How to Have a Happy Hack With Your Horse

Jess @ Spotty Horse News officially blows my mind by being a psycho – I mean a psychic – because she knew I was going to write about taking your mad, crazy, wild, insane Thoroughbred for a nice on-the-buckle hack, and address some of the stereotypes  (albeit, some deserved) about trying to just chill out with a racehorse beneath you.

Now, she is one of the more brave people in the world, obviously, because in addition to trail-riding a Thoroughbred, she also rides a paint mare. Not exactly a trend-setter. Where are the gaited horses? I suppose we are old-fashioned.

Anyway, at some point you have to loosen up on your scary racehorse. You just have to. If you don’t, people will point at you and laugh. (I get this all the time, for a variety of reasons.) 

Cory riding Final Call

So that's not me - but you get the general idea. Bet you didn't know he was a husband horse, too!

Admittedly, there is a long period of time there where if you loosen up the reins, you get a jog. Just achieving a flat-footed walk can be the subject of entire training manuals. Sally Swift writes a lengthy essay on getting a spooky horse to walk slowly in Centered Riding (coincidentally, the horse was in the indoor at Claremont Riding Academy – you would think you could just run the horse into the wall to slow him down. But horses have a funny way of going faster in tighter confines. It’s that “Where is my open meadow?” claustrophobia kicking in.)

Sally Swift sits and breathes, and may I humbly second that approach.

I took Final Call for a hack around the paddocks yesterday. I would have cheerfully taken him down my driveway and down the road, but my neighbor pastures her lamentably intact palomino beast next to my driveway, and “he’s super-nice with mares, but he attacks geldin’s.” (Remember kids, you can’t hug a Thoroughbred, but evidently you can hug out-of-shape stallions that attack your gelding.) So we’re limited to the confines of the farm.

This was the first ride I’d ever taken with the intent of doing nothing. I’m not good at nothing. Trail rides are excellent opportunities to work on your laterals, in my opinion. I don’t relax by doing nothing. Doing nothing makes me tense.

But in this case, it would be interesting to see how Final Call would react to the concept of just chilling out. Can a Thoroughbred even do that? To be more specific: a five year old, very fit Thoroughbred?

We started out with firm reins, as usual. The barn is on a hill, and as we came out of the stall, he jogged down the hill, his head held high, surveying the terrain. He still finds it a novelty to be ridden out of the barn and around the front of the property, instead of being led to the back paddock for a longe session. I like his attitude, ears pricked and at attention, and it makes me want to take him for a gallop down my long driveway. Just that pesky stallion at the end… too bad.

Gleam of Hope, Tampa Bay Derby 2010

This is Gleam of Hope. Notice Willie Martinez's hands - right hand on a loose rein, left hand has a fistful of mane.

Going back to channelling a jockey, the quietest place to sit on a Thoroughbred is on your seatbones rocked back, and very close and firm from seat to knee. I think that you communicate your calm body and breathing to them most clearly in this seat. Sit back, breathe, and be cool. If your horse jogs, your horse jogs. Is that the worst thing your horse will ever throw at you? Highly unlikely. If you get twenty minutes of sideways jogging, and five minutes of flat-footed walk, you’ve both accomplished something together. You’ve relaxed your horse. That’s a win. And, you’ve relaxed yourself. Major win.

Also – notice this in the picture – if you are riding with loose reins and are at all nervous about a sudden leap or shy, consider either a neckstrap or a good grasp of mane. The neckstrap (if you don’t need or like martingales, just take the attachment off and voila, you have a neckstrap) usually sits just in front of the withers and I like to wrap a couple fingers of my left hand around it when there is potential silliness in the air. It is an excellent anchor and will keep you from reacting so strongly with your reins that you send your horse into the stratosphere over a simple spook.

And so we explored the yard, investigating interesting and mildly alarming items like some children’s toys long-abandoned to the wasps in between the buzzing bottle-brush bushes in front of the house. I gave him his head, and kept my connection by seating deep. I kept him walking by sitting deep and breathing. Gradually, his neck grew longer, his stride grew slower.

It took about ten minutes to bring Final Call to the point where he was on the buckle, nose on the ground. Then, because I really can’t help myself, I started teaching him to neck-rein. I mean, he already knows how to turn with my body. And the reins were loose. It wasn’t like I was asking for anything hard.

“Crazy Thoroughbreds can’t relax.” Scratch that. Their riders can’t relax. The horses are all right!



Filed under Final Call, Stereotypes, Training Diary, Training Theory

13 responses to “How to Have a Happy Hack With Your Horse

  1. Amen! Breathe, breathe, breathe and your horse will breathe with you.

    And this is why I love trail riding. Once they get a hang of it, they almost all learn to love it as a very relaxing activity…and a rewarding change of pace.

  2. Barb

    I love when they get the chance to figure things out for themselves, and make the right decision, and have fun doing it. Really does wonders for their true confidence and trust. TBs just love to have fun- Wait- I think that’s a song!

    • Natalie Keller Reinert

      Ooooh Thor-oh-breds just wanna have fu-uh-un!!

      They do, don’t they? So cute. So childlike. So naughty naughty naughty. Fun to kiss and squeeze and hug, too. Like kids that you don’t have to deal with for more than a few hours a day. Nice.

      You just have to remember that you have all the time in the world. There’s no stopwatch running. If there is, choose your challenges carefully. If you only have a half-hour, sometimes a walking day is the best idea.

  3. Portia Winters

    Love it so very true.

  4. Good advice – I’m a big fan of the pinch of rein as a backstop if things look like they might get interesting.

    • Natalie Keller Reinert

      Okay, Kate, I demand illumination. “Pinch of rein as a backstop.” ?? Tell me more, I’m not following.

  5. Mia Knicely

    My OTTB is an exception I am finding out. He is what I call a professional Stander. I climb on, and he stands, I sit. Then he falls asleep. He will walk, trot, canter, and jump. But he prefers to stand. He also told me what he thinks about lounging. As in he doesn’t need to lounge since he is such a great Stander.

    • Natalie Keller Reinert

      Oh, a Stander is very rare! They come in handy for group riding lessons and clinics, I find. You are so fortunate! 🙂

  6. you are a great writer- you never seem to run out of interesting things to say. i have found it is not that easy to always have an interesting perspective to write about but i have never been disappointed with your posts!

    • Natalie Keller Reinert

      Thanks Suzanne!

      I think about my posts while I’m riding. How can I express this – what am I accomplishing – why am I doing this – there’s a whole existential why-are-we-here thing going on. No two rides are the same – if they were, would we even do it?

      On a sidenote, I certainly hope I never run out of interesting things to say, or my life as a professional writer will be, shall we say, difficult? 😉

  7. carrotplease

    We bring a lot of them on trail rides as one of their first rides when we re-start them. 95% of them are usually perfectly fine their first time out. The other 5% of the time the biggest issues I’ve had are jumping at deer, and horses that want to stop and go home. I don’t so much channel the jockey but adopt “sack of potatoes” as my mental image and basically, I just anticipate that everything will be fine and it usually is!

    • Natalie Keller Reinert

      Sack of potatoes VERY effective on the trail! My biggest issue has always been fear of other horses – even with seasoned horses. When I used to condition event horses in the woods, if we came around a corner and there was another horse, it was like freak-out time.

  8. Why thank you, Natalie! I think psycho is how many at my barn think of me. BUT I don’t care because my boy is an awesome trail horse.

    Yes, some of our tense moments have been around other horses but if I relax and act like it’s no big deal, he will usually follow suit. (He gets better every time, too.)

    And yes, the horses are all right. Learning to breathe (and hum) has been the best ongoing lesson Bar has given me!!

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