What if… your horse doesn’t like arena work?

This is a common statement in the equestrian world: ‘I don’t ride dressage because my horse doesn’t like it’ or ‘I don’t use the arena because my horse hates it’ or… Who hasn’t heard this? Can you do something about it? Yes, you can!

Find the reason

First question I always ask people when they say this is:’Do you like to ride in the arena?’ When the rider says ‘no’ it is usually because it is hard to believe your horse enjoys riding in the arena if they don’t.

If the answer is ‘I know this because my horse refuses to go into the arena’ it is more likely that the horse indeed has a negative association with the arena.

What is associated with arena work?

If you don’t like to ride in the arena, you may have some negative associations with riding in the arena yourself. What happened? Did you fall off of your horse? Does it reminds you of shouting, angry instructors you have had in the past? Is it because you are ‘lumping’ (=making too big a steps and you set yourself and your horse up for failure) your building blocks in training and get frustrated or discouraged?

If the horse doesn’t want to go into the arena, what happened to him? Do you know? Do you think you can counter condition him?

Change associations

If it is about you, try to find out what it is you don’t like about the arena a_arena_work_hippologicnd why. If you were hurt due to a fall, try to take a step back in riding until you find your confidence back in the saddle. Find an instructor who is specialized in anxious riders. If you don’t know where to find one, search for an instructor with a Centered Riding or Murdoch method background. They can help you get your self-confidence back.

If riding in an arena is associated with instructors who seem never satisfied with little improvements, find some one else. You pay, you choose.

Is arena work associated with some frustration, desperation or feelings of anger? Maybe you were never taught you how to split your training goals properly into small steps to set you and your horse up for success. I can help you make a training plan.

Maybe you don’t have a goal in mind and that makes arena work feel purposeless. What are your dreams and how can you change them into goals?

Maybe you love trail riding more because you have the feeling that you are not training your horse and you don’t have to meet anyone’s expectations on the trail. Even if trail riding or endurance is your goal, you can still think of many exercises to do to prepared your horse properly.

Change your horses associations

If your horse doesn’t want to go into the arena or is a bit reluctant to enter, work on making his associations more positive. Just enter the arena to do things he enjoys. If your horse loves to be groomed, just groom him for a couple of weeks in the arena. Or just let him in for a roll. Find out what he likes and use that to your advantage!


You can also make the work more attractive by using appetitives (adding rewards) in your training instead of using aversives (unpleasant things) in training. If you don’t know how to start using positive reinforcement start with something fun, like trick training.

I think in 99% of the cases it is not about the arena, I think it is about the associations a rider or horse have with the arena. You can change the associations and make it fun (again).

Sandra Poppema
For tailored positive reinforcement training advise, please visit my website and book a personal consult!

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0 thoughts on “What if… your horse doesn’t like arena work?”

  1. This is yet another thing to have been changed for us since clicker training! Schooling in the arena was something we ‘had’ to do & if there were battles I had to make sure I won ( wasn’t happening!). I think we both used to dread going in there, the reluctance from Billy was becoming embarrassingly obvious! Now we go in for short periods about 5 times a week & I have such a willing horse! We have made it more fun to be in, he can have a roll & then we get on with clickering. He does seem to like doing different things so the biggest challenge is for my imagination rather than having to fight any battles, love it!

    1. I hear you! The battles we ‘had to win…’ That was so hard, I am glad I discovered that you don’t have ‘to win’ from your best friend/team mate. Only thing you have to win is his heart.

      You’re right multiple very short sessions are much more effective and more fun for everybody than long ones

    1. Yes you are lucky that Hafl loves his work in the arena. It says a lot about your relationship.

      You’re right: lack of motivation is common, but that is easily solved if one switches towards positive reinforcement in training.

  2. Oh, what a useful post again! Luckily, my horse does love to do arena work. I tend to get as much difference in the work we do as I can, and luckily it pays off. Sometimes I need to get really creative in what to do this time, but I really like to do so. It keeps me ‘fresh in my head’ as well.

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