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Let’s be honest; the lockdowns have been difficult for everyone, both physically and mentally. It can be particularly difficult to keep your horse fit in these times, especially when the emotional toll of the pandemic can suck the energy out of you, and social distancing rules on livery yards can make it tough to find time and space to exercise your horse around other commitments.
With the hope of restrictions loosening soon and a slow return to normality, equestrian events will soon be starting back up again, which will be a welcome announcement for many equestrians.
Prior to the pandemic, I was very much one of those people that focused on riding with training aims, to improve and prepare for the next competition. Granted, none of my ponies ever shared that competitive show jumping drive, but I always took it very seriously. Whilst the determination that came with this was a helpful driving force in allowing some modest unaffiliated success (my unfeasibly large collection of fourth place rosettes from the same local venue is my true claim to fame!), it also meant there was an immense amount of pressure on myself – and therefore on my ponies – to improve and “be better”, whatever “better” was.
When an equine communicator came to talk to my horse, Mini, she mentioned something which came as a bit of a shock to me. Mini wanted rid of that pressure I put on us to be amazing and competitive, because sometimes the truest joy was in being amazing through simple enjoyment. Whether you believe in animal communication or not, those words can still ring extremely true and make a lot of sense.
When the third lockdown came into force, I decided it was time to listen to them after all, however hard it might be to push away the perfectionist streak that runs through me. I was very reluctant to take a step back from trying to be perfect, because it is all I had ever really tried to be, and social media offers a one-stop-shop for seeing other people’s success.
As much as we don’t usually care to admit it, it’s very easy to feel jealous of the people we see and it can, in turn, make us feel rather inadequate about ourselves. This is not only confined to the equestrian world – the idea of the “perfect” social media lifestyle has long been a source of envy and upset for many people.
So, with this in mind, my first plan of action was to take a brief social media break to reset myself and see how lucky I really was. I didn’t want to quit Instagram by any means – it usually gives me so much joy seeing people’s journeys with their horses and I have made some incredible friends through the app. However, lately I had not been enjoying it and had found myself simply comparing myself to others and feeling rubbish about it, so I decided to take a short hiatus (only a few weeks) and reflect on how it made me feel.
The other side of my action plan was the side actually involving my own horses: I had just (finally!) started to get Mini working on a proper outline, using himself correctly and going forwards, and he was working well. It was a bit of a “eureka” moment, but it also made my head run wild with possibilities of what it could lead to with more training (yes, I considered dressage). This is not a bad thing, but it can cloud your perspective on the ‘here and now’ if you get too caught up in it.
The only problem now was how ridiculously spooky Mini was. During lockdown, he had obviously not been going anywhere, and living for so long in the quiet, sheltered environment of our home had made him scared of his own shadow! That’s when a friend of mine suggested I do some hacking. At first, I brushed off the idea. I had never been a huge fan of hacking and I have no problem admitting that it scares me slightly. I definitely feel safer in an arena! There was no way I was going to take my terrified-of-life-itself horse out on a hack, I thought.
So, instead of actually going anywhere far, I took Mini out the gates, into the outside world, and just wandered with him along the track beside my house. At first, I don’t know who was more surprised – him or me! But the more we did it, the more self-assured we both became and, I have to admit, I found myself actually enjoying it and looking forward to our daily ramble along the tracks… could I actually say I was hacking?!
Whilst the daily ventures made Mini far less spooky (when I went back in the arena a few weeks later, he was practically spook-proof!), they also made me a lot more confident and happier in the saddle. I have to admit, it was something I was sceptical about, and rather nervous to do, but I am so glad I did. Taking it slow, taking it easy and taking the time to enjoy being on my horse with no pressure, no hard work and no chance to obsess about being perfect (I was too far out of my comfort zone for that!) was the perfect way to find the enjoyment in riding for fun again.
My brief social media break also couldn’t have come at a better time. With no perceived obligation to post anything updating my followers on our latest successes, there was no pressure to achieve any “successes” after all. This made it far easier to enjoy my time going back to basics, pushing my ego aside and appreciating the simple pleasure of wandering through the countryside on my horse. I should also mention that Mini was in a mainly hacking home before I bought him, and it was absolutely heart-warming to see the newfound joy on his face as we started going out and doing that together, finally.
So, why am I writing this? Aside from being the love letter to hacking that I never thought I’d be writing, this is a reminder to take some time to zoom out, see the bigger picture and challenge yourself to step away from the regular cycle, especially if, like me, you find yourself always riding to “improve”, instead of just to have fun. Step out of your comfort zone, listen to your horse and try something new. It’s the best thing I ever did.