I have never been much of a solo hacker. For me, one of my favourite things about riding is the social aspect of it — I’ve met some of my very best friends through my horses, and I can’t think of a better way to spend an afternoon than going for a long hack with a friend (if it’s via the pub, even better!) and putting the world to rights.
Additionally, the majority of my solo hacking experience is with Jordan, who frequently used to ditch me halfway round and head home on his own.
All in all, heading out on my own isn’t my favourite thing to do.
On this occasion, however, it is far too perfect a morning to waste on schooling: bright and crisp.
None of my buddies are around, but I think “sod it”, and head for the Downs.
Owen is altogether a safer bet than Jordan, whom I trust about as far as I can throw. However, Owen is not what I would describe as ‘bombproof’, and he is considerably sharper when he doesn’t have one of his buddies with him.
However, barring a minor difference of opinion over whether or not it would be a good idea to join the racehorses in training on the gallops (in favour: Owen. Emphatically against: me, several trainers, the Epsom Downs Preservation Society and a nervous-looking lady with a buggy), he manages to hold it together and we enjoy a few canters, most of which I asked for.
Based on this successful outing, I feel qualified to offer the following tips to anybody considering venturing out on their own:
Stack the odds in your favour
The first cold, sunny day, after weeks of box rest, on a freshly clipped horse, is probably not going to be your best bet for a solo outing. Equally, think about when you’re heading out – for us, we know that we share the Downs with racehorses in training before 12pm, and sunny Saturdays are likely to be busy with dogs, kites, runners and cyclists.
Pro tip: if it’s pouring with rain, sensible people will stay indoors and you will encounter fewer pedestrians.
If you can’t be seen from space, you are not wearing enough high viz
Regardless of whether or not you are going to be on the road, wear high viz.
I am very fortunate, in that I have miles of hacking with no road work. However, the more visible you are, the easier it is for people to behave considerately around you and your horse – if you can see us from a mile away, it gives dog walkers more time to put their dogs on a lead, and parents more time to round up their children.
And if, heaven forbid, you should have an accident, you want people to be able to find you easily.
Always insist on good manners
If your horse is used to galloping around like a bat out of Hell, your chances of getting them to behave when they’re out on their own are pretty slim.
Equally, if you always canter in the same place, they’re not going to be very impressed when they’re told they have to walk because the ground is too soft.
Insisting on good manners every time you go out, starting with when you are hacking out in company, your horse is far more likely to respect you when it’s just the two of you. You’re in charge, don’t let them set the pace.
Stick to what you know
Don’t be too ambitious — build confidence by taking baby steps. To begin with, stick to routes you know like the back of your hand, where you can be reasonably sure that you’re not going to come face to face with anything too scary (having said this, I have had a helicopter land more or less on top of me before.)
Give yourself something to focus on
Keep yourself busy! Use hacking as an opportunity to do a bit of schooling – the more you engage your horse’s brain, the less likely they are to start looking for things to spook at. The same goes for you: if you give yourself something to do, it will keep you from focusing on your nerves.
Safety first, always. Make sure somebody at the yard knows where you’re going, and how long you’ll be, so they can send out a search party if your horse arrives home unaccompanied.
Make sure your mobile is charged, and download What 3 Words – this app allows you to give your precise location (to within 3 metres) if you’re in need of assistance. Some smart watches also have the ability to alert next of kin in the event of an accident.