Ditch the Rail

The upcoming time change + my full-time job mean that one of my riding options will be off the table this winter. Even if it rains a significant amount, the fields where I board Eli drain really quickly, and are rideable before the arenas are. Except, you know, in the dark. Not everyone rides in these fields, but I don’t think twice about it when I have light enough.

jumps in the middle of a turnout pasture

Admittedly, I take riding outside of an arena for granted. I grew up as a bit of a feral child in the summer months, turned loose at the barn with similar children, to do as we would with our horses. I traveled to recognized events with this barn, so we all spent time in the saddle out in the open.

We jumped bareback, spent hours bathing and grazing, and went on trail rides through undeveloped neighborhood property. We fell off, but we learned to ride.  We even went as volunteers on horseback, searching for signs of a local missing girl our age, because it easily could have been one of us. But we had our horses at the end of any difficult day like this.

Many riders spend all of their time in the saddle in an arena, with instruction. But personally, I have noticed some benefits to riding out in the open (with instruction or independently).

this guy was a-ok in the fields

1. Avoid the ring-sour horse
A ring-sour horse is a common problem. I have encountered a handful of ring-sour horses, some of which have been very extreme versions of it: Horses that leave the ring as soon as they spot an open gate, regardless of what the rider does; horses who won’t enter the ring while a rider is mounted; horses who race toward the gate, and balk going away from it. Eli has had some ring-sour moments, most notably having a meltdown at the in-gate at a local circuit show before I bought him. Dealing with all of that is up to the trainers and owners of horses with such behavior, but I do know this — if you are riding outside of the arena, there is no in-gate. You’ve taken the opportunity for sourness related to the arena away from the horse. Ride outside of the ring frequently enough in between rides inside the ring, and eventually the horse doesn’t latch on to that gate, ignoring all else.

2. Acceptance of novel situations
Pretty much every horse show I have been to involves a lot of walking to and from the stalls and the arena, and walking past all kinds of things, from tractors to concession stands. So, do you hop on at the stalls and ride past all of this on a horse who doesn’t mind? How do you get the horse to that point? Ride around all of that at home. Ride around the tractors, ride while dogs are around, ride outside the arena if you can, ride to and from the barn to the arena if you can. You might have to hand walk past all of this at first, but eventually don’t you want a horse that doesn’t mind a tractor dragging the arena? Eli is still working on his dog issues, but he is easier now to ride around dogs than he used to be. (Dogs are not allowed in the arenas at home, but they are allowed to hang out outside of the arenas and Eli used to spook pretty hard at them but he’s getting over it.)

the grassy warm up ring at a show, complete with flags but only on two sides

3. Alternative footing and terrain
Yes, I know. We would all love to be able to ride in perfect arena footing all of the time that produced zero wear-n-tear on our horses’ joints and was always the perfect depth and consistency. And then we all wake up from that dream, because not every arena has ideal footing, just as not every surface on the face of this planet is ideal footing for riding horses. Mixing up the footing is really not a bad idea, though. If there’s enough give in that grassy field, try riding in it. Don’t ride in utter slop, and don’t ride on concrete at more than a walk … but everything in between might be okay. I am not going to say here what type of footing is good for what type of horse activity because that is well beyond the scope of this post, and I can really only speak to the hunter/jumper disciplines anyway. BUT different footing every once in a while is not a bad thing, if for no other reason than maybe the next show you attend has your classes in a grassy derby field and wouldn’t you feel better if you’ve ridden on grass before? Additionally, most arena surfaces are flat, or built on a super slight grade for drainage purposes. You know what’s great for fitness? Hill work. You know what’s not in most arenas? Hills. (Hickstead notwithstanding.)

4. Alleviate dependence on the rail for training purposes
I am not trying to be controversial here or say the the rail can’t be our friend when starting out with lateral work because it totally is! But what about once you get past that stage? Are you truly executing a haunches-in, or are you just sticking your horse’s nose up against the rail and hoping for the best? Plus, I’d like to keep developing my eye to the extent that I can accurately ride a circle of a certain size without any rail to bounce off of. The rail might be our friend sometimes when we are trying out new stuff and learning new things, but the rail is not a fourth aid.

current fields great for hacking after a rain

5. Abandon anxiety
What is more serene than a sunset hack in a grassy field? Ask anyone who does ride outside of an arena — it’s an antidote for wanderlust, even if just for a little while. You don’t really need any reason to ride outside of an arena. If you have the space or transportation, leave the ring!

10 thoughts on “Ditch the Rail

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  1. This is so so so so so so true! My Dad MADE me use my show horses to move cattle and do other various ranch work. I would always complain that my pristine show horses were too good for such menial labor, but it made such a huge difference in how reacted to adversity at horse shows! I remember one year showing at the fair in Rapid City, South Dakota the fair organizers thought it was a good idea to have the demolition derby in the grandstands literally next to where the horse show arena was located. To my surprise (and advantage!) neither horse I had there cared all that much about the shenanigans going on at the demo derby and we won a LOT of classes that day. They were able to deal with the commotion because they had been outside of the arena most of their lives. Most of the other pampered show horses didn’t have such a good day.


    1. Lol, if Eli even sees one cow, he goes brain dead. I actually feel sorry for him because of how afraid he is of them. He would definitely benefit from some ranch work!


  2. gotta love that routine escape from the sand box!!!! tho i feel ya on knowing those days are numbered with the looming time change…. i’m also pretty sad to lose that option. at my last mare’s barn we’d sometimes park cars alongside the field and ride by headlight but…. that only really gets ya so far.


    1. That would be … logistically complex … to ride Eli by the light of car headlights, although not completely out of the question. I’d just rather not haha


  3. This is an awesome post and all of it is so true. I’ve been stuck in an arena for too long and it really takes a toll. Luckily we’ve been able to travel a lot and we feel super confident out on the trails by ourselves. Unfortunately the fields out there are covered in gopher holes but we can still hit the made trail!


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