I find myself regularly explaining to my students and others how “arena work” is vital for safe trail riding/recreational riding, and how trail riding/obstacle training is extremely beneficial for arena work! I find a lot of riders get so focused on one or the other they forget that balance and variety are key.
If your main focus and love is some kind of “arena” riding (jumping, dressage, western pleasure, halter... you name it!), getting outside the arena to practice climbing hills, walking bridges, picking through difficult terrain, and experiencing a change of scenery can improve your arena work. If your love and passion is for trail riding and exploring, foundational “arena work” (like basic dressage/flat work and even learning to jump with good form if you really like to get brave on the trail) can improve your communication and safety on the trails. Before my students ever head out on the trail they learn the core aspects of a correct seat, aids, and communication with their horse, even if they just want to recreationally ride. The students that want to show in one discipline or another that involves an arena... they too learn the foundation of correct riding in the arena, but as soon as they are ready we take our “skills” outside the arena. Can you effectively and with good timing use your leg and seat cues alone to guide your horse over a bridge or dead center over a log? Can you trot with a nice soft contact and steady seat in an open field? Can you do lateral work down a wide trail? If you can, you can do it in any arena you’ll show at. But what about the benefits for the horse? Great question! For the trail horse, the arena is the place to start. Building up their topline and giving them nice stable ground to develop balance and to learn to be guided by the rider. It's also a controlled environment to develop consistent and fluent communication and cues. For the arena horse, the trail is a perfect place to improve footwork, add distractions and variability to where and when you cue behaviors, build confidence, work on balance (yours and your horse’s), stimulate the mind, rejuvenate passion, and so much more. Think about it this way: the arena is the treadmill, the gym, or the lap pool. It’s controlled and offers optimal results for your designated discipline and for working on training new behaviors. Outside the arena is like hiking, trail running, swimming in the lake, or training for a Spartan Race or Tough Mudder (a military inspired cross training obstacle course that’s timed). It brings variety and unique challenges to the whole body and mind. However, you won’t be able to train at top speeds or heights most likely, and when the weather is bad, or when you want to work on form, you’ll likely need a more controlled environment.
They each have their strengths and weaknesses, one is not necessarily better than the other, but they compliment each other. Together they can create the ultimate training program for both you and your horse.
Based On My October 12, 2017 Instagram Post @thewillingequine