Hacking out has many physical and psychological benefits for your horse. While some riders might find hacking to be boring in comparison to a schooling session, our horses need a break from the arena every now and then, firstly to prevent them becoming arena-sour and secondly because hacking provides your horse with a very different mental stimulation.
For some riders, there is nothing better than a relaxing ride on your horse through the country and blowing off some steam with a good canter. However, a horse who is nervous or spooky can turn your hack into a nightmare, which may ultimately put both of you off hacking altogether. This month we look at boosting your horse’s confidence when hacking and how to prepare at home for challenges you might face in the country.
Know your area
The first thing you need to consider before you can even attempt an outride is your area. If you’re new to the area or if you’ve just started out at a new yard, ask the people around you which roads you should avoid and what the best trails are to ride. Ideally, you want to stay off any main roads or roads with regular traffic.
Consider your own horse’s behaviour and what sort of triggers set him off. Many horses are afraid of cows, so if your horse is one of them, it’s worthwhile to make sure there are no neighbouring cows that you might come across during your hack. Your horse might also be afraid of dogs, so if possible, try and work out which properties have dogs on them and observe how the dogs behave when you walk past the fence. If your horse is afraid of large, noisy vehicles such as trucks, think about roads you can ride that will avoid an encounter with a truck.
If you are able to, drive around your area in your car and have a good look at your surroundings. Look for paths you can take that go off the main roads and pay close attention to the properties you might walk past. If you feel that your horse is the type to give you problems during a hack, rather be safe than sorry.
Horses are herd animals by nature, which means they find comfort in numbers. Each herd member plays a role in detecting any potential danger, so when your horse is going it alone, he only has one pair of eyes and ears to rely on. Hacking out alone can be a very scary experience for your horse and most horses are rather nervous during their first hack alone. Some riders have to hack alone due to differences in routines with others at the yard, or because their horse is difficult to manage with other horses around. Some riders from different yards might plan to hack together, which might require one to ride alone to the other in order to meet up.
When training a young or inexperienced horse to learn to hack alone, don’t throw him in the deep end straight away! Start by hacking with at least one other horse. Once your horse is comfortable with hacking with just one other horse, you can start training him to hack alone. Leave the yard together with another horse and then ask your friend to stop and let you walk ahead for an agreed distance, such as to the end of the road and back. At this point you should closely monitor how your horse reacts when left alone. Does he immediately look back for his companion or does he carry on walking as though nothing has changed? Does he become significantly more alert or does he stay relaxed? If you feel that he is more nervous on his own, keep repeating the exercise of leaving with a friend and then going it alone for a while.
A good idea to try during the transition from hacking with a companion to hacking alone would be to ask a friend to walk alongside you as additional support for you and your horse. While your friend might not be a horse, he or she can still offer your horse reassuring pats and show him that there is nothing to be afraid of.
Some horses really don’t cope well with the transition from riding in a group to riding alone. Signs that your horse is anxious about being separated from his companions are repeated whinnies during the hack, jogging and sweating up, and being overly alert or spooky. Some horses have separation anxiety at shows, and not only on a hack. If your horse suffers from separation anxiety, enlist the help of a behavioural specialist to help resolve the problem. If untreated, separation anxiety can escalate over time rather than improve.
While it’s quite normal for any hacking horse to have a spook during the ride, excessive spooking can turn the whole experience quite unpleasant for the both of you. As soon as your horse finds something to spook at, he might decide to be even more alert and will then start spooking at objects that he wouldn’t usually find scary. A horse who decides to flee if something has spooked him can put himself and his rider in a very dangerous situation.
Luckily, much can be done at home to prepare your horse for things he might see during a hack. There are lots of different stimuli on a hack so it’s best to try and expose your horse to as many of those things as possible at home.
Start in the paddock or a closed-off arena with only a halter on your horse. In the beginning stages, make sure that he has enough space to be able to run away and re-approach if he wants to. It’s important not to force your horse to investigate any objects but to rather encourage him to come and sniff the object out of his own free will. Some of the novel items you can introduce are:
- Plastic bags
- Construction cones
- Irregular shaped objects such as toys
- A big rock (if possible)
Use your imagination and show your horse anything that might be of interest to him. Make use of as much as possible. Once your horse seems relaxed with investigating new objects, you can repeat the process while riding rather than on foot.
Boost his confidence
It’s important to never force your horse to go up to something that he’s afraid of. Allow him the time to observe whatever is scaring him and rather coax him with your voice or offer a supportive rub on the neck. Kicking him forward or shouting at him will only further increase his anxiety and cause him to develop negative associations with the object. Although something might seem silly to you, each horse has his own individual fears and it’s important to be a supportive rider regardless of the situation. Forcing your horse past something he is afraid of won’t boost his confidence and it certainly won’t do your relationship any favours.
Read the full article in the May issue of HQ. Visit Coolmags to order your copy now.
Text: Charlotte Bastiaanse