What am I doing wrong?

“Hi Stacy, I’m a trail rider and up until recently I didn’t understand the need to ride around in a circle.   I bought a new horse about a year ago and on the trail he will follow my husband’s mare with no problems.  He even leads sometimes, if she’ll let him.  I live in ————— so I normally don’t ride in the winter but I’ve found an indoor arena near by that I can use.  I think riding in an arena a few times over the winter would help with the spring craziness.   I have tried riding in our small paddock but he acts like he doesn’t know what to do. He takes a few steps and stops and just stands there.  I turn him, he takes another step and stands again.  What am I doing wrong?”-Jane

Jane, I love getting emails like this!

The first reason I love it is because it was inspired by my free tips email list. This is a weekly email that I send out discussing topics such as reading your horses body language, common problems, and trail riding vs performance horse training. It is content that I only share with people who subscribe because they want a better understanding of what I do and why I do it. I can tell it is having an impact because of response like Jane’s. 

The next reason I love this question is because I remember having those exact same thoughts! Why ride in an arena?

Keep in mind as I answer this question that I grew up in Maine and spent most of my time trail riding. 

30 years and many, many horses I see the reason for arena work.

Your horse is reflecting your thinking

That’s right. You don’t see the point of arena work…and neither does he. So in a way you are united in your thinking:)

But now you are asking the question: What am I missing? I feel a change coming on…

What is the purpose of arena work?

Boiled down to the most basic reason I can think of, the post is to improve the depth of the conversation. 

In order to avoid my overwhelming desire to write an entire book right here, I will instead illustrate the point.

Remember Roxy’s now famous ride? We developed that depth of communication in the arena. Yes, we also did many other things but the depth came from those dedicated, focused session. 

If you want to improve the depth of understanding and communication the arena is the place to do it. (more blogs to come on this subject…feel free to leave your questions in the comments)

Who’s the leader?

The arena is the classroom and the horse is the student.

The arena work instantly points out who is making the plan.

If the horse takes you to the gate, he is making the plan and the plan is to leave.

If the horse follows your directions, you are making the plan and he is following your lead.

If your horse stands still, the good news is that he is waiting for you…but now you need to make a plan for what comes next.

In closing

You are reporting that your horse just stops. People are often surprised when their horses are resistant to arena work. You should be prepared that this is a possibility. It doesn’t make arena work wrong, it means your horse doesn’t see the point. My kids just went back to school this week and many kids don’t see the point of school either. 

In your mind imagine that the arena is the classroom and the rider is the teacher. Remember in high school how some teachers bored you to tears while others inspired you to greater heights?

It is the same thing with your horse in the arena. 

P.S.-If you’re interested in receiving the tips like Jane does, the form to subscribe is at the bottom of the this page:)


  1. Sandy Maxin on May 4, 2019 at 1:16 pm

    Do you ever do fear clinics?

    • Stacy Westfall on May 6, 2019 at 10:28 am

      Fear is an interesting word. I reserve it for a very intense feeling. Other words that are similar but different could be; apprehensive, doubtful, hesitation, doubt, worry…
      There are many times that I feel negative emotion before I do something I really want to do. Showing is a great example. I get excited which feels a lot like nervous. When I feel this I find the thought that I am thinking so I can tell which it is. If I find, “I’m afraid I’ll make a mistake.” then I’m probably feeling nervous. If I find, “I show in 1 hour!” I’m probably full of positive tension. I discuss this feeling in this podcast: https://stacywestfall.com/episode-17-are-you-helping-or-interfering-with-your-horse-when-riding/

  2. loriel on August 26, 2017 at 5:17 pm

    Thank you so much Stacy for sharing your wisdom with us! If only you knew how much you’ve helped me and my horse over the past 3 years. My husband and I often say to each other, “He’s not being bad, he’s just asking a question!” My question for you today is: Can you give those of us who are lost in an arena a plan to follow or tips on how to make a plan? Thanks again!

  3. Debbie McDonald on August 25, 2017 at 10:54 am

    Looking forward to reading posts and posting to you as well about my new horse.
    Thank you for giving us a chance to ask questions

    • Stacy Westfall on August 25, 2017 at 4:47 pm

      You’re welcome! I do my best to answer what I can (although I get a bunch) and to answer especially the ones I think will really answer many people issues all at once. I’ll keep trying if you keep reading and sharing!

  4. Enigma Robinson on August 24, 2017 at 10:01 pm

    I’ve found that arena work can show you very quickly whether you tend to be a rider or a passenger. When I did a lot of trail riding in Vermont I mostly relied on the horses to follow the trails. I realized this when I went back to arena work and noticed the horse wandering all over the place because I wasn’t being specific enough about where I wanted those hooves placed!

    • Stacy Westfall on August 25, 2017 at 8:34 am

      Exactly! I’ve been riding my 2 year olds on the trails and they seem amazingly trained, until I return to the arena. The trail FOR SURE has made them stronger physically and given them a steadiness that I love. Riding in both places is very beneficial for both horse and rider…but I’m sticking by the trails being more fun! (and arena have more depth…)

  5. Janet on August 24, 2017 at 9:09 pm

    Our old farm horses became 4H horses, doing halter, pleasure, equitation in an arena, they were both fabulous souls and did what the kids asked of them, with the exception of our gelding jake just couldn’t get why you had to open that damn gate in the trail horse class when there was no fence! hahah

    • Stacy Westfall on August 24, 2017 at 9:24 pm

      Lol! Just walk around it human…lol!

  6. Gretchen on August 24, 2017 at 8:16 pm

    I enjoy riding both inside and out. Probably more out.
    My horse is very comfortable outside, but very spooky inside.
    Cleary a leadership issue. Where do I start fixing this problem?
    Now I’m nervous riding indoors, do my leadership is even worse!

    • Stacy Westfall on August 25, 2017 at 8:40 am

      Leadership and confidence begin on the ground so I would do groundwork inside. More than lunging to make the them tired, groundwork is about controlling the direction and speed. Sending them over obstacles such as tarps, logs, etc. These things illustrate that the communication and leadership are there. This should also build your confidence as you see that you are able to make changes and improve the language in a safe way. Plus your horse will get accustom to working inside. When you both are communicating well, walk-trot-lope, on the ground you can consider moving on.

  7. Sue Radovich on August 24, 2017 at 7:30 pm

    I would like to receive your weekly email. Thanks!

    • Stacy Westfall on August 25, 2017 at 8:36 am

      Sue- I’m glad! To receive them, scroll down to the bottom of any page on this website and fill out the form. Anti-spam laws prevent me from adding you. Then you will receive a confirmation email that you need to click. Again, this is an anti spam filter:)
      If you need more help, write back and I’ll add more!

  8. Liana on August 24, 2017 at 6:00 pm

    I do both trail riding and arena work. I enjoy both. I believe that makes a difference, as I’ve had friends ( who mostly just trail ride) comment on how good my horses are in the arena, whereas theirs have a harder time doing arena work. They, themselves, aren’t really happy “being stuck inside” if they ride in bad weather. What you said shed more light. Thank you!

    • Stacy Westfall on August 24, 2017 at 7:18 pm

      You’re welcome! I love both but for different reasons:)

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