Sometimes horses will start becoming difficult to ride into an arena (or any area they’ve typically been ridden or trained in). Often, the horse will start exhibiting behaviors that make it difficult for the rider to get the horse to the arena. These difficult behaviors can range from simply refusing to enter the arena- by stopping or backing up- all the way to extremely dangerous behaviors such as bucking, rearing, or bolting. Experienced horse trainers often refer to this as being “arena sour”. In this article, we’ll be talking about a few of the causes of a horse becoming arena sour and what you can do to fix a horse that has turned sour towards arena work.
Horses are very smart, and one of the techniques to prevent or retrain this behavior is simply to mix up routines so that horses don’t have a fixed idea of what entering the arena means.
Often, when a horse has become arena sour it’s because they’ve had a negative experience in the arena. For some horses, the “experience” they may be trying to avoid is simply doing the work of carrying the rider, but for many horses, the experience is more complex. The horse may have experienced trauma in the arena and be acting out in an arena sour way in order to avoid it a repeat of that negative experience. This trauma can range from having been abusively handled in that area, or simply having endured a rider with extremely untrained hands that resulted in an unintentionally painful experience for the horse.
There is a tendency among trainers to assume that all arena sour horses are simply trying to avoid work, but that can be a dangerous assumption to make. If an otherwise well-behaved horse begins exhibiting extreme behaviors to avoid entering the area where the horse is ridden, it is important to not just retrain, but check out tack, equipment, and handling, to consider any sources of physical pain the horse may be associating with arena work- that resulted in them becoming arena sour.
Check your Equipment
One of the main causes for a solid-minded horse developing arena sour behavior is actually that the horse is experiencing pain. A saddle that might be comfortable without a rider might be painful for the horse when it has a rider mounted in the arena. Similarly, a bit you are using might be inoffensive when tacking up or riding with loose reins around the yard, but might be extremely uncomfortable when the reins are held as you enter or work in the arena.
Check your Riding and your Horsemanship
How do you act with your horse inside the arena vs outside the arena? This goes for any specific area that your horse might be misbehaving in. If you ride casually with a loose rein outside the arena, but ride with aggressive rein handling, or “pop” your reins on hindquarters to ask for speed within the arena, it might be your own riding technique that your horse is trying to avoid. One way to check in with your own horsemanship is to have a trainer or riding instructor visit to provide feedback.
Retraining Techniques for The Arena-Avoidant Horse
Once you’ve confirmed that it’s not an aversion to pain keeping your horse from being willing to enter the arena, it’s time to start deliberately retraining your horse to enter the arena willingly and calmly.
Note: if your horse only acts up with one rider (often young riders who are often a bit easier for a horse to boss around) it is important to include your young rider in the retraining process.
Your first focus is just getting your horse in the arena- and to do so with positive reinforcement rather than punishment.
TECHNIQUE #1: simply tack your horse up, ride them into the arena, and immediately (once past the entry gate) pat their neck, dismount, and return to the barn to untack. With our Curly Horses, I do this occasionally- from day one of training! – to help keep horses from anticipating a pattern and reacting to those expectations.
TECHNIQUE #2: If your horse refuses to enter the arena and wants to stop, rear, or buck- take initiative. Don’t try and force your horse through the gate: instead, start making it more uncomfortable for the horse to be outside the arena than in it. Begin riding figure eights, gait transitions, and other maneuvers in the space outside the arena. Every 5 or 10 minutes, walk your horse towards the arena with the expectation that they will enter calmly. If they do enter, dismount immediately, untack, and turn your horse loose. If they refuse to enter the arena, continue working in the space outside the arena and offering the option periodically to enter the arena and be rewarded. If the horse is particularly resistant or your space outside the arena is very limited- you can dismount and lunge your horse outside the arena, until they willingly enter the arena with a mounted rider and are rewarded with a loose rein and dismounted rider. Pattern shifts like this can help horses begin to associate the arena with rest rather than discomfort, leaving them not sure what to expect next time they enter.
If your horse is extremely arena sour you may need to plan a week or more of regular training sessions like the ones above. By creating a very strong new experience pattern, the problem behavior should improve significantly. Once the horse stops resisting at the arena gate, use the following techniques to help prevent redevelopment of this issue:
Tips to Prevent Horses from Becoming or Returning to Arena Sour
Change up your training schedule and location. Whether you are a western rider competing in the speed events, a show jumper, or anything in between. Start mixing up your training: don’t train for your event every single ride, or every single time you enter the arena. Start trying “trail rides” in the arena and speed training in an open field.
Focus on bonding with your horse in and outside of the arena, mounted and unmounted. One of our favorite ways to foster a training relationship between horse and rider without the pressure of competition, speed, or performance- and removed from all anxiety on the part of a nervous rider- is through training tricks! You can take a day or two off your normal riding schedule to start teaching your horse to play fetch or even to pose for photographs.
Be sure and work with your own emotions (or the emotions of the young rider the horse is challenging) After a horse has begun misbehaving in a certain location, often the rider, especially young riders or adult beginners, will begin to have a reaction in their own body at that location. The horse, often, picks up and responds to the rider’s tension, creating a difficult cycle. Because horses are such sensitive animals, often our own emotional experience can cause a reaction in our horses. As you retrain your horse, make sure that you check-in with yourself or the rider you are working with so that as the horse is being retrained the rider is regaining confidence in that area so in the future both horse and rider can enter that space without a negative response.