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Make your hacking count

Updated: Nov 19, 2022

You can’t beat hacking out on a crisp winter’s day and there are so many benefits to escaping the arena a couple of times a week - it's good for you and your horse both mentally and physically. It is important though to make sure your hacking is valuable to your horse’s training and not just a wander in the countryside on a loose rein.

In this blog Gillian Higgins suggests five things that you can easily incorporate into a hack so you’re still training your horse just in a different environment. Before you try any of these exercises make sure it’s safe – on a quiet country lane, on a bridleway and always keep an eye out for other traffic. Also, don’t feel like you have to do all of them each time you hack – again mix it up a bit.

These exercises will inject some fun, focus and targeted training into your hack. Give them a go and you’ll soon start to notice the difference in his schooling when you’re next in the arena.

1. Changing terrain

As the saying goes variety is the spice of life – and the same applies to the work you do with your horse. As his personal trainer it’s important to expose him to a wide variety of surfaces and experiences. As more and more of us have access to artificial surfaces to ride on some horses aren’t being ridden over more natural terrains such as grass, hills, tracks, or different road surfaces. If your horse is worked only on one type of surface he will be less resilient and more susceptible to injury when he is faced with a different surface.

gillian higgins horses inside out hacking horse rider hill

Riding your horse over different terrain and surfaces will make him more surefooted, improve his spatial awareness (proprioception), neuromuscular and motor control.

If you can plan your hacks so you ride over different terrains – some roadwork, riding on grass – up and down hills etc.

Hill work is great for improving your horse’s cardiovascular fitness as well as giving him a full body workout, improving topline, balance, coordination and lower leg strength.

If you'd like to learn more about the biomechanical effects of terrain check out Posture and Performance.

2. Transitions and varying the pace

Sometimes I think we’re all guilty of riding for miles in a straight line in just one pace. Try mixing it up and incorporate transitions into your hack – this is so good for your horse's brain as well as his muscular skeletal system.

If you’re hacking alone this is easy to do because you can say let’s do 20 trot steps, 20 walk steps, 20 trot steps and so on. You can then vary this further - 20 trot steps, 10 walk steps, 20 trot steps…. etc.

There are many benefits to riding transitions – you ride lots of them when you’re riding in an arena so why not use them out hacking too. This is a simple way to check that your horse is on your aids and listening to you as well as improving his balance.

It can be a little trickier to do this exercise if you’re hacking out in a group, but you can still do it. I think it's quite nice to say right we're going to trot from the first tree on the left to the third tree, or we're going to make a transition at that signpost so you're just constantly changing the gait.

gillian higgins horses inside out hacking hill work painted horse muscles rider

Learn more about the biomechanics of transitions in Posture and Performance.

You can also try riding transitions within the gait - great for conditioning the gluteals (blue in the picture) and biceps femoris muscles (dark green), developing expression and power, and sharpening up your horse’s responses to your aids.

This can prove particularly beneficial if you’re struggling with the medium trot. Often, you’ll find that when you ask for medium trot strides out hacking your horse will find that missing gear – make sure that you then ask for more working/collected steps so you are varying the gait.

3. Stretching muscles and improving suppleness

gillian higgins horses inside out hacking lateral flexion neck

This next exercise is good for stretching the neck muscles. When you're riding along, ask your horse for lateral flexion in his neck to one side, then ride straight, then ask for lateral flexion to the other side, then straight.

Pick a number of steps for each, for example, 10 steps with left lateral flexion - 10 step straight - 10 steps with right lateral flexion.

As you ask for the bend it’s important that your horse maintains his rhythm, balance, and impulsion. If he struggles reduce the number of steps you ask for.

gillian higgins horses inside out hacking lateral flexion neck ridden

Try this exercise in walk first once you’re both happy and confident you can try it in trot and even canter.

Lateral flexion in the neck is good for:

  • Core stability and balance

  • Coordination and proprioception

  • Developing straightness and symmetry

  • Forelimb movement and expression

  • Reducing tension and restriction in the neck muscles

  • Muscular strength, control and suppleness

  • Neck joint flexibility

The webinar: Bending Biomechanics looks at more exercises to improve lateral suppleness.

4. Going sideways

Lateral movements require your horse to move forwards and sideways and are great gymnastic exercises that help your horse to become supple, loose, flexible and better balanced. They also have therapeutic benefits and contribute to manoeuvrability, lateral strength, stability, coordination and confidence.

I’m sure you all ride lateral work exercises when you’re schooling and there’s no reason why you can’t do the same out hacking.

gillian higgins horses inside out hacking leg yield lateral work painted horse skeleton rider skeleton suit

A simple leg-yield in walk on a quiet country lane or on a wide verge has many benefits. Make it into a zig-zag movement as your ask your horse to leg-yield to the right for six steps and then six steps back to the left.

Leg-yield is a great suppling exercise and can also help develop longitudinal and lateral flexibility. Using a little bit of leg-yield can also come in handy when you encounter any objects your horse isn’t quite sure of – simply ask him to leg-yield away from the object. This will help him stay focused on you rather than thinking about spooking at it.

If you have a nice wide grass verge you can try the leg-yielding exercise in trot too.

Once you’ve mastered leg-yield you can ask for some steps of shoulder-in, another great exercise for improving suppleness as well as developing straightness, engagement, symmetry and strength. Just stick to walk to begin with – your horse will still feel all the benefits in this slower pace.

5. To help him and you focus...

This final exercise to spice things up out hacking is a version of the slalom exercise that I do with poles in the arena - where you ask your horse to step over a pole to the side and then back again.

This exercise is really good for improving harmony and understanding between horse and rider - it can also become a little addictive. But as you ride it remember it's more of a leg-yield, lateral movement exercise, rather than a serpentine bending exercise.

It helps to stimulate the thoracic sling muscles and the iliospoas muscles and the muscles involved in creating expression. Another great benefit of this exercise is that it not only encourages your horse to step sideways, but it also encourages him to step up at the same time to lift up through the sideways movement.

When you’re out hacking you are going to ask your horse to step off the road onto the verge. Before you try this consider the quality of the edge of the road and the verge - if there's a curb, this will mimic stepping up and over a pole.

The aim is to continue to ride straight and keep your horse parallel to the kerb or verge. Ask your horse step off the road - this gives a lovely lateral movement and also the abductors on both of the limbs will be working. I would recommend that you start with seven steps because taking an odd number of steps means you will be nicely positioned to have the limb closest to the road to step back over and down onto the road again. Also, counting the number of steps will keep you and your horse focused.

Remember this is a lateral movement and you should encourage your horse to move to the side from seat and leg rather than pulling him with the reins, and there shouldn't really be a big variation in lateral flexion. You want your horse to stay in balance without too much bend through his body.

Getting the right number of steps is key to this exercise – aim for seven steps on the road seven steps on the verge seven steps on the road. Once you're both confident and this may take a few hacks to get it right, you can then make it a little more difficult and ask for five steps.

gillian higgins horses inside out horses standing between

I hope you have enjoyed this blog and found it useful. Do send me a message and let me know how you get on with the all these different hacking ideas and exercises.

Happy Hacking!!

Gillian :-)

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