Many a day has been made better for millions of riders around the globe by going for a ride in the great outdoors; that is the power of hacking a horse or trail riding — the freedom of being outside in the fresh air with just an equine for company. In fact, research undertaken by the University of Brighton and Plumpton College on behalf of the British Horse Society found that riding stimulates positive feelings, such as happiness and self-esteem, and it can help to address negative feelings associated with anxiety and depression. Personally, I find hacking a brilliant way to switch off from everyday life, relax and enjoy time with my horse. I particularly love exploring new places, finding tracks for a sneaky canter (and if there’s a fallen tree to jump, even better).

There are plenty of hacking perks for a horse too. They will feel happy after being away from the yard with plenty to see and do for a few hours. It helps with their fitness and keeping waistlines at a healthy size, as well as alleviating any stiffness or boredom they might be feeling. On top of all that, any confidence they develop out hacking will pay off in the jumping or dressage arena too.

Benefits of hacking a horse

Trail riding or hacking a horse means horse riding in the great outdoors. It might be along the roads and/or bridlepaths around your home; it could involve boxing up and travelling your horse to ride off-road somewhere else. Every time you ride out through the gates you’re doing a lot of good for both you and your horse, physically and mentally. Anything that doesn’t happen in an arena or on the yard, whether in-hand, being led, carriage driving or riding, is considered to be hacking a horse — and it all counts towards your #Hack1000Miles tally.

My first horse Marcus was a five-year-old Danish Warmblood who lacked confidence and was scared of everything. Consequently, he was a very spooky young horse. Regular trail riding was the making of him. Out hacking we’d go up and down banks, jump mini ditches in the verge and huge trenches in the woods, trot and canter across variable terrain, and leap fallen trees and paddle in streams. I hacked him miles, alone and in company, and he saw and experienced everything you can think of. Subsequently he went on to be a brave cross-country horse — all the way up to novice level, including Pony Club teams.

Here are other benefits of hacking a horse:

1. It engages your horse’s brain

Hacking a horse provides variety in their work, which is vital for keeping them interested in life and keeping them on your side. You could warm up for a schooling session by going for a short hack first, and/or cooling down afterwards by doing the same. Or why not leave the arena altogether and do your schooling out hacking — it’s a very rewarding thing to do.

2. Ease any stiffness in a horse’s body

Hacking out and moving around is perfect for keeping any stiffness or filled legs at bay, especially if your horse is in their twilight years. A gentle stroll on a long rein (if safe to do so) will get creaky joints moving and help them to feel better in general.

3. Boost your horse’s confidence

Getting your horse out and about regularly, seeing, passing and coping with new unusual things, is one of the best ways to make them confident and therefore brave. A confident horse enjoying their work is a much nicer ride than a spooky horse who lacks confidence. You’ll find it does wonder for the bond you have with each other too, as your horse realises you are a dependable leader.

4. Improves fitness

Hacking a horse is good for fitness levels, helping to keep health issues related to obesity and lack of fitness, such as laminitis and equine metabolic syndrome, under control. The further you go the better, but it’s really the type of work you’re doing out hacking that counts. Vary the terrain and pace you’re hacking a horse at to really make a difference. Interval training, for example, is easily incorporated into trail riding and it’s a lot of fun.

5. Trail riding will cheer a horse up

Finally, a hacking horse is a happy horse! Surely the goal of every horse owner? Let your horse march along with their ears pricked, taking in their surroundings. They will feel so much better for it and, as already mentioned, so will you!

Benefits of hacking a horse for riders

There are plenty of reasons why regular trailing is so good for riders, including:

1. It’s good for your general health

A 2020 study by Rogerson et al, showed that regular exercise within a natural environment did improve wellbeing, especially when done regularly. Here’s a link to that study. Quote it next time you plan to leave work early or miss a family dinner — it’s proof that hacking a horse is really good for you.

There’s also evidence to suggest that being exposed to nature can reduce hypertension, improve mood and boost your ability to focus. Give it a Google and you’ll see what I mean!

2. It’s good for you physically, too

Hacking a horse is good exercise. It’s great for building your core strength, an essential skill for staying balanced in the saddle. It also helps to tone your thighs. Don’t believe me? Try cantering out of the saddle. You’ll soon feel the burn! I remember the first gallop I had on my ex-racehorse King after having my first baby. I had been out of the saddle for more than 12 months and boy did I puff at the end of that field.

Lots of trotting and cantering soon got me back to good riding fitness. All the chores that go with owning and riding horses count too. Carrying large hay bales, haynets and filled water buckets, and pushing a heavy wheelbarrow to the top of a much heap. That’s resistance training right there!

3. Hacking a horse can improve your posture

Even though you’re not schooling, it’s still essential to have a good riding position when trail riding. Sitting up tall, looking ahead and lifting up through your ribcage on those long hacks will help to train your body into having better posture in and out of the saddle. The stronger you are in your upper body the more secure you’ll be in the saddle too. No slouching or rounded shoulders allowed!

4. You can go trail riding with friends

Hacking a horse out with family and friends is a great way to catch up while enjoying yourselves. If you haven’t got any horsey friends to share the fun, why not head out on your horse while your friend or partner joins on a bicycle?

5. Hacking a horse does wonders for your confidence

Trail riding works wonders for a rider’s confidence in the saddle. There’s no pressure out hacking because you pick your own route and go at your own speed. Without thinking about it, you’ll be negotiating variable terrain and coping with the unexpected — it all helps to improve how secure you feel in the saddle.

6 It makes you feel happier

Hacking a horse teaches you to stay calm under pressure — perhaps a plastic bag flapping in the hedge or a rogue wheelie bin blowing around in the wind — as you think your way through a stressful situation while trail riding that requires you to have control over your emotions. Exercise, from hacking out to mucking out, has been proven to reduce anxiety and depression. Of course there are days when I’ll have a bad experience out hacking with inconsiderate drivers or a loose dog, but it’s rare not to come home from a hack feeling happier than when I left.

Research undertaken by the University of Brighton and Plumpton College on behalf of the British Horse Society found that riding stimulates positive feelings, such as happiness and self-esteem, and it can help to address negative feelings associated with anxiety and depression. Read the full study here.

Find out more about the University of Essex’s ‘Green Exercise’ research project.  

Main image: copyright Your Horse Library/Kelsey Media Ltd

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