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Afraid of indoor arena

16 August 2011 No Comment

Afraid of indoor arena

We asked horse training expert Rhett Russell.


I am dealing with a coming three-year old APHA gelding, who has some serious issues when in an indoor arena. My long-time trainer (multiple World Champion trainer) started the colt in a too hurried fashion, and blew the colt up mentally. The colts first ride at two years old, ended up being a 2-hour marathon bolting/fear running session which ended with a vet call – the colt needed tranquilizers to halt the hyperventilation, and a week off to physically recover. The trainer continued to attempt to ride the colt in the indoor arena with zero success. After several weeks of the colt being horrifyingly fearful, I moved the colt to a recommended “natural” trainer, who threw his hands up in the air after six weeks saying that I now have a nice trail horse. I brought the colt home and turned him out for 6 months and let him just be a horse. I started clicker training the colt after the 6 months to accept a saddle, bridle, and eventually a rider again outside. The colt was performing so well outside, that I thought it was a good time to bring him back into an indoor situation. The colt has now been at a very quiet place with an indoor arena for two months now, and has almost complete reverted back to his “old” self despite the same clicker training. I can saddle and bridle the colt in his stall, and walk him out to the arena. Within 15 minutes of hand walking (not even attempting to get on), the colt is drenched in sweat, violently shaking.

The colt will easily go in the indoor arena without a bridle and saddle extremely comfortably. If you saddle the colt and take him to the outdoor arena, he is perfect. You can get on and go for a ride. It’s when the saddle is on in the indoor arena, his heart rate zooms, he begins labored breathing, and the sweat pours from him. I have tried many combinations of leading him into the indoor arena, and saddle him while he was in the arena; riding him in the outdoor arena, then attempt to ride him into the indoor arena, giving him “relaxants” before going into the indoor arena, using a “soft saddle” instead of a traditional saddle, putting the saddle over his stable blanket, etcŠ I have hit up the vet, the shoer, many trainers for advice, heck, I have even called a psychic in Virginia asking for help and I am still hitting dead ends. Despite the indoor arena hang-up, he is and incredible horse and wish to find an answer at any cost. However currently, I am fresh out of ideas and could really use the help.

Thanks for any information you can give.


Dear Owner:

It sounds to me like this horse never got a good foundation. Three year’s old is still a young horse that I wouldn’t even consider riding until all the groundwork issues have been worked out. Only then, when everything is safe and calm on the ground would I get on the horse and move up to riding. There’s a lot to consider here with this horse.

If this were my horse, I would start over with this youngster and put the time into making sure that he yields softly and calmly. He needs to learn to yield to you, understand that you can make him move his feet, and then you need to earn the trust and respect from the horse. This sounds strange but in order to correct this behavior, you need to deal with your relationship in terms that the horse understands. Depending on how much time you devote to your horse — this may take months to accomplish.

Then I would work on exposing this horse to as many different situations as possible and rewarding the horse for appropriate behavior every opportunity you can get. Petting & scratching your horse are the easiest way to reward your horse. Do you know where your horse likes to be scratched the most? Can you name the three best spots to scratch your horse? Would your horse rather be scratched by you than eat? This is such a simple thing to do that doesn’t cost any money and gets the horse to understand when it has done something correctly. You’ll probably find that this horse has anxiety with a lot of things. Start with simple things like working on touching your horse allover its body and picking up the feet. You have to start small and be able to have the trust from your horse to do anything with your hands on his body so that he’s not worried that something bad is going to happen.

Next, I would work on exposing the horse to inanimate objects like a sheet of plywood on the ground, a garbage can, a child’s play ball, etc. We are always looking for ways to use what we have around our place to improve our horsemanship skills. Many of these things are scrap, well worn, or purchased at tag sales. An old tarp can become a tarp wall or used to walk on. Scrap lumber can be made into a bridge. Plastic milk jugs with some sand or dirt in the bottom work almost as good as cones. You get the idea.Š..

Work on getting the horse desensitized to these new objects. Every time you expose your horse to something new, you’ll notice that it takes less and less time for each new thing. This carries over into real life experiences with the horse. Obviously, you’ll want to work on exposing the horse to the indoor arena. Walk the horse around the outside of the arena. If he shows signs of anxiety, just stand and pet him until he’s calm. You may not get into the arena for weeks. But approach this in steps; Step A might be to stand calmly 50 feet outside the arena, Step B might be to stand quietly right near the arena, Step C might be to stand with his head inside the gate. You might be at step Z in this process before your horse is alright with the indoor arena. Don’t rush it!

Once you have a calm and respectful horse on the ground, then I would ride him in the arena.

CAUTION: There is some risk involved in horse training for both you and the horse. Horses can cause serious injury. Be sensible and donÕt attempt anything that is outside your comfort level. This information is intended to illustrate how we apply our training techniques, you are responsible for using this information wisely. If you donÕt feel comfortable with your abilities or an exercise, donÕt do it! Seek advice or assistance from a professional horse trainer.

Good Luck — Rhett Russell

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