THE ARENA IS NOT THE ENEMY
There is no question that I prefer to ride outside, checking out new country rather than riding inside some sandy arena that I've been to countless times. Many folks that prefer trail riding seem to speak of the arena as if it is somehow the enemy. "My horse doesn't like the arena" is a popular quote, and I myself have at times regarded riding in an arena as a waste of my time and energy, as if there was no value in such an act.
I know realize just how wrong that thought is. Like I said earlier, I do prefer to go ride in the mountains or take one of my youngsters for a cruise around my county roads. Just because I prefer this kind of riding does not mean that there is no value in arena riding. Lets face it, most of us are busy with life, jobs, kids, and all kinds of other things. When time is short, you can get a heck of a lot done in a short period of time by being willing to ride in the arena (or in your pasture, drylot, etc.). And if we are being honest with ourselves, how much are we actually teaching our horse when we go on a trail ride? Exposure is absolutely important, such as the kind of exposure a horse gets on a 10 mile mountain ride. However, it is likely that for 9 3/4 miles of that 10 mile ride the horse is simply set on cruise control or simply following along the horse in front of it, often paying no attention whatsoever to the rider. This is why the average dude string horse doesn't really remember how to turn, stop, or even back up (which is fine for that particular setting).
I have fairly recently changed my opinion on the benefits of riding in an arena and now realize the value of such riding. In an arena setting, a rider can knock out literally hundreds of turns in a time frame consisting of minutes. Stops, backing, turning, side passing, stopping, backing, turning some more, and many speed control drills can be done in an arena, quite quickly at that.
Jade as a 2 year old learning about a packsaddle and panniers within the safe confines of an arena.
The arena is also a great tool to introduce your horse to new things and ads at least some degree of safety to the process. The horse can't really bolt to the next county and is at least confined if they throw a fit or otherwise get away from you. It is also worth noting that if you get pitched, landing in the sand can be much more forgiving than landing in the rocks. I've landed on both, and it is my belief that the sand is much better. Not getting pitched at all is the obvious goal, but every now and then things just seem to happen.
The moral of the story is that we don't always have time to go on long trail rides, even if that is the type of riding that one prefers. If the only choices due to time constraints are not riding at all and riding in an arena, than I am simply suggesting that the arena ride is far more productive than no ride. Get creative and have a plan and the arena can be of much value. If you get too bored, try writing the alphabet with your horse! I haven't counted them up, but that simple exersize equates to a ton of turns, backing, bending, and swinging of the shoulders and can be done quite slowly and translates well into working your horse in tight spots on the trail. Whatever you do, have fun, be safe, and remember...the arena is not the enemy!