Does your horse have a Night of the Living Dead lurch to the arena? Do you clock in like it’s a factory job? Is there a rut on the rail, and is it you?
Worst of all, is the arena a cell without windows where he gets corrected and controlled? Is it the kind of place where being gate sour, just wanting out, is common sense?
People tell me that their horse doesn’t like the arena and it’s obvious why. If your riding involves arena time, the first priority is to make it a place your horse wants to be. What if, instead of a horse being barn sour, he was arena sour. What if he pulled toward the arena because that’s where all the good things happen?
I learned a new word this week. It’s the German term funktionslust. Try to pronounce it; it’s juicy. It refers to the pleasure taken in doing what one does best. It’s birds flying, dogs playing ball. It speaks of a horse taking thunderous flight, feeling the glory in his physical body. Shouldn’t funktionslust be the sign on the arena gate?
For horses, living in the moment means what their body feels. Our words will never matter as much as his physical state. He doesn’t care what you think about horse slaughter or nutritional supplements or Nuno Oliveira. Right now, is his neck short, is his back is tense, is his movement is restricted?
A riding arena should be a blank slate, not intrinsically good or bad. Not the scene of a competition or a cool beach at sunset. We can create the arena as a playground, a dance studio, or a torture chamber. We can spend time trying to heal our horse’s attitudes about the arena by hacking on long trails, or we can make the arena a place they don’t need therapy to recover from in the first place.
Start here: all great rides begin with a curry. I don’t care if you ever use a brush for grooming, but the curry is a thing of magic. As you move over every inch of his body with energy and focus, feel your own body. It’s your primary tool for communication. Let the circling of the curry on his rump, soften your shoulders. Roll your neck as you curry his poll. Shifting weight from one leg to another, relax your own hips. Stretch your back as you bend to pick his hooves. Curry your horse until you lick and chew.
At the same time, make a plan for your ride. Vow to be happy in the saddle, lightly eloquent with your cues. Think about your own energy and don’t expect more from your horse than you are willing to put out. Have a plan because horses read that focus as confidence. Then be aware that you’ll stick to the plan 11-13% percent of the time. Laugh about it, out loud so he can hear you.
Head to the arena with a long step. Communicate through your body, let your feet be forward but don’t you dare pull on the lead. It’s the cue to him that you’ll be pulling on the reins later.
He doesn’t have to go to work right away. If you are taking the halter off and bridling there, spend too much time in between. Let him look. If you have friends riding when you get there, say hello to them but then ignore them and focus on your horse.
Are you a perfectionist? Call a moratorium on any of your behaviors that might fit in well in a 1950s Catholic girls’ school. Are you the silent, brooding type? Lift your energy. Smile. Show some teeth. Be interesting.
Start slow. Take a stroll with your horse on the ground. No hands, pay attention to your feet. Breathe. Walk big arcs. If you lunge before you ride, let him play in the beginning. If he lets out a buck, cheer for it. Let him shake it all out before you begin to ask for transitions.
When you get to the mounting block, have a scratch fest. Mount up and breathe. This is the dance. Breathe some more. If you are a longtime novice rider, you’ve been taught to sit still and be quiet in the saddle. If you’re timid, you might be unnaturally quiet. If you don’t have a plan, your horse is bored already. So right now, lift your own energy. Feel the funktionslust in your own body. Riders ride! It’s you, doing what you love. Cheer up, for crying out loud.
Walk on. Crank up the music. Focus, go to work with energy. You’ll need discipline to keep your own energy high, to allow the freedom of movement your horse needs to find his balance and feel strong.
Do not punish your horse in the arena. Punishment destroys trust and if it happens every time he goes to the arena, it’s like returning to the scene of the crime. If your horse already has a history of being punished in the arena, it’ll be obvious. Let him know he has all the time he needs.
Go to work with purpose, forward and relaxed. Let him feel his body strong. Sometimes do it his way. Find a fair challenge because it keeps the conversation interesting. Know that he’s giving you what you asked for and adjust yourself accordingly.
Sometimes take an arena trail ride. Drop the reins and don’t care where you go. Sometimes when you are on the trail, do a spiraling exercise or practice light transitions. In the end, riding is just riding. Never location. It’s about a conversation between friends.
Finish the ride a long rein. Energy high, striding out. Halt and take a load off. Your horse, of course. No lingering, being the cool kid on a horse. Don’t make him hold you when he can’t mitigate the weight by moving.
Step a few feet away and give him a full release. Wait for him to take it. Wait for the yawn, the neck shake. No need to rush, let the arena be a sanctuary; the place you congratulate each other on your obvious brilliance. Let your voice be low and soft, with a hint of a nicker.