April 19, 2012

Hack Out: Good, Bad and oh so Ugly

I hacked Connor out in our cross-country field this evening instead of my lesson, because my trainer was busy.

It did not go so well.

The good?  I was almost immediately able to get his jaw and neck softened, and he went round and on contact every single time I asked.

The bad?  He was mentally and physically tense, and wanted to charge down hills.  He'd speed up and ignore my seat.  He was scared of the standards, the poles, the cross-country fences/ditches/etc and the piles of dirt in the field.  Ears pricked, eyes bright, curling his little body away from the spooky thing.

The ugly?  He certifiably lost his mind when two motorcycles drove by.

When the motorcycles drove by, the instinctive side of my brain realized that Connor's brain was completely consumed with fear, and wanted me to bail.  The thinking side of my brain went, "Nope, you are sticking this, he is not learning that this is the way to get out of doing scary things."  It was the first time I'd ever seen him truly terrified instead of being interested/scared like he usually is: he was snorting, eyes rolling, trembling and unable to stand in one place.  I continued with my "Dressage lesson in the field you will listen to me in any situation" lesson, kept my cool the entire time, and did not get off.

I have so many questions for my trainer.  Does this get better?  How much of this can be trained/desensitized out?  What sort of natural inclinations do eventers need?  How do I get this horse to believe in himself?  He's not scared in a "there's a mountain lion behind me" sort of way - well, except for when those motorcycles drove by.  But still, he's interested in the scary thing, just scared of it.

I know I need to hack more.  I know this is just a repeat of his first days in the indoor, then his first days in the outdoor, and he got over himself in both of those situations. But I'm also wondering...will every first time at a new place be like this?  When does he get the confidence in himself and in me to get over this sort of thing?  Will he?


On the bright side, I can rationally think through his episodes without losing my cool or getting nervous, and stick anything he's thrown at me yet - which admittedly, hasn't even been a single buck, just some spooks and the stop at the fence.  Bucking doesn't seem to ever cross his mind even when he's scared or mad, which is nice.

Lesson Sunday.  If the footing is good, I'm requesting an outdoor lesson.  This has to get better, or else we're going to be a Dressage pony, and - no offense, Dressage people - there's nothing like galloping over jumps that don't fall down.


  1. I don't know how much he's been out and about, but I've been told that as they gain more trust in you as the leader, and as they get out to more and more different places and they see so many things, they kind of develop the "been there, done that" attitude, and even when there IS something that makes them say "Oh shit," if that trust is there, they look to you to protect them instead of going with their first instinct.
    If you've got the finesse and clarity to be able to deal with his worst reactions instead of panic, you're in a great spot. I think just working him out in the field so that the jumps become no big deal will totally make this easier over time.

  2. I know a lot of people suggest exposing your horse to lots of hacking/outdoors/new things and doing it alone is empowering, but it can also be a little unnerving. A great way to reinforce ground work and gain his trust with spooky, new places is to take him on adventures on foot (chain shank over the nose if you need it). If his ground work is solid, this would be a good opportunity for you to reassure him of scary things. Leads him over, under, through without the added worry of being on his back if he panics a little. Lot and lots of exposure, letting him figure out that you (his leader) are right there and there's nothing to panic about. Good luck!

  3. I think getting him out more should help...could you hack out with someone on a more experienced horse? That should help as well... I think most horses take some time to get that confidence up in different situations - just part of the maturing process and putting on the miles. I'm sure you are doing the right things with him - it will all come together for you.

    I think there is the odd horse that is so laid back that most stuff doesn't phase them, but those creatures are rare...(cause I need one and can't find one! lol)

  4. Sounds like you are doing great. I agree with the above comments, ground work and buddies and time.
    He may always have that awareness, but that is not necessarily a bad thing. It does get better. My mom's Morgan was hyper aware, but we were able to harness and direct the energy into movement. His first horse trial away from home he placed second. As a rider I had to ride him differently, but it was not difficult.
    You and he have plenty of time.

    (PS your right about there being nothing like jumping over solid jumps)

  5. I like the way you think; not letting him think a freak out will get you off his back.

    I do agree with the other commenters - hand walking when exposing to new places, taking him to as many new places as possible, and venturing out with a calm, been there done that, horse is a great idea.

  6. The first time I took Guinness on a hack, he tried to break my nose with the back of his head. It didn't get better too fast either.

    I worked on it by taking him for long walks on the ground, going to a short hack after almost every ride, and going for long rides more often (weekly at least in nice weather, and every other week in the winter).

    Cars were rough for us (read: dismounting while and holding my suddenly 18hh bug-eyed rearing psycho), but after a summer of walking on the roads he made friends with the mail lady and the fed-ex delivery guy.

    I'd have to say that doing all this work with just the two of us was harder, but now he trusts ME not the other horses. He's completely okay with leading or following and looks to me to tell him it's okay.

    Also, something that stuck with me and has really worked (other than just LOTS of work outside to establish trust)is the idea that you have to keep the horse thinking. Someone told me to work on something the horse has to think about when he's not paying attention to you. For me that was leg yielding and changing bend. So, you might try practicing leg yielding Connor into the direction he's bulging away from, and then change the bend a lot to keep him thinking about you.

    Sort of how you would work with a dog to get them to pay attention to you in a strange place, no?

    (sorry I wrote a novel, but I have some real experience with psycho's outside ;)

  7. Also, I was promised an update about easy keepers and grass ... I demand a photo of a grazing muzzle!!

  8. I know I am posting this a whole year late..but had to! Just today I rode Rory in the outdoor arena by myself. We are at a new barn and I was dying to get outside. So glad I read this tonight because although I had handwalked him in the arena AND walked under saddle with a friend yesterday- today he was on high alert. Maybe because we were alone and maybe because I was a little nervous too. Anyway he was rushing the trot and not listening to my seat at all! I did get him together finally only to have him spook at something ( who knows? it was windy...) and take off galloping. With his nose just about to my him I stopped him. Walked awhile, went back to trot and ended ok. He was a bit like this at first in the new indoor too. Anyway, I am looking forward to tomorrow-having a lesson. And now that I am at an eventing/jumping barn vs. a dressage barn, I guess eventually we will get braver and braver. This blog is certainly helping me a lot!!