When I first moved to Montana in 2007, my wife and I rented a small home with 10 acres. We had no arena, but plenty of open space on our land and neighboring fields. Without the construct of a round pen or arena, we still had to do our job. Which included training young horses and preparing our horses for demonstrations of all kinds. At first, I thought I needed a round pen. After all, I had just spent the last six years working with Pat and Linda Parelli at their private home and ranch. And they had round pens galore with plenty of nicely fenced arenas. But what I soon came to realize is this: You don't need a round pen or arena to feel safe or to be safe. All you need is an anchor.
What I mean by "anchor" is this: You need something that keeps you grounded and confined to one area or "anchoring object." You don't want to drift out to sea on the stormy emotions of your horse. Instead you want to stay connected and in control, so you feel safe and confident.
Open fields and large open spaces instinctively generate a playful and almost frantic energy in horses the first time they step foot in them. Have you ever watched how horses react when you open up a gate to a new space or turn them loose in the arena the first few times? If you haven't seen it, here is what horses do: They bolt, run, buck, play, jump, and sometimes all at once. It can be very intimidating, considering that you're supposed to be able to ride that horse. So what happens naturally, is many horse riders tend to avoid open spaces and confine their riding to narrow trails or closed arenas and round pens. I see in my beginner riding clinics, the expression of my students faces when we open the arena gait for the first time. It can be terrifying not knowing exactly how your horse is going to react in open spaces. But there is a way through it all. A way to be confident that nothing bad will happen at all. Allow me to come back to my experience at my new home in Montana and show you how I use anchors or "anchoring objects" to keep me safe.
What I learned to do, because I had no arena walls, is find small objects to stay connected to while riding. I still do this, even today. When I ride, even in small spaces, I try to stay connected to an object, such as a fence line, mounting block, rock, tuft of grass, or even pile of poop. Just the other day, while I was working with a young colt, I took my lead rope off and dropped it on the ground at my feet. Then I jumped on my horse to ride. My friendly onlooker, jumped into the arena and kindly picked up my rope. I said, "Thank you, but leave it. I put it there on purpose to act as a grounding rod for my riding activities." He looked confused but quickly realized what I was doing. The lead rope acted as a visual aid for me and my horse. It was my anchor for where I'm supposed to be in space and time. Even if the horse can't see my anchor. He can feel my leadership, and if we drift to far away, we immediately come back. The visual aid gives me clear boundaries and perimeters to work within. Just like the dressage arena rails, which clearly offer little real protection.
To be clear, I don't ride randomly in open spaces, especially if the horses emotions spike up. I always know where I am, even if it's in a new space I've never been. Because I pick my anchors early. I ride from one tuft of grass to another, or one tree to another, or one pile of poop to another. If I see a ditch, I ride along the ditch. If I see a fence, I ride along the fence. If I'm on a wide road, I anchor myself to one side of the road. If I'm working on circles and balance, I pick a rock, stump, or dry patch in the grass and make that my center. By doing this. I stay grounded and remain the leader my horse deserves. I'm clear and concise. Without that clarity or anchoring object, my horse and I feel lost and disconnected. The energy in the horse can begin to build, and it's off to the races. I don't like that feeling and I bet most of you don't either. If you're riding in a group, and you trust the leader of the group, you can anchor yourself to their horse. You can stay close and connected to that horse. But I don't usually do that, because most riders ride for themselves and don't stop to consider the younger horses, or more novice riders. Instead, I like to anchor to objects. It keeps me in control of "my ride." Then when I get into new spaces, with new horses, I'm still guiding the experience rather than being swept out, on stormy tides (metaphorically speaking).
Try it for yourself. Discover how you can confidently ride in open fields and new spaces just by connecting with small visual objects and staying close until the emotional waves calm down and it's safe to move to the next port. Imagine your a small boat in a big ocean, but nothing is random. You are instead, clearly sailing from island to island and always keeping land in sight. Then one day, when you dare cross bigger expanses, you'll know it's all going to work out.
(picture courtesy of Ingela Larssen Smith - found in Leadership and Horses)
Thank you for reading. Tell me your experience as you venture out. I'd love to hear your comments!