The presence of hills in a horse's life can offer major benefits. Horses raised on hilly pastures tend to have stronger hindquarters, better balance on varying terrain and a good sense of where their feet are. Angie's horses, who live in the hills, have much more confidence on rugged trails than Jenny's horses, who grew up completely on the flat and had to learn to carry themselves confidently on trails through experience and time.
Groundwork on hills can be beneficial for all horses. Young horses taken on trail walks can find confidence and balance without the added stress of balancing a rider (or, even worse, an unbalanced rider.) An unconfident horse of any age can also enjoy trail walks as a way to be exposed to varying terrain and obstacles while the handler stays safely at the end of the lead rope.
Once you are mounted up and ready to ride hills, you want to be absolutely sure you maintain your position over the center of your horse while traveling up or downhill. If you lean forward heading uphill, you are putting weight over your horse's front legs--the very legs he is trying to pick up and use! If you lean back while traveling downhill, you are now loading your horse's hindquarters. He needs to get his hind end underneath himself to negotiate the hill with balance. This allows him to pick his way down slowly and carefully. Think of maintaining a position that is parallel to the trees.
If you have a friend who will allow you to sit on his or her back, play with a change in your balance and ask the friend to pick up his or her arms as you move. See how your balance affects the ability to lift those appendages, then switch places.
When riding a hill, use your core abdominal muscles for balance, not your reins. Your horse needs his head for balance and has to be able to lower it to watch where he is putting his feet.
Over Hill, Over Dale
We like to use hill work on horses who are out of shape--maybe with a top line that is not strong and muscular. We've coined the word "Reha-HILL-itation." It's great therapy.
Using a gradually sloped hill and a 22-foot lead rope and rope halter, circle your horse from the ground without any other tack. You can start at the walk to slowly get your horse in shape, if needed, and to improve your skills before moving into a trot. Start with just five minutes each direction the first day, with a two-minute break in between the change of direction.
You can move around as your horse circles. Don't worry about standing in one spot, so long as your horse continues to circle up and down the grade. Do not use this method with an injured horse or a horse who requires veterinary care. This should be used to help a horse whose level of physical fitness is "going downhill" (no pun intended).
Think of it as if you were going to start a jogging regimen yourself. Build up slowly each day and watch your horse begin to carry himself with more balance and strength. Use feel and judgment to determine what is right for your horse. Think about your horse's condition and strength and work within his abilities. Continue hill therapy for at least one week.
Your goal is to do hill therapy for seven days in a row, being sure you have removed anything that may be obstructing your horse from using his natural movement (such as your saddle, reins, your hands, your riding, etc.). You must not ride your horse during the therapy period.
Ideally, you would continue this program, working on it for three days in Week 2 and two days a week during weeks 4-6. This should give your horse time to "reha-HILL-itate."
While you are not riding, you can spend undemanding time with your horse grooming him. Check his saddle fit in a static position so you know if it even has a chance at fitting with movement. Try to understand what may be contributing to your horse's inability to carry himself over the back. Take some lessons on another horse and see if you can improve your own skills and make sure you are not the cause of the discomfort. Riding various horses hones your horsemanship skills, so take advantage of this time away from riding your own horse.
If you don't have hills where you live, you can use poles, logs, small barrels laid down on their sides or cavalettis. Jenny sets them up in the sand arena when the hills are too soggy to use or when the fields are being hayed. Position these substitute "hills" on a very large circle, so your horse has to step over at least two of them on the circle at 3 and 9 o'clock. He will learn to lift his body to negotiate the poles.
During months of consistent work, you should see an improved top line and body weight as your horse learns to carry himself with balance and more collection up and down hills. Hill work will also strengthen muscles in his hindquarters and forearms. Look for the "good banana" neck (muscled over the top and arched like a rainbow.) The back should not hollow out (U-shaped like a "bad banana"), but should be strengthened on top, allowing your horse to carry himself like he has marionette strings attached from above.
Jenny does hill therapy sessions with her horse Taz whenever his chronic hind-end issue bothers him and he can't be ridden. It helps him come back more quickly. A mini session is also a great warm-up before riding, since Taz (registered as Moon Head) requires a huge amount of warm-up before he can be fluid and loose. It works so much better to warm him up from the ground than under saddle.
Below are some additional techniques that will help strengthen, condition or recondition and improve both you and your horse's balance. But before you get started, make sure you have your horse warmed up. With any exercise, horse or human, you can injure muscles if you dive right into it. Also, be aware that hill exercises are very strenuous. As you are building your horse's muscles, be sure that you are not breaking his wind, stamina or trust in you.
Traversing hills sideways helps develop coordination (especially in young horses.) The horses have to start watching there they put their feet and how they balance themselves. This also helps them gain confidence.
Angie likes to concentrate on hills for only 20-30 minutes at a time. She starts with small hills and continues on to steeper and steeper hills, three to five minutes a week. She always changes up training--using hills two days in a row, but then every other day or every three days, depending on her schedule. If you work hills two days in a row, walk the hills sideways one of those days.
After a month or so, you can begin to trot the hills, as long as you are paying attention to your horse and his needs and condition, both mentally and physically. Make sure to change from walk-trot, up and down, etc. Also work on stopping halfway up or down hills. This ensures that your horse is listening to you. When you and your horse are confident, practice backing up and down hills.
After you've developed confidence and strength, you may want to lope up a hill, which will really help develop those big pretty muscles in your horse's hindquarters. However, never lope up hills unless you are prepared, you have asked your horse to do so, and your horse is conditioned in his body and his mind.
We have found it is better to change up the routine and work different muscles every day. You can do so much and make your training work to fit your schedule so it is fun and not a chore.
Visit Live to Ride Horses to learn more about Jenny, who's based in Athens, Ohio and Angelia, who lives in Lexington, Tennessee. Their motto is "A trail horse is a performance horse." They also advocate "tailing" as a way to do hill work with your horse from the ground. Go to Tailing Your Trail Horse for an online exclusive with detailed instructions on this technique.