Making the Most of Your Riding Space

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In many areas of the country, we are losing space to ride and keep horses as developments encroach into what were once rural areas. Fields and forests are being replaced with homes and shopping centers. The old term “backyard horse” has become literal in many cases, with horses being kept on just a few acres. But, with careful planning and a little creativity, a small lesson program, training or boarding facility can be managed on a small property.

The key aspect to operating a mini horse facility is planning ahead. To maximize space, for example, place the barn and any other buildings, including the house, as close to the perimeter of the property as allowed. That will leave as much space as possible in the middle for turnout and riding.

Another way to stretch space is to plan buildings and open space so they serve more than one purpose. For example, turnout paddocks can double as riding arenas. To maintain grazing, allow two acres minimum per horse. One acre of turnout space per horse is adequate for exercise, but grass will not last long.

Arena Work

Much can be accomplished in a small riding arena. A small dressage arena (132 feet by 66 feet) is large enough for cavaletti work, flat work at all three gaits, practicing equitation patterns and even jumping. While there may not be room for a full jump course, courses can be created with two to four jumps, depending on the amount of space, so that the horse can jump from both directions. One way to do this is set two jumps in a V near the center of the arena. Ride a figure eight so that the jumps are approached from both directions. Vary the type of jump by adding elements like flower boxes, coups or brush to prepare the horse for the jumps at a show.

The small arena is perfectly adequate for cavaletti work. Cavaletti not only prepares the green horse for jumping, it is good exercise for toning muscles and stretching the top line of the horse no matter what the discipline. Cavaletti work adds interest to the lesson or training routine, and students benefit from cavaletti with improved balance and timing.

For flat work, a gallop track can be built around the outside perimeter of a paddock or small pasture. Keep the track graded and drag it regularly to keep a trench from forming. If the gallop track is wide enough it is also ideal for driving horses.

Round pens are ideal for small spaces. They can fit into a corner near the barn, in a paddock or even inside a larger arena. A 60-foot diameter round pen is large enough to ride and longe a horse in addition to the usual round pen training routines. It can also serve as extra turnout space.

Another training tool that takes minimal space are trail class obstacles. An obstacle course is fun and challenging even for horses not destined to show in that event. Like jumps, the obstacles can be set up in a turnout paddock or pasture or in the center of a small riding arena. Cones, barrels and ground poles can be arranged for backing, side passing, 360 turns and many other maneuvers. Jump poles can play double duty and be arranged in building the trail course. The gate to the riding area should be hung so that it can be opened and closed from horseback in order to incorporate that element into the course. A small tarp can be placed on the ground to simulate a water obstacle, and it is easily removed after the training session. Teaching students to negotiate obstacles found in a trail class adds interest to the class while teaching them to coordinate the use of aids, patience and control of the horse.

Trail Riding

With a little ingenuity and a bush axe or chain saw, trails can be cut through a small patch of woods to loop, figure eight and switchback on itself. The more variety you can incorporate into the bridle trails, the more fun they will be to ride. A couple of fallen logs (use sections of old telephone poles if you don’t have real logs) can be added to simulate a small cross-country jump course or give trail horses an obstacle. Be sure the footing is sound on both sides of the log so it can be jumped safely. Gravel, bark or wood mulch can be added to keep down weeds and improve drainage. Leave go-around space for those not inclined to jump. If there is a stream or ditch on the property, have your trail cross it, but make sure the footing is kept up so you don't get muddy holes or create pollution downstream. Pastures can also be incorporated into the bridle trails.

Using these tips can make it seem like you’ve ridden for miles when in fact you were always within shouting distance of the barn. These little trails are ideal for taking students out on their first rides, and they give short mental breaks to the horse and rider between training sessions in the arena. It is important to keep the bridle trails maintained by trimming out low-hanging branches, clearing away debris after storms, filling in holes and mowing to keep them from becoming overgrown by weeds.

While it is always important to keep a horse facility neat and clean, this is even more imperative with a small place. Having a place for everything and keeping things in their place will open space up for other uses. If jumps, cavaletti or trail obstacles are set up in paddocks and pastures, they will all have to be moved on mowing days. Manure should be picked up or harrowed from paddocks and trails to reduce odor and flies and maintain good footing. Small facilities probably mean close neighbors, so it is very important that the horse owner does not leave the door open to complaints.

For More Information

The following books give insight into keeping and riding horses in small spaces:

“Horsekeeping on a Small Acreage, Second Edition,” by Cherry Hill, gives tips for planning a facility on limited space with sample layouts. Retail price: hardcover, $34.95; paperback $24.95.

“Cavaletti,” by Ingrid and Reiner Klimke. Retail price: $18.95

“101 Arena Exercises,” by Cherry Hill. Retail price: $29.95

“101 Schooling Exercises,” by Jaki Bell and Andrew Day. Includes lots of patterns that can be executed in a small arena. Retail price: $29.95.