Sunday, May. 26, 2024

Throwback Thursday: Hacking Out—It’s More Than You Think

This Denny Emerson Between Rounds column ran in a 2009 print edition of The Chronicle of the Horse.

Some riders call it hacking, some call it trail riding, while others simply say, “I’m going for a ride.”

Almost all riders do some riding out in the fields, woods, dirt roads, or even on the verges of traveled highways. They differentiate hacking from schooling, in that hacking usually has less clearly defined goals than jumping or working in dressage, although hacking is used by many riders as a fitness workout.

PUBLISHED
TBT020416Front2.jpg

ADVERTISEMENT

This Denny Emerson Between Rounds column ran in a 2009 print edition of The Chronicle of the Horse.

Some riders call it hacking, some call it trail riding, while others simply say, “I’m going for a ride.”

Almost all riders do some riding out in the fields, woods, dirt roads, or even on the verges of traveled highways. They differentiate hacking from schooling, in that hacking usually has less clearly defined goals than jumping or working in dressage, although hacking is used by many riders as a fitness workout.

I spoke with a number of riders recently and found that while hacking is still routine for most, there are also those who almost never “go for a ride.”

One major reason cited by the “almost never” group is the total absence of open land on which to do so. There were 150 million Americans in 1950, and now there are 300 million of us. In 1950, the average family might have owned one car. Today, there may be as many cars per family as there are drivers with licenses.

With suburban sprawl and dense, fast traffic the increasing norm, what used to be “the countryside” has become the auto zone. If there’s one potentially lethal mix it’s horses and speeding automobiles driven by people who have no clue that horses can be nervous and unpredictable.

St. George’s horse may have had a fire-breathing dragon to face down, but our horses have an even worse 21st century equivalent, that moving house of horrors, the logging truck. What horse in his right mind can stay sane as that monstrosity bears down on him on some narrow road, with its engine popping, muttering and growling, its air brakes hissing, and its loose chains clanking?

No wonder so many riders stay safely put in their rings and arenas when the alternative can be so lethal.

Some riders who do have land on which to ride choose not to go there, because they, their horse, or both of them are nervous about “open spaces.” Enclosed spaces don’t have barking dogs, kids on bicycles, flapping plastic garbage bags, cows, ducks, geese, chickens, lawnmowers, blowing branches, all the 101 ways to have your horse spin and dump you.

ADVERTISEMENT

It’s kind of the classic Catch-22 situation. You don’t go there because your horse is spooky, but your horse is spooky because you don’t go there. You and he haven’t had the chance to become desensitized to all of the things and situations that scare you.

The Spook Factor

Some riders rarely hack because of real time constraints, especially in those months of short daylight hours when it’s already dark by 6:30 p.m. They get to the barn after school or work and have to hustle to squeeze in an hour of riding, four or five days a week, which doesn’t allow for much trail riding.

I’ve also talked with riders who find hacking boring and monetarily unproductive. One local professional asked, “Why should I go walk my horse in the woods for an hour and a half when I can get paid for schooling two others during that same time?”

Still, for those riders who do have the place, the time, and the inclination, there are hosts of benefits to be derived from something as deceptively simple as “going for a ride.”

For example, all of those previously mentioned terrors are lurking out there somewhere. If your horse is ever to bravely gallop alone out of a cross-country starting gate, he’d better have been desensitized to all that. Spooky is normal. Spooky is a genetically desirable trait. The spooky horse didn’t get eaten by the mountain lion at the water hole. If your horse is too flighty to go out alone, if he spins or stops at the sight of a ditch and wall, or a log shaped like a crouching beast, he isn’t ready to be an event horse.

The best antidote to a young or green horse’s fear of the unknown is to ride him with a “Steady Eddie” buddy, a horse so low key that he can even tolerate the logging truck. Gradually, the courage of the older horse rubs off on the young one.

Horses who take to the trails, especially hilly, off road tracks, learn where to put their feet and how to handle their bodies over uneven terrain. They learn to deal with puddles, muddy or rocky footing, ditches and streams. They learn it so gradually that they probably are unaware that it’s a learning process. The rider’s mind may wander during a hack, creating the illusion that this isn’t a “training session,” but it’s real business for the horse.

The Coke Factor

Unlike their 19th and early 20th century ancestors who actually worked for a living, most modern American horses aren’t very fit. They simply don’t get ridden enough hours and miles in a week to develop that deep down integral fitness, hardness, really, of all of their “systems.”

ADVERTISEMENT

Animal physiologists tell us that the first parts of a horse to get fit are his heart and lungs. It takes much longer to create hard hooves and bones, and super resilient tendons, ligaments and muscles. While shorter, faster works can create cardiovascular and respiratory fitness in an event horse or endurance athlete, it takes hundreds of hours and many more hundreds of miles of long, slow work to toughen the other systems.

Most eventers don’t ride enough miles per week to create a really hard athlete. I’d bet the average lower level eventer racks up about 20 miles a week. A horse walks about 4 miles an hour, trots about 9 miles an hour, and canters 12 to 15 miles per hour, give or take. So use a watch for a couple of weeks and estimate your actual mileage.

The key with any fitness program is to start slowly and incrementally build up the levels of stress. Be gradual so that the horse’s body has time to harden enough to withstand the stresses. It may take a couple of years to bring those systems up to peak levels. This hacking should be done in addition to normal flatwork, gymnastics and jumping, not as a substitute for it.

At the outset, the best way to increase the workload is to add perhaps a half hour of walking two to three times a week. It’s rare that we can injure a horse by walking him. Then build over time, adding distance, speed and hills if you have them.

Truly fit horses can withstand truly staggering levels of exertion, but few riders put in the long, slow hours necessary to achieve that. Instead, many eventers try to make do with interval gallops, which are only one piece of a broader equation.

Trainers who really do take the time to put in the hours and miles on the trails and up the hills will create new levels of strength and endurance in their horses that in turn open doors to peaks of performance that most riders have never felt.

I was talking about this concept of building fitness for performance to a group of Pony Clubbers in California some years ago. One little boy suddenly piped up, “I get it! A horse is like a Coke machine!”

“What do you mean?” I asked.

He replied, “You’ve got to put the 50 cents in before you can get the Coke out.”                                              


Denny Emerson rode on the 1974 World Championship gold-medal eventing team. He served as the U.S. Eventing Association president twice and won the USEA Wofford Cup for his lifetime dedication to eventing. At his Tamarack Hill Farm in South Strafford, Vt., and Southern Pines, N.C., he trains horses and riders and stands stallions. An original Between Rounds contributor, Emerson began writing his column in 1989.

ADVERTISEMENT

EXPLORE MORE

Follow us on

Sections

Copyright © 2024 The Chronicle of the Horse