Tuesday, August 28, 2012

The Joys of Hacking

One of the things that I love about my barn is the access we have to a fabulous network of trails. A short ride through a neighborhood sub-division to the trail head and there is miles and miles of conservation land, with beautiful groomed trails that are maintained by a local snowmobile club. The trails are perfect for a relaxing, meandering ride, for a long sets of trotting, cantering over varying terrain, bits of gallop, a small stream to cross if you want to get your horse used to passing through water, plenty of up and down hills to build fitness and balance, there is even a vast orchard at the end of one trail with hills and open fields and sweeping 360° views ... We really do have access to a little bit of everything on our trails.

Living in New England, however, we do have to cope with quite a bug season during a good part of the Summer. Flies and gnats and mosquitos are one thing, the deer flies are another. When the deer flies are at their thickest, the only way to really negotiate the trails is at a canter and gallop. Anything slower and your horse is just completely swarmed. This has its own element of fun because, during this part of the season, I have to be a bit inventive about the route I take so that I can go at the right pace the whole way to escape the bugs.  There is a fair shot down to a hard-packed sand parking lot that is ideal for a good gallop. It usually takes me about 3-3.5 minutes of galloping on that part of the trail and then in the middle of the trip I would throw in 3-4 5-minute trot sets (with a couple of minutes of walking in between) in the sand lot. Between the walk up & back though the sub-division, the canter through the bit of trail at the trail head, trot down the steep trail to the "gallop" trail, 3-3.5 minutes down to the sand lot, my series of trot sets and the gallop back up the trail (and up the steep hill), it is a fair ride in a pinch. Ruby has certainly enjoyed it. (I did get a little tired of the tediousness of the parking lot trot sets though). And so I managed to make it work during the worst of the bug season while also very much enjoying the fact that I am comfortable enough with my horse to hack her out and gallop down the trail alone.

Happily, about a week or so ago I happened to go out for a trail ride and noticed that the deer flies were suddenly greatly, greatly reduced. Hallelujah! In the past week I have been able to: introduce a barn friend on his new horse to the trail system for quiet ride; a very energetic trot and canter set trail, just Ruby & me; and an exploring trail with another friend on Sunday when we had plenty of time. And so hack & trail season can begin again with a big variety of possible rides in any given week. I think it is so important to intersperse the hacking days with the schooling days in the ring. I find that after a hacking day Ruby is so relaxed and more naturally forward. Working with the terrain changes helps build fitness and encourages the horse to learn how to carry herself at different gaits over uneven footing, up hill and down hill, and teaches me how to ride it as well.

In addition to the usual hacking benefits, I'll also sometimes throw in a little leg yielding and shoulder-in on the trail, I'll do some within-canter transitions and other flat work that we're schooling back in the ring. But one of my favorite things to work on during hacks are trot lengthenings. There is just something about an energetic hack that seems to encourage a great trot lengthen to happen organically, where in the ring it is just ... Not. Happening. It's wonderfully refreshing to just suddenly feel Ruby lift her back, reach down even more for the contact, engage her haunches and just switch into this ground-covering version of trot that I just can't seem to get in the ring (at least not yet). When I get this trot, I just go with it and enjoy. Now to learn how to translate it into the ring!

The other thing I enjoy about hacking is that I can relax about my own riding. I stop thinking about all the stuff that I can't do, or can't seem to do right. I don't think about position or effectiveness or how I don't feel my hands are elastic enough, or how I feel that my leg aids are not subtle or precise enough ... I just ride, and manage to feel reasonably competent while doing it too.

I would never want to replace Dressage or Stadium or Cross-Country for just hacking out in the woods, but I definitely feel that it has a very important place in my riding life and in Ruby's program. I'm very happy to have such great hacking options.

Monday, August 20, 2012


I mentioned before that I am going through a cycle of fear with my riding. Specifically with jumping. There is no real reason for it (at least this time around). Nothing bad has happened, I have not had a fall, or even (really) a terrible jumping round. No, I just haven't been jumping a lot and the less I jump, the more my fear grows. It's unreasonable, and even a bit nuts, but fear is a hard emotion to get a handle on.

I think I have my trainer convinced now that I can't handle anything "big" and that I hate to jump. This is not really true, however. What I hate is the anticipation of jumping. Once we're on course, I'm usually okay. I'm also better if I go earlier in the rotation, rather than later (if there are three or four people in the class, my nerves are much better if I jump first. If I jump last, I tend to start freaking out more). Once I start a course, however, I'm fairly calm and able to function okay. When I'm looking at a jump course and the jumps are relatively big ("big" for me means around 3 feet), I'll start to freak out, but once we start jumping, I seem to settle into the work. Actually, the bigger ones tend to jump a little nicer, so I might even relax a bit on course with larger fences. Oddly, I am the most relaxed when jumping cross-country. Jumping stadium courses in the ring, I tend to think and worry too much and just want to "get it over-with". Send me out in the field and I'm up for a nice gallop, jumping anything that gets in the way. After a jumping session, I usually feel pretty exuberant, excited that I did it, happy that it went well, a bit of an adrenalin rush. It feels great.

I think the fear is partially physical fear and partially a fear of failure. The physical side of this tends to ebb & flow with how much I’m jumping in any given season and how well it’s going (and, typically, the more I’m jumping, the better it tends to go, things are funny that way). But something I struggle with in many other parts of my life, in addition to riding, is the fear of failure. I can intellectualize the logic of my resistance to starting down an unsure path where success is not assured, but I really struggle with the emotions around this and the resulting inertia. I worry about failure, and so I don’t even try. I worry about looking foolish or stupid. I doubt myself and self-loathing rears its head. It sounds so simple and stupid, just put yourself out there, you don’t have to be perfect! I know, I know, I agree, but it’s just not that simple. It’s an extremely complicated and layered emotional thing. It’s a little easier to see the illustration with something like riding, since the physicality of the activity makes it a little more simple, more black & white, but it’s still there and a very real feeling that paralyzes my willingness to take chances.

Because of my fear issues, in addition to being pretty resistant to jumping in general, I have not been willing to sign up for any competition this year (there is a logistical and time component to this too, but the fear is probably the biggest element). I chickened out on an invitation to go to fox hunting (the opening hunt) this past weekend and I have chickened out on multiple opportunities to go cross-country schooling this Summer. Oddly enough, I have had absolutely no problem with motivating myself to go out hacking alone, including galloping down the trail. Maybe it’s because no one is watching? My horse has been so good in general, that I have reached a point where I really do trust her. I just need to trust myself more. In the meantime, my peers at the barn are all competing and advancing and all doing very well and I am completely left in the dust.

If I am to be honest with myself (and, really, if you can’t be honest on your blog, why even bother?) I will also have to admit that there is another component to my current fear issues. Being significantly overweight and out of shape wreaks havoc on my ability to ride well -- my physical ability to actually do the activity (let’s face it, the tighter and more athletic you are, the more solid and balanced you are going to be careening around a stadium jumping course, and the more solid & balanced you are, the more confident you’re going to feel overall). It also affects my perception of myself, my willingness to take a chance and put myself out there and out of my comfort zone, my concern for looking silly or ridiculous. Hell, when I feel that I am even more porked out than normal, even my willingness to meet new people or interact with people I already know is affected. It’s a vicious circle too. The more self-conscious I am, the more self-loathing sets in, the less likely I am to expose myself to activity and situations where I could look silly or ridiculous or not competent. So, I hide and don’t try new things or put myself out there in general, and of course my activity level decreases. Add to that a 50+ hour a week desk job and any willingness to pursue enough activity to make a dent in my fitness level really suffers. Most weekdays are crazy and I am committed to riding at least three workdays out of five (and both weekend days). I used to be able to schedule gym or running time on my lunch hours at work, but I now have so many lunchtime meetings and commitments, that it hasn’t been realistic in a long time. I am generally at work by 7 and I ride after work, home around 7:30-8 PM and in bed by 9. So there isn’t a lot of wiggle room on these days for fitting something else in (especially something in the mid-day when I will need a shower afterwards). What I must do, however, is make a commitment to do some other activity (running, yoga, spinning, even just a long walk with the dogs) on the days where I don't have riding commitments. Thursdays are a good target (I have lessons on Tuesday & Wednesdays and usually plan to ride on Mondays as well). If could just get myself to run or take a yoga class or go to the gym on Thursdays & Fridays and one day (in addition to riding) on the weekend, I think that would be a great start. It would also really help if could sleep better during the week and not be so unbelievably exhausted by Thursday. Okay, I’m making excuses. I just need to suck it up and make a plan.

A long and rambling post to my conclusions … I absolutely know what some of these things are that are holding me back, in life, in general, but in riding in particular. But how do I overcome them? That is really the meat of the problem. I can blather about it all endlessly, I can self-analyze with the best of them, but what I really need is a concrete action plan. Hmmm, more on this in future posts, I think …