A riding arena is often considered to be essential for serious riders, riders training young horses, and for those preparing for horse show competitions- but not everyone has access to an arena. While training a horse without an arena can be a challenge, with a bit of creativity, you can successfully ride, train, and prepare for horse shows without an arena or even a round pen.
In this article, we’ll talk about adapting to riding and training without an arena, some tips for helping make sure your horse is well-trained when training in pastures, trails, or smaller round pens, and a step-by-step guide to making a free DIY riding arena in a flat pasture.
The basics and then Some: Working Without an Enclosed Space
Horse trainers and advanced riders often use enclosed spaces like arenas and round pens as a way to provide a little bit of containment as they learn to tolerate a rider, saddle, and bridle. For young riders, an arena is almost essential for safe, fun riding lessons. Saddle training a young horse without the confinement of fences or walls can be even little trickier.
If you have not trained as a horse trainer yourself, through education and apprenticing an established horse trainer, it’s best to send your horse to a horse training facility for the first 30 or 60 days of their saddle training. A training facility will almost certainly have a space designed for training young horses with fewer of the complications that come with training in open spaces. Once your horse has basic saddle training from a professional trainer and is safe and fun for you to ride, you can bring your horse home and continue their training without an arena.
Advanced horse training without an arena
If your horse is already broke to ride and you are seeking to move into horse shows and competitive riding, more complicated training is generally required. Teaching your horse to leg yield, collect, extend, judge distances between jumps, or even work bridle-less generally requires an arena, but not necessarily.
1. Make a Mock DIY Arena
If you have a relatively flat pasture, you can create a mock riding arena within your pasture for free. Here’s how:
How to make a free grass riding arena in your pasture
Find a Flat Space in your Pasture
First, locate a flat portion of your pasture, free from any major divots or mounds.
Measure and Mark Edges
Next, pace off the dimensions of your mock riding arena. Mark the corners with spray paint, piled rocks, or ground marking flags.
Clear the Area to Improve Footing
After marking off the area, walk the area on foot and remove any significant rocks to the edges of your designated riding area.
If needed, mow the grass in your mock arena. Keeping this section of the pasture mowed short can help create a visual barrier that delineates the edges of your designated riding area.
IMPORTANT: grass riding arenas such as this are especially prone to becoming a muddy mess if the grass is not cared for. Repeatedly riding on the same track can kill grass, break up the root system that’s essential for good drainage (and thus, good footing), and result in a soupy muddy mess. To avoid this, follow some basic rules: 1. never ride in your DIY grass riding arena when the ground is wet, 2. mix up the track you follow- varying the size of circles and ovals and riding diagonals at varying ratios, and 3. stomp down any divots left behind after riding so that the grass can recover.
2. Riding hills
Riding up and down hills with your horse can be a great way to build muscle tone and condition your horse – most horses enjoy conditioning work in open spaces, going up and down hills, much more than flatwork in an arena.
Riding and training without a riding arena should involve a combination of flatwork in spaces like the mock riding arena DIY described above, riding on trails, and hill work. Horse physiologists report that walking, trotting, and cantering up hills can build up muscle tone and hindquarters and improve balance much better than simply riding an arena (source).
NOTE: It’s best to avoid steep hills and also to only do hill work when the footing is stable and safe.
3. Trail Riding
You might be surprised at the suggestion of training a horse for competition on trail rides, but trails provide a unique opportunity to develop your horse holistically: getting outdoors in the open and being exposed to the natural environment, other horses, and unexpected surprises while getting the conditioning benefit of long-distance riding, hills, and developing balance to manage the uneven footing on riding trails.
If you don’t have access to “trails”, take your horse on rides around your property. Making circles, loops, and turns around buildings, trees, etc. can actually be helpful to help improve a horse’s balance, adjust their stride, or learn things like leg yields and side passes functionally (i.e. moving over to avoid a branch on the ground rather than arbitrarily in an arena)
4. Rent an Arena by the hour
When show season approaches, find a nearby arena that you can rent by the hour for special training sessions to prepare your horse for the show ring. Loading your horse on a horse trailer and hauling them to an arena can be good preparation for the experience of going to and exhibiting in a horse show. If you don’t have a truck and trailer, network with other riders in your area and see if you can “carpool.” Hauling horses together and splitting the arena fee with someone else with similar goals and interests may be a way to make it even more affordable.
You don’t need an arena to grow as a rider or to prepare your horse for most levels of horse show competition, in fact, riding without an arena can be a challenge to improve your own creativity and can help prevent both you and your horse from getting bored in the process of training. By riding up and down hills, taking trail rides on paths or even your own farm, creating a grass arena within your pasture, and renting an arena occasionally by the hour, you can prepare your horse for competition without an arena.