The Art of Hacking
I often get asked if I would like to hack someone else’s horse out with them . I rarely say yes. This is why.
Hacking is such an underrated skill for horse and rider. What often happens is that we assume a ‘Hang on and Hope’ attitude , or rely on the good sense of our horse to fill in for us . This is what I did for many years. I relied on the horse to be brave enough and sensible enough that they would know how to deal with the world outside our door. My most excellent mare Megan did this with extreme courage, and then Gou took her place with not quite so much common sense, but enough that we could get by in life. He was wise enough to carry me through tricky situations.
Then I imported the very silly yellow Lusitano Des – he couldn’t fill in, and I could barely hang on. He was extremely sharp, a bit short on brave, and with little to no sense of self preservation. He was as happy to spin and rear on the side of an extremely slippy hill, as he was next to a car if the light was shining funnily on the windscreen. He was extremely affected by the energy of other horses and animals (for instance the sheep that litter my riding terrain) and while he could handle a tractor, he could get extremely concerned about a walker with an odd coloured back pack. The velocity with which Des can move from one time zone to the next is something to behold, and I knew that he didn’t feel good about this either. I was sick of the whiplash and white knuckling my way through every hack, and he was experiencing these situations as ones of high adrenaline and anxiety.
Therefore I set out to understand what a horse actually needed from me in order for hacking to be a pleasant experience for us both. I sat down and got systematic (not my strong suit). I didn’t want to ‘desensitise’ him to life, so I wasn’t going to get into covering him in tarpaulin or endlessly walking around road signs. My experience has also been that you can do any amount of that stuff in the arena, but if you have missed what’s really important to the horse, he will still spook at the white road markings as you leave the yard.
What it actually boiled down to was finding ways to help my horse refer back to me when he was worried, and for him to recognise that I had his back. I also had to find ways to give him other choices rather than ‘spin and rear’ when he really felt too pressurised by life. The job was to sensitise him to me, rather than desensitise him to life…
For those of you who haven’t read part 1, here is a small re-cap. For many years I had horses who filled in for me out hacking through their own bravery, good sense and high enough levels of self preservation. I relied on them to be basically ‘good enough’ in company, traffic, with spooky things, livestock etc. I couldn’t rely on heavy duty tack such as martingales or strong bits as my first horse had shown me that was a bad idea, so instead I was hoping the horses themselves would just know enough, be calm enough, ‘know what to do’ when things got tricky.
That was all well and good until I got a horse that couldn’t do any of those things, and exposed the holes in my horsemanship, understanding, capabilities and ultimately courage.
Here are some of the things I did.
No 1. Took a hard look at some of the decisions I was making. How often was I over exposing us both – the answer was: often. What were the things which taking him out of his comfort zone – oh, the list was long. And where was his current zone of comfort in relation to being away from his herd and home. It was pretty much as we left the yard. This long, honest look at the situation lead to…
No 2. Undertaking a serious back track. I went back and back and back and tried to notice all the places that Des told me he didn’t feel O.K. Leading in from the field, in the stable, the arena. And in all these situations, I tried my best to find a way to create something more peaceful for us both. I made mistakes with my presentations, I made mistakes with noticing what was going on, I made mistakes with pretty much everything – but I kept going, trying different things with the same principle behind it. Does this result in my horse feeling better or not? Does this Des appear to believe I’ve got his back, rather than being on his case?
No 3. I had an honest check-in of our ground work, and didn’t like what I saw. Just because I could ride him as he was, didn’t mean I should. I realised how many things I was ‘living with’ (or more importantly asking Des to live with) regarding our ground work because I wanted to get on and ride. I started to pay more attention to his attention – what was he focused on and how was that making him feel? For this particular horse that meant being much clearer, much more accurate and staying with every footstep and twitch of his ear. To begin with, it was utterly exhausting for me – I couldn’t mentally disappear for a second.
No 4. I sacrificed everything else I wanted to do in order to prioritise getting the small things between us feeling really good. This meant that for several months I completely abandoned all my schooling plans and only focused on how he felt. I stopped hacking with other people in order that I could be totally present with Des. It meant saying no to things I wanted to say yes to.
No 5. The first hacks we took were micro hacks. This was hard for me as a maxi hacker, and I had to really stay committed to what my horse needed rather than what I wanted. These hacks might be down our lane and back. A 15 minute pootle around the moor near us. Achingly short for me, reassuringly short for Des.
No 6. I got off – a lot more. I am relatively good at hanging on, so for the first few years of our time together as Des would leap and spin, I would stay in the saddle. While that was successful in that we covered many miles together, it wasn’t resulting in Des feeling better. Having now improved our ground work, I used that a lot more when I felt that Des was starting to say, ‘This is too much’. I could slide off, help him out, hop back on. Much less stressful, and ultimately has resulted in a horse who recognises that I see when he needs more support. He is now a horse I choose to get off and walk with because it’s a good thing to do together, rather than because he’s so anxious I have to.
No 7 – I made a list of all the things a good hacking horse needs to feel really competent and confident about. And then I worked through them to check out what was working well and where there were gaps. I wanted to assess how well my ‘schooling’ was really holding when we left the arena. I got systematic about this, as the blurry lines I’d been living with, meant Des felt pretty blurry in his mind.
Part 3 will cover this in more detail – with a more connected thing going on between me and my horse, what were all the practical things he needed to be able to do what was being asked of him and feel really confident about that? What are the skills a hacking horse needs that carry over into traffic, livestock, riding at speed, riding in company etc?
In Part 1 I described the rather large onion unpeeling regarding my hacking skills, or lack thereof. For most of my life I depended on the horse being able to make the best of the situation. Now, most horses are good-minded creatures who will try their best to fill in for the human and assume the world is a mostly friendly place. Des is an exceptionally good minded horse who I am unhealthily attached to, but he did NOT make this assumption and even the smallest doubt in his golden brain would result in some high speed acrobatics.
In Part 2 I described how I went about trying to help us find a more connected, safer, happier place together. And healthier ways to ‘cope’ when the world presented us with unexpected things such as shadows on the road, rogue sheep, odd looking dogs, unusually angled bins, or you know… This is not to mention other horses passing at speed (speed could be walk) other horses looking at him funnily , other horses being in front, or behind, or alongside, or – well you get the picture. What I describe in this article is some of the practical steps I took, but I suggest that you read Part 2 to get a sense of the principles.…
1. Leading. What has leading got to do with hacking you ask? Well, a lot (I say pompously). How your horse leads will tell you a lot about what’s going on between you. I was putting too much responsibility on Des when it came to this, often leading him in as part of a group of horses and not really noticing him dragging a little, or speeding up, or taking small side steps. How could I expect him to take notice of me when I wasn’t taking notice of him? I stopped leading him with other horses and for several weeks decided to make our leading the most important, beautiful thing I could.
2. I did a lot of ground work. Our ground work was already pretty sweet (if I do say so myself) but there were holes which I was living with, which were leaving gaps that did not suit Des well. We went right back to the foundations. Could I speak to each foot and how did he feel about that? Could we have clear, well understood conversations about the line, direction and speed, front to back balance, side to side balance and a relaxed responsiveness to my cues? I checked this out in safe places first, before going up on to the moor or the road. We did a lot of ground work out and about, something I had skipped over when he first arrived as I was so desperate to ride, and was happy to sit on his antics (until I wasn’t).
3. I checked out that our absolute basic-must-have necessities were really well understood, and that Des felt very, very ‘sure’ about those. When he arrived from Portugal, standing still to be mounted was not on is agenda. The moment he thought you might be even considering getting your a*** in the saddle, that was his cue to set off. Things had improved a lot, but again those little gaps were coming back to bite me on the proverbial. Therefore, I went back over this. Getting on from both sides, from any object or height, with reins on the neck, standing totally calmly . AND I re-explained that when I pick up the reins they do not, in fact, mean Go. It is surprising how many horses have been led to believe that when the rider picks up the reins they should walk forwards. A bit of a conundrum for your horse when later down the road you do not actually mean for the reins to say ‘Go’.
4. I revisited the Flexions. But this time with a focus on Des’s internal workings, not just how he was responding physically. Of course, these things are linked, and he and I had been doing them ‘well enough’, but now I began to pay a lot more attention to his attention. And how he was feeling back to me through these precise exercises – not just going through the motions. You might be surprised how much this played into the improvement between us. The whole horse in your hands really.
5. Back under saddle I unpicked his understanding of the aids, and tried to notice when only his body was involved, but his mind was not. I spent a looooooonngggg time in walk, attempting to keep my ‘self’ aligned with Des’s ‘self’ and bring those two things together via the medium of the aids. My intention was that the aids brought him comfort and reassurance rather than additional pressure and confusion. I got clear so he could get confident, initially in situations which did not over expose either of us, and gradually increased our reach. This was not a short process
6. I worked a lot on helping Des understand when energy was about him and when it wasn’t. I have to thank my friend Kathleen and her incredible ranch horses for an insight into this possibility, and what this has helped change in Des and I. We can now stand still amongst a herd of cantering Dartmoor ponies and he knows he’s not involved (and he feels good about that). We can move young boisterous cattle out the way and it doesn’t impact on his energy levels. And we can significantly up the life for a gallop on the moor and bring it right back down again. If someone could post-it note this one accomplishment on my gravestone, that would be ideal
7. I tried to think a lot about what I did want, and how he would know that, rather than just what I didn’t want. How would your horse know what you wanted?
8. I worked a lot on his balance, posture and strength so that he could do the things I was asking of him and not get too tired or sore that he felt his only option was to resort to speed. This means a commitment to keeping your horse fit and strong enough to carry you up hill and down dale.
9. I finally, finally found a saddle that actually suited Des (how many organs does one person need anyway?) with a saddle fitter who sucked through her teeth and got creative.
Remind me who said they were ‘just’ a happy hacker? Many horses are naturally calm enough, brave enough, low key enough that it doesn’t take this level of involvement on the part of the human. But I thank Des with all my heart (no really, I do!) for forcing me to take a long hard look at myself and consider who’s responsibility any of this actually was….
If you would like to know more about The Art of Hacking and how you and your horse can develop the skills, understanding and competence to do this without just hanging on and hoping, relying on strong equipment, or ‘faking it until you make it’, then you will enjoy the short course starting soon. Beginning on the ground and ensuring that we are starting from strong foundations before we begin to build a house of hacking (erm, is that a thing?)