Mar 07, 2018

Get an Exclusive Look at "Ride Better with Christoph Hess"

By Jessica Duffy - USEA Staff
Ride Better with Christoph Hess. Photo courtesy of Trafalgar Square Books.

According to Christoph Hess, the greatest consideration when riding and working with horses is sound basic training, whether the horse and rider are riding for pleasure or are serious competitors. In "Ride Better with Christoph Hess," a question-and-answer style problem solver, Hess provides thoughtful, easy-to-apply advice for a range of issues, from issues with the horse's gaits to leaning on the bit, lack of straightness, and more! Hess explains the horse's character and demonstrates how you can only become the best possible rider by listening closely and understanding your horse. He also emphasizes that it's the rider's responsibility to be the best rider you can be for your horse.

Hess is an FEI "I" Eventing and Dressage Judge. The German National Federation (GNF) awarded him the title of Professional Riding Instructor, which labels him as an international expert and educator of professional riders. He currently holds the positions of Head of Instruction and Head of the Personal Members Department at the GNF and is actively involved with educating judges and instructors around the world. 

Check out this exclusive look at the book, where a rider has submitted a question about how to help her exuberant horse hack out more peacefully:

Hacking Out on a “Loose Cannon”

In the spring, my nine-year-old gelding demonstrates impossible behavior. In our area, we rarely have chances to canter out in the open during the winter. Mostly, we just take a walkabout. When we then try our first long hack out in spring, I can’t control his drive to move, even if I longe him ahead of time. He bolts forward and performs “airs above the ground,” from which I cannot always recover my balance. He also leans against the bit. It takes months before he’ll peacefully hack out again. This really isn’t fun for me anymore. How can I get him to calm down?

It can be so wonderful, but for many riders hacking out in the spring is pure stress. One can certainly avoid having a worked-up horse and wild bolting at the canter, but then good trail riding does not really begin while hacking during the warm part of the year, it must—at least in part—begin during winter work.

Often, we riders can hardly wait for winter to end so we can finally hack out in the open and attempt the long-awaited canter through a field or along a trail. On this first hack, some horses will be full of beans and almost impossible to stop, and with others this type of energy remains throughout the entire summer whenever they’re ridden out. In these cases, hacking out becomes an ongoing challenge—for the rider and also for the horse.

Systematic Training

Horses that like to go often become bored by monotonous winter work. Often, come spring, these horses turn into “ticking time bombs” that can explode at any moment. Yet, riding outside the arena is not magic—anyone can practice it, but it certainly should be incorporated through a gradual, systematic training program for the horse.

This means your horse should be carefully gymnasticized in both the indoor and outdoor arenas, so that he is on your driving aids.

Establish a fresh working tempo at trot and canter and ride frequent transitions between and within these gaits. As you do so, you want to have the consistent feeling that your horse is moving toward the bit, stretching through his neck, without hurrying and without leaning on the bit. In this way, you’ll improve obedience and “throughness” with willing cooperation. This is the foundation for a content horse, as through the stretch he can come to balance himself well. It’s a key requirement for riding out in the open.

The more you incorporate gymnastic jumping into your training before riding out, the more sure-footed the horse will be later when ridden on the trail, and the more likely he can find his natural balance while under saddle. In addition, you should be able to ride your horse both in the indoor and outdoor arenas without depending on your reins for balance, and should choose posting trot or a light seat in all its variations at canter as your primary seat.

It’s so true: training for good and safe riding out in the open does not begin while hacking out in summer, but rather must, in part, take place during winter riding, even during those times when the rider can only school in the indoor for long periods of time.

If you are hanging on your horse with the reins, which often happens without the rider realizing it, the horse may accept this from you in the indoor or outdoor riding arenas. But when you try to ride the horse out in the open, your habit becomes a problem.

At this point, your gelding will evade the uncomfortable feeling and his natural instinct to flee discomfort will kick in. He’ll buck, jump to the side, or bolt, which can become dangerous for you and your horse. The only chance you have to “counteract” this is to balance him while moving forward at trot or canter. Under no circumstance should you try to “hold your horse back.” The more you take up the reins, the more your horse will evade your control and the more his flight instinct will be activated.

Transitions and More Transitions

When riding outside the arena, you must again calmly execute many transitions, and then afterward, ride a fresh working tempo at trot and canter. Transitions are the key exercise, which you should always practice. Transitioning from the two-beat trot rhythm to the three-beat canter rhythm, and vice versa, has a calming effect on the horse and it simultaneously improves “throughness” with willing cooperation. Throughout, you must ensure that you are always “riding into” the new gait, which means you are applying your driving aids as opposed to your rein aids during both upward and downward transitions.

When working in the outdoor arena or hacking out, you should ride with stirrups two to three holes shorter than you do in the indoor arena. You should work at a posting trot or canter in light seat and ride many straight lines or wide bending lines. Instead of riding alone, I recommend you often ride with another horse or a small group of horses, both in a line and side by side. Horses feel best in groups, after all, they’re herd animals. Often, being ridden with another horse or a group has a calming effect. For this reason, you should never hack out alone with your horse.

Logical Progression

When hacking out, you should at first choose a quiet, but then diligent, working trot. This first trot does all the horses good as they are then able to channel their abundance of enthusiasm, which is not only present for your horse. During this first trot, the natural unevenness of the ground will demand a lot physiologically from the horse’s tendons, ligaments, and joints. After about 10 minutes of trotting, I recommend you incorporate a walk phase of about the same amount of time before again trotting for about 10 minutes. If your horse gets rushed during the trot phase, you should try to incorporate leg-yields (with a younger or less highly trained horse) or shoulder-fore/shoulder-in, in order to ask your horse to concentrate on you and thereby calm him, which will improve both his supple relaxation and his “throughness” with willing cooperation. The more definitely your horse accepts your inside leg and allows himself to be calmed through the leg aids, the easier it will be to initiate canter, which can cause a big reaction for many horses—not only yours.

Often, horses develop a habit of bolting forward, especially when the rider is nervous and does not create a forward canter because she’s already shortening up the first canter strides and practicing a backward-oriented way of riding. Therefore, I suggest it’s always better for you to achieve a “good” trot than a “bad” canter while you’re hacking out. This means: you must always be able to have control at the gait you’re riding. If this is not possible for you at canter, you should first trot extensively, long enough that you can apply your driving aids in such a way as to ride the horse toward a longer rein, encouraging him to stretch forward and downward toward your hand. As you do so, the horse should not fall onto his forehand and, as a result, lose his balance because then he’ll again begin leaning on your hands.

It’s important that the canter is both forward and controlled. A constant “hitting the brakes” (in this case, “pulling the reins” in order to constantly hold the horse back) does not lead to a controlled canter, but in fact to the opposite, which can end with uncontrollable bolting and bucking. Bolting and bucking can also be transmitted to the other horses within the group. In this way, a quiet hack out can turn into a wild and completely out of control “hunt” and lead to injury for both horse and rider. This is yet another reason why you should position yourself behind around a calm and experienced lead horse and rider.

When riding up-, and especially, downhill, a secure position in the stirrups, together with almost vertical lower legs, is extremely important.

There’s one rule you should always observe: cantering toward “home” is a no-go. You should always ride back to the barn at a quiet tempo, either at walk or trot. If possible, I recommend you hack out several days in a row, so that your horse can more quickly get used to the surroundings and riding out.

It’s also important to practice riding near streets and crossing streets. Carelessness can be just as dangerous as lack of concentration, which can already be lessened by the use of cell phones. The horse requires us to concentrate—especially when we hack out. In this way, hacking always has a training aspect to it. We must always remain aware that an animal could jump out in front of us or fly up in the air from behind a bush. This can lead to a natural fear response in the horse, such as jumping to one side or running away.

When out in the open, we experience our horses more intensely from the saddle. We more clearly experience his natural instincts than we do when riding indoors. Therefore, I encourage all riders, including dyed-in-the-wool dressage riders, to hack out with your horses. This not only does the rider’s soul good, but also the horse’s soul. And, for us riders, the well-being of our four-legged partners should be our highest priority.

Last Word

Hacking outside the arena is among the best experiences we are privileged to have with our horses. But, like so many undertakings with horses, there’s an old expression that applies here: “The Gods require us to work hard before they reward us with great pleasures.” In your case, this means carefully working your horse in the indoor and outdoor arenas before you attempt hacking out. If the first rides out are safe and controlled, you can gradually increase the work. Over time, you can trot and canter, and do so over various terrain as well as uphill and downhill.

This excerpt from "Ride Better with Christoph Hess" was reprinted with permission from Trafalgar Square Books. The book is available for purchase online through Trafalgar Square Books.
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