Going Indoors

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Winter weather has its charms, like watching the first snow. But when the season brings its freezing rain, snow and frigid wind, an indoor arena is a blessing.

In a month or two, you may not feel so blessed. Riding in a crowded indoor ring can be both boring and frustrating. Add an inexperienced rider or a horse that kicks to the mix, and the situation can be dangerous.

Going indoors doesn’t have to mean months of misery, though. Here, gleaned from pros around the country, are six ways to get through winter with your client base, facility and sanity intact.

1. Know Your Limits

Stables with indoor arenas fill quickly in winter. You may welcome trainers who lease blocks of stalls or backyard horse owners anxious to get out of the cold. More warm bodies mean more income, but they also mean more crowding and potential chaos.

Jill Brown, owner and manager of Cedar Downs Equestrian Center in Maple Valley, Wash., has scaled back wintertime operations. The number of horses at her multi-discipline facility used to swell from 35 in summer to as many as 75 in winter. Now she stops at 45, with just two trainers. “There’s simply too much friction with more,” she says.

The size of your arena and the degree of control you have over the riding within it determine how many horses are too many. Crowds don’t have to mean chaos, says centered-riding instructor Susan Harris, who conducts clinics throughout the United States and Europe. In the right circumstances, amazing numbers of horses and riders can coexist happily.

A case in point is Lord Stirling Stables, a public stable in Basking Ridge, N.J. During the winter, Lord Stirling’s 65 county-owned horses and ponies keep busy with up to 13 group lessons a day, says manager Nancy Williams. There may be three groups in the ring at once. It works—partly because instructors keep control—and partly because the 80-foot by 240-foot arena is big enough to divide in three.

2. Battle Boredom

The same four walls, the same circles, day after day can make winter riding a chore. Use variety to spice up the routine.

Jan Hartwell, owner and trainer at Deseo Farm in Stetson, Maine, focuses her students on “the thoughtful aspects of riding” like thinking through a leg yield, say, or perfecting pattern work. Winter lessons at her 25-horse barn involve light work to avoid overheating the horses; cooling out is a problem in frigid Maine. “Cherry Hill’s book, ‘101 Arena Exercises’ is a bible around here in the winter,” she says. “A lot of the exercises are done at the walk, which is perfect for us.” Deseo also has a small contingent of vaulters, who work on balance in winter.

At Lord Stirling, riders form a winter drill team. They don’t perform in public, but the drill maneuvers provide a break from routine and keep everyone moving and warm during lessons. Instructors also incorporate various games into lessons. And the Lord Stirling arena is brightened by signs that remind riders to “breathe,” “have fun,” “ride forward” and so on. The focus on fun builds a sense of camaraderie, says Williams.

Clinics, shows and other special events are great ways to combat the winter doldrums. Cedar Downs holds a series of indoor schooling shows on Saturdays. The Friends of Lord Stirling, a fund-raising group that supports the New Jersey stable, hosts clinics. At Deseo, juniors enjoy a Wednesday afternoon “Kids’ Corral”—a cold-weather version of summer camp.

Shoot for events that appeal to your boarders and students as well as outsiders, the trainers say. A Western barn could build a clinic around lead changes or similar maneuvers. If your barn has a jumper focus, you might ask an outside trainer to give a clinic on gymnastic work. Or try something new—schedule an introductory dressage clinic at your hunter barn, for example.

If any equipment is used, barrels, jumps, cavaletti, etc., change them around as often as possible. New challenges and new courses can keep indoor work refreshing.

When it’s really cold—so cold the instructor can’t stand to be in the ring—most stables cancel lessons. At Deseo, 20 degrees F is the cutoff point, but there’s still plenty going on at the barn. Hartwell teaches a 14-week equine science course, covering everything from the evolution of the horse to feeding and breeding. “The students are mostly adults, first-time or ‘wannabe’ horse owners,” she says.

3. Stick to a Schedule

Set up a schedule and stick to it, says Hartwell. She makes sure her boarders understand that lessons must go forward. “Without lessons we won’t stay in business,” she says. Still, she provides ample riding opportunities for the boarders. “I schedule lessons just one night a week and if people have special needs, I try to work with them,” she says.

A good schedule maps out blocks of time that fit your clients’ needs, agrees Harris. For example, you might designate mornings for work with green horses that may be brimming with excess energy; after-school hours for kids’ lessons; and evenings for adult riders. Then you won’t have someone trying to longe a loony three-year-old in the middle of a beginner lesson, and adults who have limited riding time will know when they can use the ring.

The schedule should provide guidelines rather than ironclad restrictions, Harris suggests. Boarders who need to ride in the morning should be able to do so, but with the schedule in place, they’ll expect that loony three-year-old to be sharing the ring.

4. Control Chaos

“Rules of the road” help prevent arguments and accidents. Here are 10 suggested by the trainers we consulted that should be posted:

• Watch for an opening in traffic and call out “door!” before stepping into the ring.

• Horses going in opposite directions should pass left shoulder to left shoulder—like cars on the road.

• When the ring is busy, horses should travel in the same direction. Switch every 15 minutes, so that horses can work equally in both directions.

• Keep at least a horse-trailer length between horses.

• Horses moving on (at the canter or lope) should take the outside track, along the wall. Those doing slower work should take an inside track, far enough from the wall to give the faster horses plenty of room to pass. (If your riders have trouble figuring out where the inside track should be, Harris suggests, put signs or marks on your arena walls for them to sight and ride to.)

• Mount, dismount, chat and cool out in the center of the arena or in an unused end—never on the track.

• Boarders who ride during lessons should stay out of the way and do as they are told by the instructor.

• Riders who want to jump should get clearance from others in the ring and call their fences. Once the jumper starts to a fence, she has the right of way.

• Longe only if other riders in the ring give permission.

• Practice maneuvers such as rollbacks and sliding stops only when the ring isn’t crowded, and get clearance from the other riders. Sudden stops and changes of direction are especially dangerous in a crowded arena.

5. Focus on Footing

Heavy use makes ring maintenance crucial, says Nancy Williams. Lord Stirling’s footing is a mixture of quarry dust and synthetic rubber that, she says, stays fluffy through most of winter. But any footing breaks down and is moved around by heavy use, so you need to drag more often.

At Deseo, Hartwell dresses the ring in fall with fresh sawdust. “Mixed in with the sand, it makes good winter footing,” she says. Because the footing can harden in Maine’s severe cold, she screens it daily with a homemade, weighted drag that digs in three to four inches.

Watering keeps dust down when there’s no risk of freezing. Lord Stirling’s arena has a self-draining sprinkling system that can be used when the temperature is above 30 degrees F. Here’s another dust-cutter: Pick up manure in the ring. It’s a chore, but it’s one that can make a difference, Harris and Williams note. Manure dries and breaks down quickly into a fine dust that’s unhealthy and unpleasant to breathe.

More maintenance tips: Fix roof leaks and clear gutters and drains before the coldest weather hits; if your ring floods, the footing will freeze. Make sure exterior doors operate freely, so you won’t find yourself frozen out of your arena. And to prevent accidents, keep the ring for riding—not storage—says Harris. Don’t park the tractor in it.

6. Ease Tensions

Bickering is the main source of winter heat in many stables. Here are three ways to keep things cool.

Be fair: Make sure everyone knows the rules, says Harris, and make sure they’re applied equally. If your rules say horses can’t be longed in the arena during lessons, don’t waive the restriction for the demanding trainer who stables 10 horses in an aisle of your barn.

Communicate: Communications skills are as vital to the horse business as any other business, says Hartwell. If a rider blocks the track or disrupts a lesson, politely but firmly explain the mistake. Often that’s all it takes to prevent a repeat offense.

Encourage tolerance: “Some people just seem to have more problems riding with others,” says Jill Brown. “Even if there are only three horses in the arena, someone always seems to be in their way.” Skilled riders sometimes forget that beginners get confused and have trouble steering. A gentle reminder can help make winter riding more pleasant for all.

When riders working in different disciplines share a ring, busy times can be especially chaotic. Those who don’t jump may object to having fences set in the ring. One option is to take fences down when they’re not in use, says Harris. But at barns with a large hunter-jumper contingent, the fences are in use every day.

At Mystic Valley Hunt Club in Gales Ferry, Conn., hunt seat, jumper, dressage and event riders coexist in the indoor. “Dressage riders learn to cope with jumps in the ring,” says trainer Sally Hinkle. Schooling fences stay up (except during monthly dressage clinics), but Hinkle sets them with traffic in mind. “The jumps are all far enough from the wall to let two horses pass on the rail, and they’re set so that riders can change direction and circle without finding a jump in the way.” To design such a course, she adds, “You have to be inventive.”