It’s fourth time lucky for one rider who has finally completed the Hack 1,000 Miles challenge with her Haflinger mare.

Ali Shiels first attempted the challenge in 2019 with now 11-year-old Ella, but fell shy of the miles they needed.

“I normally got to around 700 miles – I think the most I’d reached before was 820 miles,” says psychotherapist Ali. “It just felt frustrating to get that close and not reach the finish line. This year I was so determined to do it.”

Ali decided to fully commit to the challenge and change her tactic, focusing on hitting a set number of miles each week.

“I upped my riding – I did more miles per week. Before, we’d do four or five miles, and then some days I’d do eight. Now we have routes that are 14 to 18 miles long,” shares Ali, 52. “In the winter it was hard to get motivated and ride, but I was so determined to finish that I got out in the cold and wet weather. I knew the only way I’d do it was if I kept up my miles each week.”

‘I just burst into tears’

The pair can now enjoy beach rides without having to box up

Ali, who had been boxing Ella up and driving to different places to ride, knew that she needed to find new routes that were local to her yard to increase the miles she was riding. She scoped out new routes by first exploring in her car to see where they ended up and if she’d be able to ride them safely with Ella.

In all of her exploring, Ali plotted a fantastic 18-mile route that would incorporate beautiful forest tracks and hill work, plus a stretch of beach. The downside was that to do it, she would have to ride along a very busy main road.

“It’s not that Ella was scared of going on the roads – I was scared of drivers,” shares Ali, who broke Ella in herself four-and-a-half years ago. “They can be very disrespectful. I had a horrible fear of being on the road and endangering Ella or being hit by a car.”

Ali credits the Hack 1,000 Miles challenge for helping her to tackle this fear and overcoming her anxiety around hacking out on the roads.

“I knew that if I wanted to do this big ride then I had to tackle this very busy main road. I remember the first time that I did it – trucks, lorries, buses and tractors came flying by, I was terrified and my heart was racing,” confesses Ali. “We got to the bottom of the road and I just burst into tears and wrapped my arms around her neck. She was such a good girl.”

Now Ali can ride down this stretch of road, she’s able to link up other routes to do her 18-mile ride.

“It’s opened up so much for me now. Before, I’d have to take her in the box to get somewhere, but now we can ride around the forest and go down to the beach,” says Ali. “I still don’t like riding on the roads, but the crushing fear that stopped me from attempting it has gone. There have been a couple of times when I’ve dismounted, like around tricky bends, but I’m so much more confident than I was before.”

Sharing a special bond

Ali and Ella share a special bond

Ali and Ella share an incredible bond that has only strengthened by completing the challenge together.

“She’s my horse of a lifetime,” says Ali. “People can’t get over the relationship we have – we just seem to get each other. We’re just so bonded. Whenever I come up to the yard she shouts when she hears my car.

“She’s always so happy and ready to go out. She loves it – her ears are always pricked. Hacking is her happy place. She’s super fit now and just loves her job.”

Another perk of the longer routes means that Ali and Ella have been fit enough to try endurance rides.

“She’s purebred Haflinger, so she’s a heavier build and people think she isn’t built for endurance, but she puts my friends sport horses and Thoroughbreds to shame!” jokes Ali. “She’s really surprised me. Haflingers are packhorses, so they are known for being resilient and hardy – I think I’ve tapped into that side of her.”

Ali has already signed up to do the challenge again for 2023.

“I wouldn’t be where I’m at with my riding without the challenge,” says Ali. “It’s such a motivator and it’s lovely to have something to work towards. I’m a completely different rider than when I first took this on. I used to be quite nervous, but now I’m so chilled – and it’s all down to the challenge.”

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