Hacking out with your dog can be brilliant – or a bit of a ‘mare.
You’re setting off for a hack on a beautiful morning. Your horse is striding happily, your dog running alongside, both excited but listening for you, too. It’s amazing, really – they are behavioural opposites – canine predator, equine prey.
In the wild, one would chase the other and listening to us would be the last thing they’d do. Their sense would be fully focused on the chase and they would be literally deaf to our commands. So how do we get from the latter state to the former?
If you’ve always had dogs and horses on your yard, you shouldn’t have too many problems. But what if you have a new, excitable puppy or an older dog you want to introduce, or a young horse who’s never seen dogs before or even one who’s scared of them?
You employ a slow process of habituation – in other words, gradually getting them used to each other.
Introductions – Dog To Horse
Use a calm horse experienced with dogs if you’re introducing a puppy to equines, and enlist a friend who can handle your horse competently.
- Make sure your dog is well-exercised and focused on you. Take him for a walk and then do some obedience work with him before you start his introduction-to-horses training. You want your dog to be calm, so use treats rather than play as his reward. ‘High value’ treats like chicken or cheese will ensure he really focuses on you, but if they make him too excited, use not-so-tasty rewards.
- Have an assistant stand with your horse in a bridle in-hand or mounted, in a paddock or arena with rails to act as a barrier.
- With your dog on a collar or harness and lead, approach the arena, but ask him to sit or lie down where you’re still a good distance away from your horse and reward him when he focuses on you.
- If he looks from your horse to you, that’s great – reward him. It’s fine for him to be interested, but he should not be excited and should be more interested in you. If he gets over-excited or too interested – he may stare at your horse – move further away until his focus is on you.
- Once you have your dog’s focus and he’s not too excited, move a few steps closer to your horse, then ask him to sit and reward him when he focuses on you.
- Carry on in this way, but don’t rush and don’t train for too long – 10 to 15 minutes is plenty. Finish your first session with everyone calm and your dog thinking the canine equivalent of, ‘It’s just a horse, Mum is much more interesting’.
Repeat the session a couple of days later and then a few more times, so your dog has time to take his training in. Eventually, he should be standing by your horse calmly and listen when you give him a command.
Introductions – Horse To Dog
Use a sensible, equine-friendly dog with your young or inexperienced horse and a friend who can handle the dog well.
1. Before you start your dog familiarisation training session, school your horse so he’s not fresh, concentrating and really listening to you. You can do this training while riding if you feel comfortable and in control, or with your horse in-hand, on the lunge or in long reins if you feel that will be safer. A pocketful of food is also very handy with a horse whose attention you need to capture – just a couple of high-fibre treats will distract most horses from moderately distracting or scary things.
2. Introduce the dog, again with rails in between them. Carry on schooling your horse, at walk preferably, circling at the end furthest away from the dog and giving him lots to think about, such as transitions and turns to keep his focus on you.
3. When your horse is happy with the dog outside the fence, ask the handler to bring him inside and stay absolutely still. Circle at the opposite end then gradually move the edge of the circle closer – your horse should not react. If he does, take him further away to a distance he’s comfortable with and finish on a good note.
Repeat your hore’s 10-15 minute training session a couple of days later and then a few more times, bringing him calmly closer so eventually he is completely relaxed while standing by the dog.
Hacking with your dog
To accompany you on rides safely, your dog must be calm around horses and also obedient to commands such as ‘sit’, ‘stay’, ‘heel’, ‘come’, and ‘wait’.
It’s a good idea to practice jogging, running or cycling with him before you hack with him so he gets used to accompanying you at a higher speed off the lead, rather than being excited by the movement. It will also let you practise training your dog without having to worry about your horse at the same time.
For your first ride, ask a friend to accompany you with your dog on a loose lead alongside you and your horse. Talk to him from your horse, praise him for being calm and reward him when he obeys your commands – throw him a few tasty treats.
Carry on doing this, gradually going for longer rides until you feel confident you can control your dog alone.
When you venture out just the three of you together, try to stay to the same, off-road route you took before to start with.
It’s not a great idea to take your dog hacking with you on roads, but sometimes you may need to use them to access bridleways.
If you can’t avoid it, you will need to ensure your dog is on a lead before taking him onto the road, because it is against the law for dogs to be off the lead on a public highway. It’s not recommended to lead your dog from your horse, so you should dismount and lead your horse from the off side, so you are between him and the traffic.
If you must take your dog on the road, ensure he is wearing hi-vis, too – there are lightweight coats and LED collars available to ensure he is easily visible.
Worst Case Scenario
What should you do if a scary or over-excited dog comes at you and your dog out hacking?
Stay as calm as you can. If you panic and seem frightened, your horse and your dog will pick up on it and get more worried or excited. Slow down your pace and hopefully the owner will gain control of the dog, then wait until he’s back on the lead before you pass.
If you have dogs, young riders or horses with you, move between them and the scary dog.
Talk to an aggressive or excited dog in a firm but calm way. Don’t try to outrun it – fast movement activates a dog’s chase instinct and you may trigger a grab or a bite. It’s better to wait for the owner to arrive or for the dog to lose interest, which will probably happen after a while.
Reduce Your Risks
- School your horse on a hack – do transitions, a little flexion or leg-yield to keep his attention so he’s not half asleep if something happens suddenly.
- Avoid popular beauty spots at school holidays and sunny weekends.
- Wear hi-vis so dog owners can see you coming from further away.
- Alert dog owners to your presence – call if you are behind them.
- Build your dog’s fitness slowly for hacking. He’ll love it, but the fun of running and trying to keep up with you will override any discomfort he might experience.
- It’s hot work for dogs in summer, so take care of them – especially shorter-nosed breeds and those with heavy coats. Take water with you, have regular breaks and don’t exercise in the heat of day.
- Always carry a leadrope and dog lead when out hacking with your dog. It’s much easier to lead your horse by a rope than reins, especially if you need to hold on to your dog, too.
Top Tip: Don’t throw away your old quilted saddle pads – recycle them as comfy dog beds!