There are few things as frustrating, or even as embarrassing, as having to deal with a horse that refuses to go into the arena. Chances are you or someone you know has had to deal with an arena-sour horse, especially if you compete in timed events.
Think of the situation from the horse’s perspective. Outside of the arena he gets to relax with his buddies while inside the arena he has to work hard and hustle his feet. As soon as he leaves the arena, he’s allowed to rest and be with his friends again.
Horses are basically lazy creatures, meaning that they always pick the option of the least amount of work. So when an arena-sour horse is walked towards the arena, his only thought is how he’s going to get out of having to go into the arena to work hard. That’s when he rears, spins around and backs up – anything he can do to not go in the arena. When a horse is misbehaving, he uses the reactive side of his brain, he’s energetic and wants to go somewhere. And the more you try to force him to behave and go into the arena, the more upset and nervous he gets.
Conquer His Fear
When you’re working with an arena-sour horse, don’t think, “How can I make him get in the arena?” Think, “How can I make it uncomfortable for him not to go in the arena?” You’ll do that by working the horse hard where he wants to be (outside the arena) and letting him rest where you want him to be (in the arena). You’ll do the complete opposite of what he is expecting.
Depending on how arena-sour your horse is, you might only be able to get him within 150 feet of the arena before he starts misbehaving. That will be your starting point. Using one rein at a time to direct him, you’ll work the horse hard hustling his feet and constantly making him change directions. The more you change directions, the more he’ll use the thinking side of his brain.
Some examples of exercises you can use are: serpentines, rollbacks, trotting or cantering circles, etc. Keep in mind that you’ll be wasting your time if you let the horse drag his feet and daydream about his next meal. Make him hustle his feet and give him a reason to want to go in the arena and relax.
Work the horse for 5 to 10 minutes away from the arena and then take him into the arena and let him rest. In the beginning, you might only be able to bring the horse within 90 feet of the arena. While the horse is resting, rub him and give him a chance to catch his breath. After letting him rest for 5 minutes, go back to working him 150 feet away from the arena again for another 5 to 10 minutes.
Each time that you work the horse, you’ll take him back to your original starting point – the place he wants to be. And each time you let him rest, you’ll bring him closer to the arena. The second time you might get him 60 feet from the arena gate and the third time you might get him in the arena.
When you let the horse rest, drape the reins down his neck and dare him to move. If he wants to move, let him. Take him back to where you were working him and hustle his feet. Instead of sitting on the horse and saying, “Don’t go!” let him move, and then offer him the chance to stand still and relax. You have to give him a reason to want to be in the arena and to relax.
Do the Opposite of What He Expects
The horse thinks that as soon as he steps one hoof in the arena he’s going to have to work hard and sweat. Instead, once you get in the arena, let him relax and get off of him. Put him in the barn and take the saddle off. Do the exact opposite of what he expects.
With repetition, he will soon learn that he has no reason to fear or resent the arena. Whatever you do, don’t get the horse in the arena and immediately start working him hard because then you’ll have to start the whole process over again.
Consistency is Your Greatest Ally
Practicing this exercise one day isn’t going to cure an arena-sour horse. On the first day you may get the horse inside of the arena, but that’s just the start of the process. Remember, when training a horse, consistency is your greatest ally and inconsistency is your greatest enemy. You have to consistently chip away at his fear and resentment of going into the arena every day. If you do that, eventually, you will be able to eliminate the problem.
Author’s note: A native Australian, Clinton Anderson began his quest to become the best horseman he could be by apprenticing under nationally acclaimed Australian trainers Gordon McKinlay and Ian