BY DIANA BEZDEDEANU
I don’t like to ride in the arena with others (hence why I could never sign up for group lessons). I am self-conscious of my own abilities, constantly comparing my riding to those alongside me.
However, as much as I try, I can not avoid people. Especially during the winter months when we all share the same indoor space. I think it is fair to acknowledge that I am not alone in this sentiment. If you, like me, dread riding with others in a crowded ring, check out these helpful tips.
1. Utilize proper arena etiquette.
Communicate loudly and clearly which direction you and your horse are going if you are about to cross paths with others, like saying “Inside!” or “ On the rail!” This is especially important in order to avoid a collision if someone is planning to jump.
Keep a few horse lengths in between each horse and rider duo at all times as a safety precaution in the event of a spook. Horses can be flighty sometimes—no matter what age, breed, or amount of training. Do not hog one corner or block the entrance/exit. Move around and make sure others can easily access areas of the arena at all times in the event of an emergency.
2. Cheer on one another.
We all have different goals. Some of us aspire to move up the ranks in the local show circuit, while others are content with a relaxing bareback walk and saddle stretches. No matter the end goal, big or small, we need to lift each other up in an industry that often tears folks apart. This can be through a simple yet genuine compliment or a “great job!” when the rider makes progress towards their goal(s). Take time to ask what others are currently working on during your warm-up lap. You’ll be surprised at the things you may learn from their goals, despite a different discipline or training level.
3. Stop comparing yourself to others.
Okay, this one is easier said than done. We are all guilty of this, whether in the show ring or in the home arena. Honestly, the only one who is judging your riding ability is yourself (except your trainer and maybe the actual judge!). Everyone else is too focused on their horse and the task at hand to focus on you.
4. Keep your eyes up.
Whatever you do, don’t stare at the ground. Keeping your eyes up helps prevent falls. If you remain focused, your horse will too. One of the worst things you can do when riding with others is lose focus and stare at another horse and rider duo. Although you are riding with others, keep your focus on yourself and your horse. Do not let your horse take control of you simply because you are not paying attention.
5. Take a deep breath.
One of my trainer’s favorite questions is, “Are you breathing right now?” My answer is usually no. Horses are highly intuitive animals. They can sense anxiety. If you are anxious, they will also be anxious. Breath.
One of my favorite breathing exercises is ‘5-4-3-2-1’. In your mind, describe five things you can see at the present moment. Describe four things you can feel with your sense of touch. Describe three sounds you can hear or your three favorite sounds. Describe two things you can smell around you, or that you like to smell. Describe one thing you can taste, or that you like to taste. This exercise never fails to bring me back to the present moment and can easily be done while in the saddle with others around you.
6. When all else fails, think of it as a desensitization exercise for your horse.
Whether your horse is a seasoned competitor or a green bean, treat the experience of riding with others as a desensitization exercise. All horses can benefit from some amount of shared space, as it requires them to work harder to keep their attention on you and not get lost in what their barn mates are doing beside them. In some ways, riding with other horses is more of a mental challenge than a physical one. Horses can also use this time to work on pacing and timing. Nervous horses can work on building confidence by shutting out the various background noises.
Bottom line: do not avoid the arena simply because others are in there. But do check-in with your trainer to make sure you and your horse can handle riding alongside others! We can all learn something from each other, horses and humans alike.
Diana Bezdedeanu (Massachusetts) is on par to graduate from The HERD Institute in April 2022 as a Level 1 Equine Facilitated Learning (EFL) Practitioner. Her blog, Horses Offering People Education, details the many lessons learned along her first-time horse ownership journey and aims to break down the industry stereotypes associated with OTTBs.