Regaining confidence while hacking

It finally feels like spring!

Apparently we are going to have winter for another three weeks, however I have been taking advantage of the 60-degree weather and taking Spiker out to the 1/2 mile track in the back of the barn he is stabled at. I have been trying to focus less on the technical side of training and more on his fitness and confidence with his surroundings. When we resume jumping (notice I am saying “when” and not “if”!) I want him to feel comfortable, both physically and mentally.

Ideally, when bringing a young or inexperienced horse outside of confined spaces (such as an indoor arena) for the first few times, having another more confident horse to “lead the way” will make your horse feel more secure. In my situation, I often find myself riding alone so I have to “make do” with any pitfalls that may come with it.

I make sure that he’s properly bitted and booted (right now my bit of choice is the Mikmar short shank with double reins, it gives me a bit of leverage when he spooks but I can soften my hands and he sinks right down into the contact) to keep us both safe. The first handful of times we ventured out back, he was looking around, prancing, and spent most of the time trying to convince me he NEEDED to go home. Immediately. Depending on the footing, I would allow him to trot for 10-20 strides, then bring him back to walk, and then repeat. (While you want to avoid letting your horse jig, which is a nervous/anticipatory habit, trying to hold onto 1,200 lbs of horse without letting him bolt home is no fun either!)

As time went on, we ventured out after a big snowfall. It was wonderful.

Beautiful snow!

While he is still spooky out by the back barn (leaving his barn, and heading down the laneway to the track is another barn which houses a variety of pony hunters), once we get down onto the track he is considerably settled. I have been able to relax my contact on the reins and let him decide on his comfort level. We have been able to hack around the track in both directions while on a long rein, without any major issues. I want him to feel confident in his surroundings, and allowing him the freedom of his head and neck to decide when he can relax versus when he needs to be on alert seems to make him feel more settled.

The other day was a big test for us. We have been progressing up to trotting around the track, in both directions, with walk breaks in between. He has been very well behaved, despite the occasional minor “scoot” (which is a miniature version of a bolt, and only lasts about 2-3 strides) here and there but very manageable. We were having walk break when he suddenly went “on alert” and attempted to look behind and stare at something. I had just picked up the reins when he both whirled around and started running sideways. He pulled himself together fairly quickly, and although I could feel his heart absolutely pounding, planted himself firmly in the direction of our new visitor. Turns out it was a friend on her small mare, trotting towards us. He had clearly heard her, but couldn’t see her as she was coming up on his bad side.

While we will have to work on this, his reactions have been slowly and surely improving. This incident reminded me an attempted hack pre-surgery, with another horse attempting to accompany us, when three riders emerged from the woods and scared him so badly he practically bolted sideways about 1/4 of the way home before I could get a handle on him. The fact he is still reacting however in a more controlled manner is very encouraging.

So enjoy the spring weather while you still can, before Mother Nature turns down the temperature to get as much out of winter as possible!