It's trail season and that means... Hills!
Hills are a great way to condition your horse. They work all the muscles involved in self-carriage and teach the horse to shift his weight longitudinally (from front to back). Moreover, they are an inevitable part of riding in New England, and many other parts of the world as well.
Riding uphill is pretty easy. You bend forward a bit at the hip to get out of the horse's way, grab mane if it's really steep, and the horse learns pretty readily to engage his hind end.
But going downhill, the horses don't balance quite as naturally, and frankly, neither do the riders. Tripping, slipping, rushing, jigging, fussing, and crookedness are common. Here's an explanation of why, as well as four tips for how to help your horse carry himself, and you, gracefully down a hill.
When a horse is going down a hill, he naturally inverts, dropping the base of his neck and his rib cage and taking short steps with his hind end. This is not a huge problem when he's riderless, but creates significant balance issues when the weight of the rider is added. When the horse is inverted, he can't shift weight very effectively from front to back, because his spine is locked. Only when he is using the muscles on the underside of his body to lift his spine, (a posture known as bascule, or self-carriage,) can he safely and gracefully navigate downhill while carrying weight.
As riders, it is our job to encourage the horse to balance properly. Here are the four most important things you can do to facilitate a balanced descent:
1: Lean forward.
I know, I know, sounds crazy, right?! We were all taught years ago to lean BACK when going downhill. And if you're the Man from Snowy River, this is probably a good idea. But for your average, everyday hill, if you want to keep your horse free through his spine, your spine must stay perpendicular to his, or slightly ahead of that line. When you lean back, you jam your seat bones into your horse's back, preventing him from lifting. You also tighten the muscles in your back, hips and knees, to hold yourself there. This makes it completely impossible for the horse to have flexibility in his back. What you want to do instead is find your seat bones, then float your upper
body forward as a unit until you are perpendicular to your horse or slightly ahead, right where you would be if your horse was on the level. Don't bend at the waist, just come forward at the hip, like two-point position. Make sure your thighs are relaxed and not gripping the saddle. Use your exhaling muscles to support you and to keep your spine long and stacked, just like you would if you were riding on flat ground. Allow your shoulder blades to stay active in your back to prevent hunching. If the hill is really steep, rest your hands on the horse, the pommel, or the horn.
By bending at the hip so completely, you allow your hips and thighs to continue following the motion of the horse's barrel, instead of locking and blocking the horse's ability to shift his weight.
2: Keep your legs active.
The other benefit of breaking down at the hip is that it allows your leg to stay elastic and wrapped around the horse's barrel, instead of pushing down into the stirrup to keep you up. Just like on flat ground, your hip, knee and ankle should bend in concert, absorbing the movement of the horse every stride. This can not be achieved if you are leaning back and bracing your knees and hips against the motion.
With your free, active leg, you can encourage your horse to reach underneath himself with his hind legs. Just keep your calves resting gently against his sides as you bend at the hip, and occasionally turn up the volume slightly in the upward movement already happening in your thighs. As long as you stay long and tall in your spine, this motion in your legs will help your horse step deeply under himself and carry you surefootedly down the hill.
3: Maintain a light contact.
When traveling down a hill, a horse is relying on his longitudinal balance; his ability to balance from front to back. As a rider, we can help the horse create an awareness of the connection from his front end to his hind end by maintaining contact in the reins. It doesn't matter if your horse is wearing a bit, a side pull, a bosal, a hackamore, or a halter; if you're providing a contact he can comfortably stretch his neck into, you will help your horse elongate his spine into a better balance.
To be supportive and soft, allow your elbows to rest under your ears, next to your body. Bend your elbows and think of your wrists as light and buoyant. As the horse moves his head, maintain the contact by opening or closing your elbow. Keeping your wrists up will help your horse keep his front end light, and keeping your elbows next to your body will help you keep from bracing in your back and shoulders.
4. If your horse is still making mistakes under saddle down a hill, try doing some groundwork. Walk your horse down the hill in hand, asking him to halt and back up frequently. Tap him gently on the chest or under the base of his neck with a dressage whip in the halt transition if he has a tendency to pull or run through you. Slalom left and right to get him to bend, release his spine, and thus learn to stay loose coming down the hill.
Taking the time to teach your horse to balance properly down the hill will go a long way towards improving his musculature, his behavior, and his confidence. Most importantly, it will make trail riding a lot more fun!
If you have questions, don't hesitate to email me. Happy trail riding!