“I can’t hack out on my own as my horse spins round or runs backwards. Should I give up?”
“My horse has never hacked out on his own and if I try he spins round or runs backwards – with no regard for anything behind him. I’ve stopped riding out as it’s such a problem. Is there anything I could do to make him braver or should I give up trying? I really want to try some dressage with him next year.”
Firstly – don’t beat yourself up over this because you can and will overcome this. Although his behaviour is typical of horses that nap to get out of things it sounds to me like this stems from fear. If you’re worried about causing him more upset – which is understandable if you’ve spent four years building up his trust – then the chances are you’re riding him very sympathetically. That’s OK – nobody needs to set up a battle and spoil a good relationship – but I think he’s going to need you to take the lead here.
Taking the lead doesn’t mean bullying. It just means you setting some rules and sticking to them. Once he learns you’re determined and unafraid to get out there he’s going to start to relax – he knows deep down that you’re not going to put him in a tight spot. Make rules that are easy to stick to – don’t allow him to stop and don’t allow him to spin round – by doing that you’ll avoid the reversing problem.
So you need him to go forward and straight. Both things are worth practising in the school. Ride transitions at every marker so you really get him thinking about you and your aids. The more responsive he is in the school the better he’ll respond out on a ride (it’s good practise for your dressage too!). Forget about on the bit and focus on keeping him between your legs and hands and moving straight. Riding on the inside track can really help with that – use the centre line too because you won’t have a fence to help you.
Wear gloves so you can keep your contact and use a drop noseband to keep his mouth closed and a martingale so he can’t get his head up too high and avoid your aids. A snaffle with cheeks or a fulmer can help you to keep him straight too – stronger bits are more likely to make him back off. (Bits and Pieces) Carry a schooling whip so you never have to take your hand off your reins to use it.
Ride on quiet flat roads if you can or ride him out in a field if you have one so you don’t have to worry about traffic. Ride forward into a very good, even contact keeping his head and neck straight in front of him at all times. Trot as much as possible because it’s far easier to avoid stopping. If he does try to stop turn him – so you’re doing the asking – to one side for a few steps and then try forward again. If you have to circle and zig zag your way up the road so be it – just do everything you can to avoid him halting.
Before you throw yourself out there and set off on your own try taking him out with others (if you can) but make sure you take the lead. If he finds that difficult then ride alongside another horse while he finds his feet. (NB! Pick your friends carefully with this one – they need to appreciate what you’re doing and not try to show you how ‘wild’ their horse is!!)
If he struggles to go first without panicking them going out on his own isn’t going to work for a bit. Try riding out with someone walking nearby or riding a bike – it’s amazing how much that can really help. Just having an extra person for you to talk to will help you relax and it will help him too because he’ll listen to you talking instead of worrying about his surroundings. When you’re feeling brave try trotting ahead for a bit and then turn him round to go back to them. He’ll enjoy the going back but make sure you are the one who decides when.
If a horse is nervous it can make things worse if you leave home or ride away from other horses. You can use this to your advantage though by doing the opposite. Can you box him to a point that you can ride back to your yard from? That often helps because you don’t actually ride away from home. Or ride out with a friend in the distance – follow them out of the yard but a minute or so later and ask them to wait just round the first corner. If your horse realises he’s going out to meet someone he’ll have a reason to leave the yard. You can stretch the distance between you and the other horse as you feel braver.
As far as the dressage is concerned I think you should go for it! Go and check out a few venues first so you know what they’re like. If you can hire a school or book a lesson at a different place so you get used to riding him somewhere strange. That could actually really help his confidence for hacking.
When you choose a show to do find somewhere where he can see other horses so you don’t leave the warm up and ride into an empty quiet school. Try an Intro A or Intro B and enter two classes so you can write off the first class to let him get used to it. Watching a few tests can help you to feel more confident to if you’re not actually riding. You’ll always see someone who is worse than you! Remember dressage is about accuracy and transitions not your horse’s shape.
I wish you so much luck with this! It’s a challenge but certainly not impossible. You’ve spent four years getting to this stage so hold that thought! This is just the next stage of his development. If there’s anything you don’t understand don’t hesitate to get in touch.