How hacking can help horses and riders

With time at a premium, it can be difficult to find the time to get out hacking, but it’s worth the effort for both horse and rider, as Jonathan Chapman explains. 

Hacking to improve focus

During a recent hack, what really reiterated itself to me was not only the pleasure of it, but the educational value for the horse. I spend a lot of time in the arena doing pole work to improve the horses’ mental focus, suppleness and agility, but it tends to be a little formulaic and therefore predictable. Negotiating a bridle path through the woods, with variable gradients and tree roots, at walk and trot, is anything but predictable. It really makes the horse focus and think about where its feet are. 

Get to grips with gradients on a hack

Many of the cross country courses that I have ridden this season have been on fairly flat ground and most of the schooling courses are the same. The obvious problem with this is that neither horse nor rider learns the necessary skills to negotiate gradients when they meet them on a hilly course. 

Negotiate some gradients on and off road during a hack – it is fantastic to feel and see the horses shorten their stride to cope, like a good hunter would. I am often asked whether you should hunt event horses. Like many riders of my generation, I once hunted a lot. I think it can improve some horses in many respects. There are the obvious things like fitness, experience of variable going and gradients, improved agility and jumping confidence.

Teach your horse manners

There are mental and maturity benefits to hacking too. Learning to stand quietly at a junction, negotiating a gate, cantering in open spaces and behind other horses in control, riding away from other horses – all these things teach a horse good manners. Hacking can develop an independent horse and an independent horse is a lot more predictable and easier to manage at a competition. 

Clear your mind

Event riders are by nature a tough breed and perhaps don’t talk about their inner self enough, in the belief that it might reveal a weakness in them. This is not so; a problem shared can be a problem halved. The person you share it with may not be able to offer a solution, but frequently just by discussing it you may come round to a solution. As riders we work and operate on our own quite a lot, and can feel a lot of responsibility for clients, staff and horses. Remember the saying: “There is something about the back of horse that is good for the soul of a man,” and get out for a happy hack!