to a particular tune, or work up a dance routine to a favorite song. Pretend you and your horse are preparing for a “gig.”
8. Ride with a loose rein. Put your horse into a perfect head position and speed, and then drop the reins. See if he can maintain his performance for a few strides without your reins.
9. Work on rhythm. Think big, relaxed steps. That means you have to focus on letting your seat relax and move with the horse. You might even close your eyes (if it’s safe to do that) or have someone lead your horse while you close your eyes. Shrug your shoulders to see if you are holding yourself stiffly. Test yourself to see if you can feel when each of the horse’s feet touches the ground.
10. Play with a friend. It doesn’t have to be someone who rides the same style as you do. Ride single file, keeping exactly the same two-horse length between the horses. Then see if the lead horse can stop and stand still while the other horse goes on past him. When you ask the stopped horse to walk, don’t let him rush to catch up.
Ride side by side. Try to stay shoulder-to-shoulder or stirrup-to-stirrup. Don’t get into a position where one horse could kick the other. Work up to a goal like riding around with each of you holding one end of a polo wrap.
When two riders get it down pat, invite a friend and turn yourselves into a mini- drill team. You’ll have plenty of laughs and your horse might look forward to the next arena session, too.
Having goals and breaking up the time with small achievements can be fun for both you and your horse, and it helps to build that all-important sense of teamwork. And that’s not boring.