Hacking out can be mentally and physically beneficial for both you and your horse. It gives you both a break from the routine of schooling in an enclosed, familiar space where nothing much changes. Whether you enjoy a good gallop across a field (or a beach), or a quiet walk through the woods, you can practice existing skills and develop new ones. As long as it’s done safely, hacking can be an enjoyable and confidence-boosting experience for both you and your horse.
Here are six simple steps to help make hacking safe and fun…
1) Take A Hike – Prepare Yourself and Your Horse – If hacking out is new to you or your horse, it’s important to prepare yourself and your horse to have a positive experience. Set yourself up for success by taking your horse for a walk in-hand through the area where you intend to ride. Taking this step allows you to check out the terrain for any potential problem areas or safety concerns while, at the same time, allowing your horse to become familiar with it.
If you or your horse have never ridden outside of an enclosed area, or are in an area that’s new to either of you, avoid overwhelming yourself or your horse by going too far out of your or his comfort zone too quickly. You may need to start with hand walking and then riding him around the barnyard, up and down the driveway, or in a field close to the area you usually ride.
Wherever you are, pay attention to both your own and your horse’s stress level, only proceeding until you notice the first signs of tension. Then go back to your “comfort zone” until you and your horse feel calm before covering the same ground again. You’ll gradually expand the comfort zone and be able to go further away from home.
2) Have Control In All Gaits – If you can’t comfortably ride at the walk, trot and canter or get your horse to halt easily at home, you won’t be able to confidently do them when you’re hacking. Practice riding transitions, different gaits, slowing and halting so that your horse responds easily and consistently and you’re doing them confidently.
Be sure you have a secure seat and know what to do if your horse spooks or becomes excited. Learning how to ride with bridged reins can give more control on a strong horse.
3) Set Up Simulations – Think about what you might come across when you’re hacking out on the trails or roads — uneven ground; logs or other obstacles your horse will have to step over; unusual objects (like mailboxes or parked cars).
Create simulations of those objects and conditions in your riding area. Place a few small tree branches or even some poles randomly around the arena. Raise some of the poles just a bit. Lead your horse in hand around and over the obstacles first. Once he is handling them well, ride over them, focusing on keeping yourself and your horse balanced. Be careful not to overwhelm your horse. Introduce only one or two novel objects at a time.
4) Safety First – Even if you’re only going for a short walk down the driveway, wearing the appropriate safety gear is essential. Horses are unpredictable and it’s much better to be minimize any risks. An approved helmet is a must, and a body protector or an air vest can decrease the risk of injury and give you a little more confidence. Modern helmets and safety vests are light and comfortable, so there’s really no excuse not to wear them. Always wear boots with a heel (no runners!) and riding gloves are also a good idea.
A neck strap can also help with confidence while providing extra security in tricky situations. Check all tack for signs or damage or wear before mounting up to avoid preventable incidents, like having a rein or girth strap break miles from home.
Wearing high-visibility gear, no matter where you’ll be riding, will make it easier for you and your horse to be seen from a distance and to be found if you somehow get separated. It’s also a good idea to carry identification on yourself as well as having it on your horse.
5) Safety In Numbers – It’s always best to go out hacking with at least one other rider. If you’re building confidence, make sure that person and their horse are confident, reliable, experienced and willing to go out for the length of time and at the pace that’s comfortable for you and your horse. Regardless of the number of riders in a group hack, they should always go at the pace of the least experience horse and/or rider.
If you do hack out on your own, be sure to let someone know the route you’re taking and when you expect to return. Stick to your planned route. Carry a cell phone in your pocket (not in something attached to the saddle) in case of emergency.
6) Be respectful – Whether you’re riding around the fields of your home farm, on private property (with permission), or on public land, know the rules, be respectful of the land and of other trail users.
Other trail users may include hikers (with dogs and children), mountain bikers, ATVs, snowmobiles, etc. Some people may not know how to react to horses, so you can politely call out to them and tell them what to do to keep everyone safe (e.g. ask them to speak calmly so your horse knows they are there, tell them how to safely allow you to pass or, if it’s safer, how they can pass you safely). Always close any gates you open.
When you are out on the trails, always focus on making it a positive experience for your horse. Allow him to graze occasionally or bring treats. If your horse becomes unsure about something or increasingly anxious, it’s okay to dismount and continue on foot for part or the rest of the outing. Whether you’re in the saddle or on foot, what matters most is that you’re building confidence — and staying safe.