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.