Hacking into the Arena

I live in the most north-westerly point of the Emerald Isle. You cannot get any further away from equestrian civilization than this; it is, as they say, next stop America! Being the only horse-nut in the area I have pretty much always lived a solitary equestrian life. I’ve somehow managed to build a few stables at home, invest in a horse trailer and the accompanying 4 wheel drive needed to pull it – much to the bewilderment of my cattle and sheep farming neighbours, “she’s a great girl, well able reverse that box!”. However, we may be self-sufficient and road worthy but there is one thing that evades me – my own arena.

We don’t have the space at home to build an arena so I have no choice but to make do with what I have available to me. I say “make do” with jest because what I have is actually priceless… There are quiet roads and lanes to go for a hack and not so far away you’ll find sand dunes, ditches and drains to play with. I have hills of all inclinations and I have sandy beaches that go on for miles and miles. I don’t have a 20 x 40 dressage arena but I do have an endless expanse of space available to me. Everything we need to de-stress, unwind and ultimately train… Right on my doorstep.

Solas the seahorse

I had always loved the hours of hacking and exploring new routes to “play” in with my first horse, Solas. Solas and I grew up together hacking out everyday, heading out for a gallop over the beach, a rush of adrenaline after long, boring school day. Hacking was for fun – and fun did not include anything to do with the word “school(ing).”

Not any more though…

Over the last few years, especially since I have moved home from the big yard in horse country, no longer having an indoor arena or outdoor school to choose from, I see my environment in a completely different light. My playground is actually the ultimate training facility.

Let me explain…

If you’ve checked out my Horses page you’ll have seen that in my description of Miss G I refer to her as being very visual. By visual I mean that if something has moved a fraction out of place since her last visit, she has noticed. If she can’t see behind the jump, more than likely she’s going to take a dislike to it and don’t even get me started on the two legged tantrum she is capable of throwing because of the strange shadows moving behind the glass of the judges box (can you relate?!). Absolutely terrifying. And it is terrifying for her; because she has a big whopping flight response to anything and everything unfamiliar. Yep, a spooky mare.

This flight response has made center lines and jumping in the direction of the judges boxes extremely difficult for our first year together. Solas, by comparison, has always been very brave and confident so Giselle’s “misbehavior” frustrated me more than anything. What I didn’t realize was that her “mis” behaviour was her way to simply keep us safe. Run, run, run away and we’ll survive!

We had so many issues out hacking in our first couple of months together I stopped trying to hack Giselle out on her own. So our homework in the school became impeccable, until we got to a show or different yard. Then she was on high alert and I was frazzled because everything had been going “so smoothly” in the lovely indoor at home. When we moved we had no choice whatsoever other than to hack down the road and face the monsters. It was either that or allow Giselle to become a garden gnome and I wasn’t prepared to give her that option! So we did get down the road, eventually. We achieved this by incorporating “school work” into our hacking.

Every day is a school day.

The playground

Moving home from the comforts of the big indoor arena was the best thing that ever happened because I now had to work on flexion, leg-yield and shoulder fore while hacking.

This led to a breakthrough. The more I incorporated those movements into our hacking, in unfamiliar environments where Giselle and I were out of our comfort zones, the more we began to address our issues and move forward – literally. Gone were the sudden standstills in the middle of the road, gone were the rears and spins – suddenly, we began to trust each other. We came to a mutual agreement – I was to hold her hand at ALL times, not just when we were in the arena.

The penny drops! You’d think I would have realised this sooner…

I remember reading an interview years ago in Horse & Hound with one of Britain’s top showing riders (so long ago now I can’t remember who!) who stated that you should not be hacking down the lane on a long rein lulling about, but that every hack should incorporate a training session. Now our hacks are properly planned. I try to avoid the same route every day but each route we take has specific aim. Some areas are designated to practice a dressage test, others to work on our showjumping canter and for fittening purposes. We always have some sort of hill-work to tackle.  Hacking now gets Giselle thinking forward and listening to my aids rather than concentrating on the killer horse eating sheep down the road, or the horse killing cattle feeder on the other side of the hill.

This has helped Giselle’s confidence immensely as we learn to cope with different situations and creatures (imaginary or not) together. This is so important as no matter how many times we travel to a venue, in Giselle’s eyes it is always different from the last time we were there. Regardless of the situation or the discipline, whether we’re hacking or competing, our warm up always stays the same. We go in, we walk around and have a look and then we start to work-in; flexion, leg yield, shoulder fore – business time – just as we would out hacking.

After a couple successful shows I was asked what had I done to Giselle, how was she so relaxed? Had I changed her feed?  Were we going for extra lessons? The answer was of course no. All we did was hack.

We still travel to get our pole work and jumping sessions and always will. However, riders who are out on their own should not feel at a disadvantage if they don’t have access to training facilities or the means to have regular lessons. School while you hack. Try to practice what you know in an unfamiliar environment. You’ll learn how to cope confidently with the various challenges that competition (and hacking!!) throw you. It is the cheapest and most widely available training method that anyone can apply, and in my opinion, the most beneficial to both horse and rider..



5 thoughts on “Hacking into the Arena

  1. Great post! I have a similar guy… He’s a 5 yo cruising so he we often have moments like “was that horse always in that field?!” But once I get a bit more organised hes a lot better! I think some horses like people shouldn’t be allowed to think for too long because they get them into trouble haha


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