In partnership with Wintec Saddles

How often do you stop to consider how many different terrains you encounter on a hack? From roadwork and grassy bridleways, to gravel tracks or boggy moorland, depending on where you live, you could be encountering all manner of – or very few – different landscapes. It can really impact your horse’s fitness and proprioception, as BHS senior coach and endurance rider Cindy Russell explains.

“The basic things we think of when considering terrain is ‘flat’ and hills’. But there’s more to it than that,” says Cindy. “You need to consider the combination of what the gradient is and what the surface is like.”

Surfaces include roads, tracks, grass and soil – but even soil can be broken down into sand-based or clay, and whether it’s smooth, stony or rocky.

“It’s sort of similar to different arena surfaces in the impact it can have on your horse,” says Cindy. “A flat, level yet hard surface arena will pull less but have more concussion, whilst a deep sand or rubber surface will put less concussive forces on the limbs but pull more.”

So what should you be considering when it comes to surface? For many riders who remain local, it won’t have much of an impact. But if you move yards, purchase a new horse from outside your area, or fancy venturing further afield for fun rides or events, it might be worth casting your mind over their training plan.

“If you’re doing pleasure rides and not travelling far then your horse will be used to the local terrain. However, if you’re going somewhere further away then you need to consider this when training your horse,” says Cindy. “You need to assess the terrain and work out how to cover it in the most economical way.”

Incorporating different surfaces

“Fitness is key. If you went to the gym and only did legs, your upper body wouldn’t be strong. Take the same approach for training your horse – if you only work on one surface, they won’t be able to cope with other ones.”

Cindy believes in training horses holistically, in that rather than focusing solely on the thing you want to improve, variety is the key to success.

“I re-schooled a polo pony who’d spent her whole life playing on nicely manicured surfaces. Because that was what she was used to, when she was anywhere else she would trip a lot,” recalls Cindy. “Her proprioception wasn’t very good, because it never really needed to be. She had to re-learn how her body moved.”

This pony’s training included lots of pole work to teach her to lower her head to see where she’s going, as well as lift her abdominals and back muscles to get over the poles which improved her strength and fitness.

In addition to pole work, Cindy also took the time to help her get used to different surfaces under her feet. This included tarpaulin, rocks, and a homemade bottle pond where she could wade through old milk cartons.

“It made her use her brain – she really had to think about what she was doing,” explains Cindy. “A good hacking or endurance horse uses their brain as well as their body. They have to be confident with allowing you to take them to unfamiliar places, but feel that the ground is familiar beneath them.”

Riding your horse downhill

Many riders will use hill work to improve their horse’s fitness, and this is usually only considered when going up – but not for coming down.

“Going downhill is just as hard as going uphill. Lots of riders will do faster work going up and walk back down, but horses use different muscles to do each,” says Cindy. “Think about it: when we walk uphill, we feel a stretch in the hamstrings and glutes, and possibly in the shoulders if we use our arms.

“When we go downhill we feel it in our quads and front of our shins from preventing us gathering too much momentum.”

It’s easy to let the horse ‘rest’ going downhill, but this can sometimes result in them falling onto the forehand.

“You still want them to feel light in front – not like they are running into the ground,” explains Cindy. “Here is where schooling comes in. They need to have their backend working so they don’t overload the front end.”

Schooling doesn’t mean endless circles in the arena. Cindy recommends factoring it in to your hack – half halts, transitions, bending, and lateral work. When you are in the arena, practise spirals and serpentines, or exercises where you weave through cones.

“Use your seat and leg to support them and create the energy to get the horse to lift in front and engage their hindquarters,” she adds.

This content is brought to you in partnership with Wintec Saddles, durable, comfortable, easy-care, weather-proof saddles for everyone.

Meet the expert: Cindy Russell MSc is a BHS Level 4 Senior Coach and master practitioner of NLP. She holds a masters degree in coaching, and has been involved with endurance since 1986. She works with riders, including young and para riders, in many equestrian disciplines as a coach, coach tutor and coach assessor. 

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