Episode 90: Trail riding vs arena riding: advantages and disadvantages

Trail riding vs arena riding. They both come with advantages and disadvantages which is why I find a combination of both beneficial. In this podcast I discuss why some horses seem resistant to arena work, letting the horse make decisions on the trail, how to know if you are letting the horse make too many decisions on the trail…and more.

Full transcript

Announcer: [00:00:03] Podcasting from a little cabin on a hill, this is the Stacy Westfall podcast, Stacy’s goal is simple–to teach you to understand why horses do what they do, as well as the action steps for creating clear, confident communication with your horses.

Stacy Westfall: [00:00:22] Hi, I’m Stacy Westfall, and I’m here to teach you how to understand, enjoy and successfully train your own horses. Welcome to Season 9.

Stacy Westfall: [00:00:32] And I have to say, I really enjoyed season eight. Having conversations with people was really fun. And I’m super glad that you got to meet some of the people that I hang out with virtually. And, you know, if there’s one of the topics that I talked about when I was, you know, speaking with someone, interviewing someone, having a conversation, if you had a topic that you really wanted to hear more about, be sure to let me know. You can email me at westfallhorsemanship@gmail.com and let me know. I have decided to call season nine “Trail Riding”. So all about trail riding. This topic was actually inspired because I just recently achieved one of my 2020 goals, which was to safely trail ride on Presto, and at this point of recording, we’ve logged about 20 miles out riding on the trails. And so far I’ve been able to mix it up. I’ve gone with horses that he knows–like one horse that he knows really well and followed that horse. And I’ve gone in a group where there was one horse he knew and two horses that he didn’t know. I’ve gone out alone once and when I was out riding alone, I ended up catching up with and then passing some people that were riding strange horses. And so it’s been really interesting. And I think that unpacking that for you over the next few podcasts might help some of you see how the arena work ties together with the trail riding and how they can both benefit each other.

Stacy Westfall: [00:02:19] Because I definitely trail ride all my show horses and, you know, I don’t really have a horse that only does one or the other. So all of mine do both. And I have people come for clinics that do mainly one or the other, but by the end they generally leave understanding how both can really help the horse. So during this season, I want to incorporate questions that you might have. So the best way to get your question on the podcast is to leave a voicemail that I can play the recording of. And it’s really easy to do. Go to stacywestfall.com and there’s an orange tab on the right hand side, whether you’re on your smartphone or on a computer. And when you click on that tab, it will give you the option to record your voice asking a question. But if you’re feeling really shy, feel free to send me an email at that westfallhorsemanshiop@gmail.com address. It is me over there. That’s the only email I have and it’s me. I read them all, even though I don’t reply to them all because sometimes I’m, you know, actually trail riding. Confession, like, I will actually check check my smartphone trail riding.

Stacy Westfall: [00:03:39] Maybe that needs to be an entire topic. So anyway, what I want to do right now is I want to use this episode as a starting point for the conversation about trail riding. And I’m kind of viewing this as like a bridge between two worlds, trail riding and arena riding. And I have seen horses that have only been trail ridden that when they come into the arena, they have a visible reaction. And we can talk about that. And then I’ve also seen arena horses, horses that have spent their whole riding career in an arena, go out onto a trail and have a visible reaction to that so we can unpack and talk about that. But what I want to do right now is review some of the overall advantages and disadvantages to both arena work and to trail riding. And so as I go down through these, I’ll sprinkle in some examples so that maybe you can understand where they’re coming from. So first, let’s review the arena advantages and disadvantages. So arena work is really good for focused riding, and one thing that it offers is generally like a very secure area that’s level, like an open surface with limited distractions. If you’re in an indoor arena, it actually makes a pretty big difference because you’ve got the walls that are kind of blocking out the the vision of all the other stuff that’s going on and what that does, whether you’re in the indoor or whether you ride in an outdoor, having that one focus spot, it allows the horse and the rider to focus on each other.

Stacy Westfall: [00:05:28] And so just like a small round pen is a small, focused area, a larger riding arena can become like that. And because the contrast of the wide open world is actually pretty different. So you’ll notice that, if you go back and listen to previous podcasts that I did a lot of arena work with Presto because of these advantages, because especially when I’m starting a colt in the area that I am in, it offers a secure level surface with limited distractions. Now I know people that start colts and they’re out in the desert and so they’ve got different available footing is what I would call it. So for me, I’m in Ohio, there’s a large portion of the year that about six months of the year there’s questionable footing outside. So starting a colt is something I want to do when it’s not slippery or muddy or snowy or icy. And so the indoor has all those advantages of that controlled footing, especially where I am. If I were in Arizona, I could see where I might change my–my workflow a little bit differently because I would have a bigger open area to go out to, that had really good footing as far as not being slippery.

Stacy Westfall: [00:06:56] So, you know, some of this stuff–but some of this is a little bit variable depending on where you live. So I just want to go over some of the advantages now. Arena disadvantages. One of the main disadvantages for arena work is that it requires a plan and an active rider, there’s almost no rider that can be more bored than a rider that walks into the arena and goes, I don’t know why you people ride in the arena. I don’t see any point to it. Very interestingly, the horses tend to also have that similar reaction if they weren’t raised being worked in an arena and their rider comes in going, I don’t know what the plan is, a lot of times the horses are like me either. Let’s get out of here. There’s the door. And so from the horse’s viewpoint, when you look at arena riding, the goals tend to be less clear. Now, we could change that a little bit if we started putting up obstacles or something, because we could make it a little bit more interesting. But generally, if you have indoor riding arena or a riding arena area–I might frequently refer to mine. The main riding arena is about 70 by 200. That’s not the–it’s not big compared to going out on a trail ride where you might go 4 miles. So it is from the horse’s viewpoint, much less clear.

Stacy Westfall: [00:08:25] They’re like, okay, maybe they catch on to like, we’re going to go around here a few times to the left and a few times to the right. So a lot of times the horses will appear more resistant to arena work. But in reality, what’s happening sometimes there is that the horses don’t see the point. And if the horse doesn’t see the point and isn’t used to looking to the rider to say like, hey, what’s the plan then? A lot of times that’s why it will feel like there’s resistance when you go into an arena with a horse like that. So now let’s look at some of the trail advantages and then trail disadvantages. Now advantages of the trail…the views are so much more interesting. Again, I live here in Ohio. It is August. And when I go out to trail ride, I’ve got lots of hills, ups and downs. I have very few flat spots where I trail ride. My trails happen to be like underneath a big canopy of–of old trees for the majority of it. And there are river crossings and rocks and there are stair-step water breaks up and down some of the steeper hills. So the scenery changes, the footing changes and there’s almost endless possibilities of what could be around the next corner. That was actually kind of what was really fun about trail riding Presto alone for the first time was that it was even more noticeable that he was really looking around. And so there were times–and it happened when we were with horses before and then when I was alone– where I’ll be riding along, and sometimes he’ll just ask if he can stop. So what that looks like is he’ll–he’ll stop and and I let him stop because I figure, you know, if I’m–I’m constantly talking about that teeter totter, that rocking things back and forth. Well, I kind of want him to be a nice, quiet trail horse. So if he volunteers to stop, especially if we’re out riding with other horses that are still walking, I went ahead and rewarded that and let him look around. And it was just kind of interesting to watch him looking around. And he had been ponied out on the trails, but he still had that reaction. And he does, yes, in case you want to know, there is a difference in how he acts being ponies versus being ridden. And if that’s something you want to hear more about, you can ask a question. I’ll try to work it in. But all of these different things have played up to it. But what was really interesting about–there could be endless possibilities around the corner–we were about a mile and a half into our ride and we could hear what sounded like horses ahead of us.

Stacy Westfall: [00:11:17] And it definitely–like I could feel his head come up a little bit and you could feel like him get a little bit more excited. You can actually, depending on how hard their heartbeat, sometimes you can feel their heartbeat. And–and so he was like, oh, something’s up there. But he wasn’t scared. He was very curious. And that’s interesting information for me to gather. And he was pretty sure it was horses even before we could see. And so, you know, it’s interesting to know that there are endless possibilities around the next corner. Now, there also was a–a woman out there, that had a dog on a leash. So that’s another thing that we found around another corner. And I think there might have been Bigfoot at one point because there was definitely something big out in the woods. I would say deer, but they tend to be more elegant and careful than whatever this was crushing around. But anyway, there are lots of things around the next corner. And so that’s the advantage, is that there are all kinds of different things coming up. Now that can also be a disadvantage of trail riding, meaning that there are all these unknown things coming up around the next corner. And so you’ve got to know your plan for what could be coming and how you would handle it.

Stacy Westfall: [00:12:36] So an example of that would be if I’m out trail riding, I know these trails already. So even though I’m taking a new horse on the trail, I know the areas of the trail that have a really steep drop off or I know the areas of the trail that have deeper mud and I know the areas of the trail that get really narrow to where Willow can squeeze between the trees on that high and dry path. But Presto won’t fit between those trees without taking off my knees. So I’ve got to go on the lower muddier path. And so when we look at the disadvantages, you know, there’s…there’s the–the what could be surprising you around the next corner and there’s also–while it might seem like going on a trail ride is a plan, a lot of times riding from point A to point B or in my case, I ride a loop. So I’ve got these different loops that I can ride–a three mile loop, a four mile loop, a five mile loop, a seven mile loop, and an eight mile loop is what I figured out. And there’s a 14 mile loop that we’re not going on for a while until everybody’s more fit. But while going out there and riding one of those loops might sound like a plan, it’s actually a lot more vague than the type of riding that we do when we’re in an arena. And so inside of the plan of going on one of these trail rides, going out on one of these loops, you need a level of awareness for who’s making decisions.

Stacy Westfall: [00:14:17] And this is not to say that the horse shouldn’t be making decisions. I actually enjoy letting my horses make some decisions. For example, the thing I referenced earlier about allowing Presto to stop, you know, a couple of times that was when we were going a really long, steep hills and he stopped and was kind of like looking around and catching his breath. Other times he stopped and was just looking around and admiring the scenery is really what it looked like. And so I let them make some of those decisions. But I’m also really clear about which ones I’m letting them make and which ones are becoming a disobedience. So, for example, he’s only been on a handful of trail rides and I have let him make those decisions to stop and look around. But if I start riding him and he begins to stop and there is increased resistance, when I ask him to go again, that will become a red flag, that he’s starting to think that not only can he make the decision to stop, but he can make the decision to not go. Can you hear those are different, but they can easily be confused.

Stacy Westfall: [00:15:33] So an example of this would be I’ll see riders that let the horses make a decision like which way to go around the mud and, you know, maybe stop and and listen or what I was describing there. But you can tell it’s becoming a problem when it gets to a point where, let’s say you’re riding on the trail and there are not a lot, but there are two or three man-made culverts out on these trails. There’s like 98 miles of trails. So there’s a lot of trail and there’s a handful of places where people have put in some kind of water diversion. Well, if there is a spot on the trail where there’s a rusted through culvert and you want to go around it to a different place because it’s the safer way, then it’s a very important at that moment that your horse says, OK, I really wanted to go to the left, but I understand you’re asking me to go to the right and I will defer to your decision making when you say I need to. What starts to happen if you let the horses make the decisions a lot is that the horses begin to think that their decision should be number one and they’ll kind of consider your opinion. But the problem with that is like in the example of a rusty culvert spot that you, you know, surprise, you find that out there and maybe a big storm came up and has washed this and exposed it.

Stacy Westfall: [00:17:07] Well, this is not the best time for the horse to be making a decision, because in a very made world that most of our horses are ridden in, the horses don’t have enough information to make the best decisions. So they might look and think that this area on the left with the culvert, with the rusty hole in it is the better decision because it’s drier, but you actually have more information. So it’s important that the horse will still follow your directions. And it’s very common for me to go on a trail ride and see horses that have been basically kind of given their heads and let the horse make 90 percent of the decisions. And I’ve seen plenty of horses where the rider gets to a spot on the trail and wants to make a decision. And the horse says, no, this is where we’re going. And it’s very factual. And this is when it starts to look like it’s out of control because the rider can’t turn the horse away. As soon as the horse knows when there’s a Y in the trail and the right path leads to home and the left path leads further onto a longer loop and the horse goes, no, I’m going this direction. By then, there have been a lot of missed little tiny things like you really wanted to go to the right hand side of the mud and the horse really wanted to go to the left hand side of the mud.

Stacy Westfall: [00:18:34] So it’s not that I’m opposed to letting horses make decisions, but it’s definitely I’m clear at the end of each step. And I know that sounds extreme, but I really, truly do pay attention. Did I let the horse do that? Did I ask the horse to go over here? And what level of resistance was there when I asked my horse to move a little bit more to the right or a little bit more to the left. So. This is really important, again, for lots of safety issues, which can be like, you know, maybe your horse doesn’t like how a mailbox looks and decides it needs to make a big skirting around that mailbox–well if a vehicles coming and you’re going around a mailbox that puts you out in the road. There are so many dangerous examples that can either involve, you know, physical things like vehicles or culverts, but they’re also drop offs. There are also just the horse that turns around and takes you home. By the time a horse will turn around and take you home like that, odds are your speed control is also kind of shot. And that’s not a good sign because that’s when you end up with the horses that are running away towards home. So I’d be really interested to know. Which one you enjoy more and what your mix of arena work versus trail riding work is. So if you want to leave me that feedback anywhere you see fit, you could post it on my Facebook page.

Stacy Westfall: [00:20:05] I’ll be doing a video, upcoming video where I will show GoPro footage from my first trail ride on Presto. And again, you can email me. There’s all kinds of different things. So I think it’s going to be an interesting discussion to have about why I decided to wait so long to trail ride Presto. And what I mean by that is that, you know, if I take one of the…another colt that I’ve started more recently would be…let’s say, Gabby. So when I started riding Gabby, let’s say that I started riding her. I’d have to look back, but I’m going to guess I started riding her in like March or April. And I was then riding her on a trail 4 months later. And with Presto, I started him in July of last year, and I took him on his first trail ride in July of this year. And so I think it’ll be an interesting conversation to talk about why I waited so long to ride him. And you’ve heard me talk a little bit here about, you know, the emotional immaturity and physical immaturity and some of the differences that I’m running into for him as an individual. Maybe they’re related to his breeding, which is different in the fact that he’s huge. And so he’s still kind of lanky and growing into himself. But I think some of these could be really interesting conversations, especially if you guys jump in with your emails or your voicemails asking questions.

Stacy Westfall: [00:21:45] In next week’s episode, I’m going to talk about the biggest problem that I see when trail riding Yeah, I actually took it down to one. I picked a number one overall problem that I see when trail riding. So try to make your guess as to what the overall number one problem I see trail riding is. And I’ll give you one hint. I’ve discussed it before on this podcast. But before you go–for this podcast, I did want to let you know one more thing. I want to let you know that I’m opening my online course that I released this spring for the first time. It’s called The Complete Guide to Improving Steering and Teaching Neck reining. And it’s going to be open for the next two weeks and then it will not be available. I’m going to take it offline. And during the time that it’s offline, everyone who’s in there will be able to see that I’m going to be adding some new videos and let me explain why. So basically, when I’m teaching people, like if you’re listening to the podcast or if you come to a clinic, I think it’s really, really valuable for people to understand how the horse training progresses.

Stacy Westfall: [00:23:08] You’ve heard me talking here about how I want you to understand how I start the colts all the way up through how I take them to show horses and all the different things that I do with them, because I think that overall understanding of this big arc, I always see it like kind of a rainbow arch. And I want to show you how that works, because I think that the value of understanding that is huge, because it will reveal to you the weak spots in either your understanding and your horses training. So you might be riding a horse and having an issue that by understanding the elementary level of training, you might actually find there’s a weak spot there. Again, I just loved it when they had that TV show, Are You Smarter than a 5th Grader? It just kind of revealed the same idea that, you know, it’s worth going back and refreshing some of those elementary school ideas. And so inside the course, I actually have the different modules inside of each module. I make sure to use the example, and they’re labeled this way, elementary school, high school, college level courses. And so that means that when you’re seeing an exercise done, you can see a horse at elementary school level doing that exercise. Then you can see the same exercise with a high school level horse. And what that looks like and what that does, that’s a little bit more–a little more challenging, a little different. And then the college level horse. And this lets you experience…that change that goes up through and you can see the different problems that the different horses at different levels have. So Presto was naturally a student in the elementary school level. But during this launch, he’s going to reveal his graduation from elementary into high school. And so I’m going to continue to show his progression, which is super cool because you can see the training progress. But one thing that will be really interesting to do maybe next year will be to make a time lapse progression of his physical changes, because I don’t know if you’ve ever noticed it, but when you’re watching horses that have a higher level of training, you can almost always see a difference in their physical build.

Stacy Westfall: [00:25:32] And a lot of times it’s really noticeable that their top line changes and they start to get that really strong and arch-y and pretty top line. And that’s because of the way that they’re being asked to carry their bodies differently. So the first time that Presto was ever ridden is in the course. And I explain the techniques and what I’m doing. And then during this launch, I’m going to be adding the videos where he graduates from elementary to high school and there’s videos of him doing all these different exercises. The really cool part is that if you’re already a student inside of the course, you get all these upgrades for no extra charge and…same thing is going to happen. If you–if you become a student during this launch, then when I do more upgrades during the next launch, you’ll already be in and I’m going to put links in the show notes and on my home page so you can find the course easily. It has a 30-day money back guarantee, has 100 percent satisfaction so far with all the students that are in it. And the class will close on the 20th and it will open one more time later in this year, but the price will go up and that next launch. So thanks again for joining me. Thanks for listening. And I’ll talk to you again in the next episode.

Announcer: [00:26:58] If you enjoy listening to Stacy’s podcast, please visit stacywestfall.com for articles, videos, and tips to help you and your horse succeed.

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  1. Drewry Voshefski on August 11, 2020 at 10:55 pm

    “I hate trail riding.” I mumble to my friend not 5 minutes into the ride. Already my horse was tailgating hers, making me use my reins to slow him down and prancing a bit. At home, in my dressage arena, we have none of that. In an arena, there are fun exercises to practice balance and relaxation. There are tests to ride and levels to work through. There is stopping with the seat and verbal cues that are somewhat effective. In an arena, there can be liberty. With arena work, there are measurable goals. I used to like ACTHA rides because there it was…trail riding with goals. Trail riding to me is full of leaping creeks, deer flies and their full accompanying platoon of horse eating insects, full body shakes due to equine’s general agitation with the whole business, opportunities for getting hurt, spooking at a myriad of ‘scary’ objects, MUD which must be avoided at all cost, steep cliffs to the side which one could easily slip down with a simple misplaced hoof, hills which displace the saddle. Yeah, yeah, the Man from Snowy River made it look courageous and idillic, but I find it nothing of the sort. On most days, you will find me happily riding in a 20×60 meter sandbox.

    But there is one thing I ponder about this…if we are on the trails, for example, relaxed, having a nice quiet ride, and a deer crosses our path, and my horse pricks his ears with head high and watches the deer, is he enjoying himself? To me, I see this as a negative precursor to spooking, but if this enriches his life, if this experience makes him happy, if he is being curious, I am willing to keep on providing him with the opportunity to experience it.

    Thank you for your blog podcasts. What a gift to all of us!

  2. Jeanne Knapp on August 7, 2020 at 12:57 pm

    Hi Stacy,
    I look forward to listening to your podcasts each week.
    Regarding Episode 90, you asked what the biggest problem trail riding was. I believe it is not having a plan. Also, If the foundation of arena work is applied, it makes it much easier to ride out and gain more confidence in horse and rider.
    I am on the shy side, so emailing is easier for me……
    Thank you for your encouragement and enthusiasm!
    From, Jeanne Knapp – Mesa, Colorado

    PS If you have any tips and advise on winter horse care and stable management, it would be appreciated! Thanks Again

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