How many readers out there describe themselves as ‘just a happy hacker’? And before you stop reading, yes, if you do compete as well, this article is also for you. Chances are you hack and also compete or show to varying degrees. Or perhaps you are one of those riders who is never happier than when they are going their own way, at their own pace, enjoying the freedom their horse gives them, out in the countryside. The competition arena holds no lure for you.
No matter what your main focus is, if it is hacking, then perhaps all us ‘happy hackers’ out there might want to begin to think about leaving out the ‘just’ part when asked what we do with our horses. Because there’s a common myth out there – especially amongst some riders (not all I hasten to add), that if your passion is hacking, you are somehow an inferior rider who just could not cut it in the show ring – so have opted for the easy ride.
In other countries, especially in the US and Canada, ‘trail riding’ and ‘sport riding’ – their terms for hacking, is seen as a serious equestrian sport, equal to any competitive one. There are trail riding clinics designed to prepare you and your horse for whatever awaits you. And that’s the thing about hacking – you never know. Contrary to what many believe, far from being an easy rider, you have to be able to ride through anything. Traffic, farm equipment, dogs, sheep, cattle, pigs, ramblers, plastic bags in hedges, scary wheelie bins, squirrels (don’t forget them!), cyclists, deer, pheasants starting out from under your horse’s feet, fallen trees, sudden noises, puddles, other horses spooking – I could go on and on but by now you get the drift. Especially if you’re a dedicated hacking enthusiast. Napping, planting, tanking and spinning for home – chances are we’ve dealt with it and got the t-shirt. Yet we amble back into the yard on a loose rein and when asked how our ride was, smile and say ‘Fantastic!’ leaving out the latest near-death experience.
To produce that ‘bomb-proof’ hack, requires immense amounts of time, patience, dedication, inventiveness and nerves of steel. Fear is not an option when your horse is looking to you to give it confidence. To reassure it that despite its flight impulse being engaged, it does not need to run away and honestly, this thing is not scary. Yes, we may buy a ‘bomb-proof’ hack but in many cases, it is the rider themselves who is the one that puts in most of the work, building on a foundation already created or in some cases, starting from scratch. Waving the plastic bags on sticks and flapping tarpaulins in the ménage. Often being prepared to get down if necessary when out riding, to get a horse past something unique and strange for the first time. As I had to do when my horse first encountered a helicopter parked in our path. No amount of reassurance from up there was going to convince her that this was not a dragon and she should not flee at a flat-out gallop to save us both. Like I said, you have to be prepared for the unexpected.
Yet, despite what ‘happy’ hackers experience and know, the perception remains you are by definition, not at the same level as riders who choose to make competing their focus. Hence the somewhat denigrating ‘just’ that is assigned to what we do by others and which strangely, hacking-focussed riders appear happy to reinforce. ‘Just’ says not quite. Not quite up to your level, unimportant or plain and simply just not good enough. You’re not The Ride Stuff. Things must change and it is up to ‘happy’ hackers to get #hackedoff instead and change them.
Some of the best riders I know would come under the ‘just’ heading. One of these competed in Europe and was on the verge of being selected for the Olympic team. Until she realised she actually no longer enjoyed competing but loved hacking. Her horse has not set a hoof in the dressage arena since. Horse riding is all about freedom. That includes the freedom to do what you love on your horse. Be it eventing, dressage, jumping, showing or hacking or any combination of the above. There should be no hierarchy involved in this and no judgement about someone’s ability either. Or for that matter, the type of horse they choose to ride to follow their passion.
Because hand-in-hoof with the ‘just’ comes another perception. The kind of horse happy hackers should be riding. Now don’t get me wrong, a fun horse is a fun horse and these come in all shapes, sizes and breeds. What can be wrong with the picture is the assumption that ‘all’ happy hackers need is Bob the Cob. And yes, all you cob owners out there, I know inside each and every one of them Turbo Cob lurks like a superpower, waiting for its moment to break free. People underestimate talented cobs at their peril. The same as they can underestimate ‘just’ the happy hackers. However, and this is now for the very few competitive riders out there who truly believe they literally have the competitive edge when it comes to a horse being ‘wasted’ on a happy hacker – please keep these thoughts to yourself. While it is extremely important that the horse matches the riders’ skill level; all that matters at the end of the day is whether the horse is well loved and cared for and its owner is having fun with it. Not what they are doing with that ‘hot competition prospect’. I speak here from bitter experience. Having had to retire my own horse from ridden work, I have been bluntly told by several possibly well-meaning but misinformed and totally tactless horsewomen that – and I quote: ‘Don’t need to spend much on another horse’ due to my ‘Not doing much but hack on it and anything else would be wasted on you’ – unquote. The inference also being that my present horse has been – by dint, also wasted on me.
I talk to two hacking focussed friends. One of whom recently bought her first horse and one who is still looking to buy. Both report encountering similar attitudes. Both from within their own networks when asking about available horses, but also from the sellers themselves. If you are selling a horse, of course you have the final word as to who and what kind of home, the horse goes to. If your ad states ‘Five star home a priority’ – then ensure you focus on that. If you want the horse to go to a competitive home – again, ensure this is clearly stated in your ad. My friend Sam tells me of being reduced to tears by a seller after trying a horse and being told point blank they would not sell her it because she was hacking focussed and it would be yes, ‘wasted’. Yes, you are entitled to think this. No, you are not entitled to be rude about it. Write an honest ad. Gently weed out prospective buyers at the enquiry stage and be tactful with your response. Time wasting in the horse buying and selling process cuts both ways.
But all this comes down to changing perceptions. And those riders who are hacking focussed to ride that change. To drop the ‘just’ and the ‘happy’ when asked what we do with our horses. And maybe to drop the ‘hacking’ part too if all you are ending up is #hackedoff. Too often we dismiss ourselves, then wonder why others in turn, dismiss what we do. What message will you begin to send out there if you start to describe yourself as a ‘sport and trail’ rider instead? Think about all you deal with and encounter on the average hack. All you have successfully ridden through in the past and what may lie ahead for you and your horse in the future. Yes, your horse may be completely bomb-proof but chances are – you are the one who contributed to getting it there. No, you are not having delusions of grandeur. Looked at this way, you are far, far more than you have given yourself credit for up until now. You are more than ‘just’.
And that helicopter? Not what you except to see when cantering around the corner on your usual ride. But there it was, parked by the side of the track by a visiting polo player. My horse skids to a halt in a sliding stop worthy of any rodeo, eyes on stalks, then whips around like a cutting horse seeing a break-away cow on the periphery of its vision and gatherers herself to head back the way we just came. But much, much faster. If she could talk she would have been screaming ‘Dragon!’ in a way worthy of a Game of Thrones extra about to be toasted by Drogon. Pull a one-rein stop. Turn back. Horse refuses to budge. Reassure horse. Yes, it looks odd and scary but it won’t eat her. Much dragon-like swearing and snorting tells me she is unconvinced. After five minutes of her trying to head back and being encouraged forward to no avail, I dismount. Bear in mind she is 16.1 and I am 5ft 4 ins and classed as a disabled rider. So, unless I can find a fallen tree or helpful person or fence, I am walking home leading her. She agrees to be led, sidling past, still snorting at the monster. Parked next to it is a horsebox from which emerges a groom –the player’s horses having arrived by more conventional methods. ‘Is that a Friesian?’ she asks. Yes, it is. I stop and a long discussion ensues. During which time, Duchess begins to realise the monster has not moved and there is actually, nothing to worry about. I am helped back onto her and we ride off. Next week – the dragon is back but we ride past it as if it is not there. We’ve dealt with fire at the side of the trail the same way.
Horse riding is all about fun and enjoyment. Confidence in riding – and I’ve written more about this here, comes from having the confidence to ride your way. And to find your own solutions. You have your own stories – of things you and your horse have seen and successfully dealt with. Your history tells you that you are certainly happy but you deserve more than being described as ‘just’. Time to take yourself more seriously. Give yourself the credit you deserve and others will reflect that attitude.
Written by Helen Watts