The Down and Dirty on Riding Downhill

Balance for Horse and Rider is Key

By Jill Holdal with Julie Lewis-Schot


Photo credit Julie Lewis-Schot


The thought of riding downhill strikes fear into many riders. Steep terrain can be intimidating when the horse and rider are unprepared. Training is important, but properly fitted tack should be the first place to start troubleshooting if you are having issues.

If your saddle doesn’t fit correctly, it may be sliding forward onto the shoulders and causing your horse to rush downhill to escape discomfort or pain. If you are unsure how to check, get help from a professional saddle fitter. Many tack stores offer this service and may offer guidance when it comes to choosing equipment. They may even suggest a breast collar or crupper to hold your saddle in place.

How can the rider help?

Make sure you have a good seat position. If you lean forward or backward excessively you make it harder for your horse to negotiate terrain and maintain his balance. The rider should sit up fairly straight in the saddle, keeping the body in line with the vertical of the trees. If you lean too far back, you put your weight on the loin and hinder the horse’s ability to properly use his hind end.

Make sure you are relaxed, so your hips can move with the horse. He needs that freedom of movement to do his job. Keep your upper body quiet, so you aren’t rocking the saddle out of position. Nervous riders often pick up too much rein downhill. The horse needs his head to get his balance. Use those reins just enough to communicate.

If you are nervous, remind yourself to breathe and relax so you don’t prevent your horse from staying balanced or make his back sore with a poor riding position. The more relaxed you are, the more relaxed your horse will be. This will help get you safely down the hill.

It is also crucial to give plenty of room between horses in a group. I always insist on at least a horse length between riders, but you need even more downhill. A horse that loses footing and slides may not be able to stop before crashing into the animal in front of him. The first rider in line should announce the upcoming descent to give everyone a chance to space mounts accordingly.

What do I do if my horse rushes?

If you maintain proper riding position and your tack fits well, but you’re still having issues, you need to correct the behavior. The horse that rushes can easily lose footing and stumble or knock you into a low hanging branch. Some horses get excited when allowed to rush downhill and buck or display other dangerous behavior. Demand that your horse slows down and thinks about where he is putting his feet; he needs to focus on you and round his back in order to get his hind feet under him for better balance.

I like to stop horses often on the way downhill. I take that opportunity to work on backing them uphill as well. I set up the horse for success by starting the work on a trail with a slight grade without slick or loose footing until he has confidence. To start, I only ask the horse to try one backward step, then reward.

Its challenging for an unfit or inexperienced horse to back uphill, but eventually I want the horse to do it willingly. The more you work on it, the more you will strengthen his core and build up his topline, making it easier for him over time.

I like to teach this when I encounter a low hanging branch down a hill. I will just stop in front of the branch and let him rest. I ask for a step or two back up the hill, let him rest again, then I continue down. It’s all about slowing him down and getting him focused on me and his feet.

You never know when you will come upon something like a downed tree, a washed-out trail, or another set of riders you need to yield to on a narrow trail. A well-trained trail mount can usually back up safely if you remain calm and give him clear directions, but you must practice with him before you are in a challenging situation. Make it a habit to use these stopping and backing exercises so you are ready when it counts.


Published June 2018 Issue

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