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  • Writer's pictureFiona Tothill


Updated: Aug 19, 2020

Do you find hacking is not always so ‘happy’?

For some riders taking your horse out whether in company or alone can be fraught with worry and challenges.

It is all too easy for a hack to erode your confidence and that of your horse - why? Quite simply your brains are wired differently and you are misunderstanding each other and that misunderstanding quickly becomes tension and anxiety. You have to ask is who is feeding off who and are you creating a vicious circle?

Here are five tips which can restore the ‘happy’ in hacking:

1. Ride from the moment you get on (or before). I see all too many riders getting on yet not assessing the situation. Are you in the moment (your horse is)? Or are you still at work or worse still focusing on that last hack? Focus on the here and now, let you horse know you are with them, be the decision maker, do not give that role to your horse!

2. Relax, even if you are bricking it! Try to physically relax, breathe even before getting on. There are all sorts of techniques from yoga to singing. All can work, find what works for you. Learn what a physically relaxed you feels like, see how your horse responds. Give your horse confidence in you, be a leader (not a pleader!)

3. Find your emotional neutral so you can switch off all those mental questions “what if...”. Your brain needs to be focusing on the here and now, making small adjustments, keeping the messages you send from your brain along the rein, clear, positive, intentions. Your horse is master of reading intention, make sure you are asking for what you want not what you fear.

4. Ride defensively. By this I mean ride well with a good connection to your horse, be there like any good partner, offer support and guidance to your horse (and don’t expect them to look after you). A good horse will want to keep the partnership intact but is it reasonable to ask our horses to look after us when it is our problem? Gain an understanding of your fear, take control and address that anticipation away from your horse. Then and only then can your horse help.

5. And finally understand looking! Looking is a conversation and all too often the conversation goes this way:

🐴”Have you seen that?!”
😐”no what?“
🐴 “that, look, over there”
😦”oh no what, what are you looking at?”
🐴 “look that 🍃, it moved”
😬“oh no, please don’t spook”
🐴 “spook, you said spook”
😳”we are going to die“
🐴”die, you said die, hell no I am out of here! You coming?“
😩”not again"

You can turn this conversation around.

Firstly you don’t want your horse looking for things, he can look at them but not for them, help him to focus.

Spot things first, use your peripheral vision, that is what your horse is using. So when your horse looks at something and says “have you seen that?!” You can respond with a “yes, I’ve got it, carry on”. This is the way it works in the herd. All the horses in the herd, pick up their heads and look at the perceived danger, the senior decision maker will assess it and most likely dismiss and get back to eating (or occasionally suggest they all move away).

Understand that your horse will see things differently, he doesn’t want to run, he is asking for an instruction. Recognise that he is asking you “what next?” Give him a positive instruction such as go forward, halt, relax, focus, look at or look away anything really however it must be a positive do something instruction.

Do not give a negative, something that says don’t eg “don’t run/ don’t spin / don’t spook, don’t kill me”, by including what you fear you actually convey it. You cannot change how your horse thinks but you can change how you react and as a result how he or she reacts!

You can retrain from the ground or the saddle, you can work alone or in company. You and only you (and your horse) know the extent of your problem. Be honest, not brave. Practice on other horses if necessary. Seek help but please don’t burden your horse who cannot understand, he is after all just following your very muddled and possibly troubled thoughts. Clear your head and ride with an understanding of what goes on in his. 🐴


About the author:

Fiona Tothill, BA Educational Studies, UKCC level 2 coach (equestrian). Equine Assisted Facilitator.

Fiona is an experienced public speaker and trainer who is able to engage her audience and empowers them to explore challenging issues. Fiona is the co-owner vision behind Kingsmead Equestrian Centre in Surrey.

Fiona is available for public speaking engagements, workshops and events.

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