Ok, so if you're like me and don't have an arena at home you may be becoming a tad bored of your regular route, or you may find that you horse has better ideas about how to stay entertained.
Either way hopefully this blog will help you get a little more creative and in doing so engage your horses brain so that they becoming a lot more safe!
The most common mistake we make as riders when hacking is to just go to effective autopilot, we know the route we are taking and so we engage gear and off we go. There's a few issues with this,
- our horses are kinda left to their own devices for staying focused, when they don't have anything really to focus on from you they start to look elsewhere for fun
- This causes one of three main issues, the first being they feel like they are being left alone out there in the big bad world, and so become much more on alert as they feel they need to keep themselves safe, becoming what we would perceive as more on edge and spooky
- The other is with the lack of focus they start to notice much more of what's going on around them, ooo a bird, a bin, a change in colour on the road....need I go on, this means at best they look off into the distance trying to figure out the random object they'd seen and at worst spend they're life jumping 12 feet into the air (see previous point)
- And finally once we loose our horses focus, like loosing your child's focus it takes a whole lot more to bring them back into the game, so when we actually do need to take action the response isn't so, well, prompt!
How do we change this?
Let's start by changing our perspective on hacking, hacking isn't just a chance to stretch your horses legs, it's another form of schooling, another chance to have a deep and meaningful conversation with your horse and so we need to take this opportunity with both hands and maybe legs too and use it as such.
Just because you aren't going around in a 20x60 arena or you don't have a grid of jumps in front of you doesn't mean you can't school, in fact schooling whilst hacking can be hugely beneficial even more than to help with the above reasons.
But how do I school whilst hacking? (I hear you cry)
First I'm going to say, transitions, transitions, transitions!!!! I read somewhere once that Carl Hester does over 100 transitions in the first 10 minutes of riding. Now I'm not sure how true this is, but it does make sense, transitions are the golden key to a lot of issues and most importantly here they focus and balance our horse, win win I'd say!
You don't need to go for 100 transitions as you leave the drive, but, instead of just sitting, mainly in one gear playing with different kinds of transitions throughout your ride and as regularly as you can is a great way to maintain the horses attention, annnndddd keep them balanced so they are not putting too much concussion and pressure through those precious front limbs.
Transitions come in different forms
Out hacking I'd say direct transitions can probably be left back at the yard (direct effectively skip a gait i.e. walk - canter), but the other two progressive and inter-gait are both hugely affective whilst hacking, even if you can only walk!
Start by some super simple walk/halt transitions, and then you can spice it up with some inter-gaits, here you can play with increasing the speed of the walk and then decreasing, as well as increasing the length of the stride and then shortening. You may have heard of these as "on and backs", this constant play and adjustment of the speed and length keeps the horses min engaged and does wonders for their suppleness as well as balance, the ability to lengthen and shorten is key to maintain a healthy horse. I'm not asking you to pound down the lanes in extended trot, this will not be good for your horses legs, but small adjustments to the gait in walk and trot (if you are happy to trot) is all that's needed for this to become a very different ride.
If you're horse is safe enough to ride on a long rein, you can also play with the transition from medium walk (working walk) and free walk, that is found in dressage tests.
Any thing else Meg?
Yep, you bet! If you're on a quiet lane or a lane where you can see a long way in both directions you can also play with the horses placement in the road, yes we do want our horses to be able to walk nicely against the hedge but we don't want them to become hedge hoggers! The hacking equivalent of hugging the boards in the school.
Horses love to sit into something and feel supported, but this then causes a gentle banana shape to occur and an inability of the rider to bring them off the board/hedge when required.
Moving our horse into the centre of the road and back to the side by using our legs can start to build towards lateral work, and if you have lateral work in your tool kit, using leg yields can be a great way to keep suppleness and responsive ness alive. (again make sure there is no traffic when you do this! Look behind you before heading into the middle) But if you do have a safe lane to do this zig zags are a great way to get your horses body loose and their mind focussed, I'd only do this in walk as slippage may be an issue.
This exercise also has the added bonus in giving you the tools to get your horses body exactly where you want it, say, if a car passes or you need to squige into a gateway.
A few other things to consider,
Hacking can be a onesided game, make sure if you are trotting that you change your rise regularly, this will mean your horses back muscles get worked evenly by having to carry your weight in the sit phase of the rise, I for example to 10 strides then change diagonal.
Make sure your horse is straight, remember the hedge hogger? These are horses that cling to the side of the road with their shoulder and have a slight curve to their body, they are not straight, so if you've got someone behind you get them to check that the back feet are following the same line as the front feet, and whilst they're there check that you're sitting straight too.
Don't always be lead file, or a follower, if you can and it's safe try not to fall into the habit of having the same horse at the front all of the time, or at the back for that matter, practice changing up positions in the ride
And if you are riding with others don't just let your pony switch off and follow, keep riding those transitions behind and not at exactly the same time as the other horse, this keeps them focused on you and not the rest of the horses.
It's ideal to carry your whip in the hand between you and the cars, but if you're lucky enough to ride off road on some tracks, make sure you change you whip over sides every now and then, the whip causes a subtle imbalance in rein contact as well as through the horses body, so changing it regularly is key to making sure you're balanced.
I hope this has got your brain a little more excited about your next hack, let me know what this has made you think about, and if you have any questions please send them over.
Also a huge favour, if you've got a horsey friend can you share my content over to them, this little gift of word of mouth is a huge gift back to me, in these times spreading word is the most amazing thing to happen.