How to be a happy hacker

Fun ride photo

I thought you might like to share the article recently published in Horsemanship Magazine:

Make 2015 the year you become a VERY  Happy Hacker:

Hacking is one of the most enjoyable things we can do with our horses – and yet it is not easy!  We are asking our horses to cope with roads, new sights, new sounds, unpredictable events – and trust us to take them to new places and bring them safely home again.  Being a happy hacker doesn’t mean having the perfect horse, or being the perfect rider.  What it does mean is that the two of you are safe together, that your horse looks to you if there is a problem and you work together to solve them.  A horse who stops, and looks to you for advice when she is worried or scared – is a safe horse.

Here is your spring and summer outline for being a happy hacker by this autumn!


“May and June.  Soft syllables, gentle names for the two best months in the garden year: cool, misty mornings gently burned away with a warming spring sun, followed by breezy afternoons and chilly nights.  The discussion of philosophy is over; it’s time for work to begin.”
–  Peter Loewer  

“It’s time for work to begin”—that is a great description of May!  At last we can see the sunshine, the longer days – -and we can see ourselves riding off into the wide blue yonder.

Here are some great things to do in May to improve your hacking.  This month let’s focus on things you can do by yourself:

  • Take your groundwork out on the trail: build on your groundwork and take your horse out in hand. This gets both him and you used to being out and about together. Remember if you build a “herd of two” by taking care of your horse and keeping him safe, this will translate to when you ride
  • When you take your horse out, try to build his confidence so you can walk level with your saddle. This gets your horse used to being in front of you – and you can practice reading your horse from here.
  • When you see your horse react to something (eg tighten his lips, hesitate, raise his head) practice helping him calm down. You can do this by putting yourself between him and the scary thing and asking him to go past it many times. Eg stand with your back to the scary wheelie bin and ask him to walk past, however far away he needs to be. As you do this a few times you will see him lower his head and relax.  When he is relaxed you can switch positions and he can go closer to the bin.  Practising this means he builds his confidence in you as a partner, and you practice noticing when he is worried and needs your help
  • Teach your horse to line up next to fences, logs and bumps for mounting – this will be invaluable for later on!
  • Practice getting on and off your horse out on a hack. If your horse has confidence in you on the ground then when he gets worried while you are riding, you always have the safety net of being able to get off and deal with things from the ground – remember we are training our horses and ourselves for the future, not just trying to “get round this ride”.  Getting off shows your horse you are working with him.  It’s good practice too!
  • Go to horse agility and spook busting events to work together on your confidence. Many of these are focused on groundwork, but others (eg Trec) also help with riding too!
  • And perhaps the most useful of all: practice stopping!  Teach your horse to stop with a verbal cue, or a lift of the rein, or a breathing out – or all three.  And reward stopping every time.  Knowing your horse will stop is the biggest confidence booster when out hacking.


In summer, the song sings itself. ~William Carlos Williams

June is the month everyone is getting out and about, so this month, enlist the support of some of your friends to develop your hacking by playing “hacking games”.   These four games start off being played in a safe place like an arena or field, but then you take them out on a hack with you and practice them out there.  These games are great for building your partnership when you are hacking out with others:

  • Watch this space: In this game you prove to your horse that you will keep him safe.  You start off on the ground, just standing in the centre of the arena, and your friends ride around you, starting off right at the edge of the arena but then taking turns to come closer.  As they get near you and your horse, before your horse reacts – you step towards your friend’s horse and they turn away.   Build this up – slowly — until your friends can ride towards you at a trot, or two or three at a time – and your horse just stands relaxed, knowing you will take care of it.  Sometimes this takes one session, with other horses it may take a few sessions spread over a few days…
    Then get ON your horse, and do the same, by looking at, waving your arm at or taking a step towards your friends, you “make” them move away and keep your horse safe.  This game results in a horse who trusts you to take care of the other horses around them, and who will stand calmly whatever the other horses are doing.
  • Mind the Gap: this builds on the work you have done in the Watch this space game. Now you are riding your horse in the arena, and walking around the edge, close to the rail.  Start with one of your friends riding a small circle in the centre of the arena, with a large distance between you and them.  Watch your horse closely – if she reacts, ask your friend to give you more space by “waving them away”, if your horse doesn’t react and just keeps walking forwards, then build up until your friend is riding past you fairly closely but your horse is not reacting at all but listening to you.  Start with you doing a lose walk and your friend’s doing a faster one – and build up through the gaits.  You can also play this game with them coming from behind you and passing you – and riding towards you.
    This really builds your “herd of two” as your horse gets used to being safe when horses come from behind or towards them at any gait.
  • Leapfrog: this is an extension of Mind the Gap. In this you ride with your friends at walk around the rail, and then practice overtaking each other and moving to the front of the ride.  At first, the overtaking will have to be quite wide, so all the horses feel relaxed and calm.  Eventually, you will be able to be overtaken at speed, quite closely and your horse will stay quiet.  For this game, each horse overtakes and then slots into the front position straightaway.  This builds your horse’s confidence with being overtaken, and leads to the next game where they also get used to horses going away from them.
  • There and Back again (the Hobbit game): this builds your horse’s confidence staying with you when other horses go away from them (pretty important on fun rides!).  Again, like all the games, we start with this game in an arena, then take it to a field – and then you can play it anywhere with open spaces out on a hack too.
    First, line up all the horses and riders along one short side of the arena.  Then, one of you ask your horse to ride away at a walk.  You are only allowed one “ask”  and if your horse turns to come back to the other horses you go “great idea, let’s go back”.  When back with the others, you give your horse a rub – and do it again.   And again.  Three times. Some horses will only go a couple of metres before turning back – all three times.  Some will go further as they build their confidence.  It doesn’t matter how far they go – the point is you are proving to them that if they get worried, you will bring them back to where they feel safe.  Take turns doing this.  The horses WILL go further as you practice – remember no cheating!  When all the horses can go to the end of the arena at walk, you can try a trot… or maybe two riders going at a time.  This game can be played for a horse going away from – but once that is working well at trot and even canter, you can change the game to focusing on the horses left behind:  have two or more horses walking away, and you ask them to come back when your horse gets worried about being “left behind”.  By the end of this game, your horse will happily go away from other horses and allow other horses to go away from him.
    Be aware when you take this game out onto a hack, that there is an “out of sight” threshold for most horses: if a horse goes away but out of sight, the horse left behind will be worried, so play with this threshold very slowly and carefully.

Playing these games will give you and your horse confidence riding in company and set you up for success on group hacks, fun rides and sponsored rides – whether you know the other riders or not!


July 1969 was when man first stood on the moon.  Where will you go this July?

July is the month for getting out and about and having FUN with your horse! Take the games and experience from May and June – and spend these lovely summer days taking your horse to new places to play.  Here are some ideas for safe riding that I teach on hacking courses:

  • Choose a location and head there in your car first. You can check out the access and parking for horse transport. Check out local pubs and ask if you can use their car park in return for buying a post ride drink or lunch!
  • Plan your route using good maps. I prefer the ordnance survey Explorer maps (the orange ones) as the detail enables you to follow your route with ease. Make sure if you are going with friends that all of you have copies of the map/route, and if you are going alone, let someone know the route you are planning to take.
  • Put together your safe hacking kit which will include:

Waterproof and warm clothing – you never know how long you could be out there
snacks for you and your horse
Drink for you
whistle and torch for attracting attention
a compass and map of the larger area
spare hoof boot in case of soreness
small rasp for removing a loose shoe/any hoof damage
mobile phone (fully charged and with an ICE number in the contacts list)
tags with your name and emergency contact details – attach to your horse and yourself
foldable water bucket
spare string or rope
wound powder

Have fun playing the games on these rides – and enjoy the summer!

August:   the month that India became independent: time for you to be independent too.

Now you have your hacking foundation, you can relax and enjoy yourself. Here are some ideas:

  • Take your horse on holiday: there are companies that organise rides for you, so all you have to do is relax and have fun. This is a great way to practice your hacking!
  • Get some friends together and head to the beach for a ride or a holiday…
  • Ride one of the longer trails such as the Mary Townley loop
  • Look at some of the EGB (Endurance Great Britain) rides: these are like a fun ride, but have added organisation so are a great way to start riding in larger events
  • Plan some fun rides for September and October and start looking forward to them!

With everything from the last article as your foundation, and this summer of building your hacking – 2015 is certainly looking like the best year yet!!!



One thought on “How to be a happy hacker

  1. Great tips especially to hacking kit. We love to hack on the forest and always have a mobile with ICE contacts and hi viz but will now include vet rap etc!

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