Obviously I identify as a timid rider. As such, I may have skill but I tend to over think things, expect the unexpected, and prefer a slow but steady approach to anything I do. The term I like to use is CAREFUL.
Trail riding is my favorite pastime with horses. Of course, in my opinion it comes with the most risks of unanticipated consequences. Perhaps it’s ironic that a timid rider such as myself prefers such a risky past time. Psychologically I wonder if there are so many variables to consider that it overloads my brain and almost makes me more calm, because I realize I can’t control everything.
There is nothing like a relaxing hack through the woods with your horse, and one with nature.
It’s been two years since I’ve hacked out with my horses. Ferrous has high anxiety on group trail rides. His insecurities among other horses meant grew trail rides made him anxious. He would prance, jig, bit the flank of the horse in front, or try to lead. Every group ride was a schooling session. While a training experience for us both, it was never relaxing. More, I became self-conscious and insecure about my horse. Hacking solo was better for both of us.
He was herd bound at our farm and when we moved to a smaller property adjacent to the woods, we started going out solo. First in short distances and then slowly extending the duration as my pony’s threshold and his confidence grew.
Tips for Hacking Out and Improving Your Horse’s Confidence
1. Hand walk your horse to accustom them to the surroundings. My pony feels more confident when I am leading him.
2. Use a rope halter under the bridle and bring a lead rope. When we go on trail rides, there are times we come to a water crossing or he is hesitant and I have to dismount to lead him. I don’t use a bit to do so, and a halter gives me more to work with safely. While his confidence grows over time, the number of times I mount and dismount reduces. Thank goodness, because I’m short and mounting from the ground isn’t easy!
3. Start riding short distances from home and always go back before your horse hits their threshold, or limit. Always end on a good note.
4. Introduce them to new things by facing them. Literally. Mountain bikers are particularly scary for Ferrous, I think it’s the whirring sound. When I see a biker coming, I move to the side and face my pony to the sound. Most bikers are quite polite in my area, since horses are not a regular site, and ask how to pass. By starting a conversation with them, my pony understands that I am not scared, they are human, and not a threat.
We left that barn and the trail access so haven’t gone out since, because Ferrous is terrified of the trailer and would not do well on the trails after unloading. More, there would be no guarantee I would be able to load him again. The important thing to note is that when he gets nervous or spooked, it is safer for me to be on the ground because he dips and wheels, something that never fails to unload me. Last, because I do a lot of groundwork and Liberty work with him, we have a strong communication and bond on the ground. For more tips on hacking out alone, read this post.
When Sticking the Saddle Is Safer
Delight is a coming 11-year old Off-Track Thoroughbred that I’ve been rehabbing for about a year and a half. The details of are story can be found on the blog, but in a nutshell, he was being trained as a show jumper and became aggressive and incredibly dangerous. He was in pain.
He is a large horse, 16.2 at the wither but built solidly. He also has zero perception of his size. Turning him is akin to maneuvering a boat and he is prone to accidentally stepping on your foot, then leaving it there.
While unaware of how large he is and where his body is at any time, he has also learned to intimidate humans by biting at them and even charging them. He is incredibly guarded and distrusting of people, with the exception of myself and my trainer Robin.
During his let down time and retraining, we introduced groundwork and positive reinforcement to improve our communication, trust, and establishing a personal bubble.
Delight is prone to entering a human’s bubble when feeling insecure, proving that when he recently spooked into me and would have trampled me unintentionally if we didn’t have our training in place. Whether to intimidate or in fear, he seeks the human.
As a result, my horsemanship trainer and I worked for months on being able to lead him safely from both the left and the right. The purpose is to never let the horse be between a threat and myself, so that he would not spook directly into me and injure me by accident. He is not a mean horse, but he does live with chronic Lyme and other physical issues that result in discomfort. In addition, he is quite dramatic in all he does so though he rarely spooks, when he does it is BIG.
This was made entirely clear during feeding one day at his barn. The barn manager fed his friend, then Delight. However, she had forgotten to put up a divider and Remmy came to investigate. Remmy was the dominant horse and Delight quickly moved away from his own food. Normal horse behavior, except that Autumn was in the way and he went through her to do so. As a result, she got knocked into a wall and hit her head really hard. It wasn’t intentional but it was a hazardous situation.
We are still working on it, but because of this it is much safer for the rider to stay on Delight when something unexpected happens on the trail. He is more confident than Ferrous, can lead or follow, and can go out alone without an issue. However, his spook is HUGE. Even then, his default is a sit and scoot forward, so he seats the rider and can usually be brought back within a few strides. He doesn’t panic.
Delight prefers a calm, assertive rider that is soft and can be a partner rather than a leader. My goal is to improve our trust in each other so I can be the rider that he prefers. If he had more get up and go, he would be a wonderful Eventer. Lucky me, he’s lazy and prefers hacking out to anything else, which is what I plan to do with him now that he’s back under saddle.
Ride the Horse You Have
Every horse is different. Training and habituation has a huge impact that cannot be discounted. In my opinion, however, personality dictates how I approach both those factors. I prefer to set my horses up for success. They need different approaches for both their safety and my own as the rider.