Arena Sour Horse

My horse hates the arena. How do I help him get over it?


Q: I’m an experienced rider and every year I take on a project horse to fix and resell to a good home. My current project is a 12-year-old gelding that spent many years on the show circuit. Unfortunately, he’s horribly arena sour and just overall a very unhappy horse. It took me several months to get him used to trail riding and he seems to enjoy that now, but I believe that arena work is important, too. Do you have any suggestions on how I can get him to relax and trust me in an arena?

Arena Sour Horse


A: First have your vet rule out any health or soundness issues that could be contributing to your gelding’s grumpy demeanor. Check for arthritis (due to wear and tear on his joints), dental problems and muscle spasms in his back or loins. A combination of nagging issues like fly allergies, girth sores and a dirty sheath can also affect a horse’s attitude. If he is deemed serviceably sound and comfortable, then it’s time to reform his outlook on life.

Undoubtedly this gelding has already experienced every method of discipline and coercion. Nonetheless, in order to stay safe on his back you must demand that he respects you and listens to your aids. Present yourself as a fair and just rider. If he acts out his displeasure by attempting to rear or buck, thwart that behavior appropriately. Whenever he is good, however, reward him profusely.

Since he seems to enjoy trail riding, use that activity as one reward. As a second, tangible reward, try carrying a handful of unwrapped treats (like peppermints) in your pocket. Start out on the trail, even if it’s just cruising around the stable, and then mosey into the arena. Ask for nothing more than a few laps around at the walk or jog; nothing strenuous or demanding. Ignore minor evasions for now (like drifting in on turns or getting above the bit) and resist the urge to nitpick. Then pause in the center and pat him. Reach into your pocket, get a treat, and then lean over and hand it to him. Once he begins crunching away, mosey back out the gate and continue your trail ride.

This is a whole new approach to work for this fellow, so it’ll take time before it sinks in that putting up with a few minutes of stress-free arena work is worth it because it’s rewarded with a candy and a trail ride. If you are patient and consistent, your gelding should eventually learn to trust you and relax for longer periods of time in the arena. By that time you can wean him off the candy as it won’t be necessary anymore. Your project horse will have learned that there’s a whole new way of looking at the world.

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Cindy Hale’s life with horses has been filled with variety. As a child she rode western and learned to barrel race. Then she worked as a groom for a show barn, and was taught to harness and drive Welsh ponies. But once she’d taken her first lessons aboard American Saddlebreds she was hooked on English riding. Hunters and hunt seat equitation came next, and she spent decades competing in those divisions on the West Coast. Always seeking to improve her horsemanship, she rode in clinics conducted by world-class riders like George Morris, Kathy Kusner and Anne Kursinski. During that time, her family began raising Thoroughbred and warmblood sport horses, and Cindy experienced the thrills and challenges of training and showing the homebred greenies. Now retired from active competition, she’s a popular judge at local and county-rated open and hunter/jumper shows. She rides recreationally both English and western. Her Paint gelding, Wally, lives at home with her and her non-horsey husband, Ron.


  1. Good idea, but do you know how stick those unwrapped candies can be in a pocket. I put mine in a small pcoket size contanier.

  2. Good idea! I like seeing people recommend positive reinforcement. I keep alfalfa treats in my pockets all the time or my homeade molasses and oats cookies. My horses love them and will work hard to earn treats. 🙂


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