Typically I spend a great part of my summer out riding the mountains in north Idaho and Montana. This year we have had very little time for such activities as our days have been spent teaching folks how to ride on the Cowboy Dressage court. Today Dan and I took the morning to go and ride one of our favorite local trails and attempt to put some good trail miles on our young horses.
I was riding my 5 year old gelding who has had a bit of trail time now and Dan was riding his 5 year old mare that has had trail time but not mountain riding. She is fairly steady out there and willing to go just about anywhere as long as she can follow another horse. Luckily, my gelding prefers to be in the lead so it works out well. Dan's mare did great up the hill and kept up with little trouble. Going down the hill was another matter all together.
Dan really struggled to get Cali to willingly go down the hill in a collected and balanced frame. She would instead hollow and throw her weight to the front end and barrel down the hill like somebody popped the clutch. When Dan would try to slow her down he would end up bracing his feet, the back would get more hollow and she would trip on the rocky ground we were traversing.
Not a fun way to spend an afternoon and Dan was getting pretty frustrated as well as pretty beat up. We got to talking about it on the way down and discussing options to help her figure it out. Dan's previous mounts just naturally balanced themselves going down hill and he never had to help a horse figure it out before. I've not been so lucky. All of the young horses I have put trail miles on were the same going downhill. Maybe it's my bad luck in the mounts I've chosen, but I have found that it takes some time and patience and not to mention some nerves of steel to develop a good balanced down hill gait in most horses.
You would think that this would be a none issue for a horse, wouldn't you? Shouldn't the horse naturally know how to walk down hill? Perhaps a horse raised out on open range that has been navigating hills since it was a foal will not have these issues. I don't know because I haven't started one like that. But my horses are raised much like a lot of folks horses on fairly level ground and then trained in a round pen and an arena. We get ours out on the trail pretty early but those are short little drops without long steep down hill inclines. Just because you have been walking your whole life doesn't mean you know how to properly balance going down a steep incline with a big pack on your back. It takes some time to figure out. So, those of you who may struggle with this in your own horses, here is how I help my horses learn to go down hill.
First your horse has be far enough along in his training to understand to break at the poll and soften through the head and neck. I honestly don't have a clue how you would slow one down who couldn't do that because everything else I'm going to talk about starts there. If you can't get vertical softness and support the horse that way, you are probably going to have trouble stopping the forward momentum down a big hill. Teach the horse to round and soften to rein pressure first just at the halt and then again as you work through the walk and jog. You have to have a good brake with vertical softness because you cannot rely on the one rein stop on those trails. Quite often the most dangerous trails are the narrow sheer steep rock trails. If you can't regulate your horse's speed without bending them around in a circle you better just let them coast to the bottom because getting to their feet may end up in you tumbling off the cliff side.
Before you embark on the down hill part of the trail, take a moment to put the horse together beneath you. Shorten your rein and elevate the head and neck just slightly with softness at the poll. This helps to shift the weight from the front end to the hind end. If you wait until your horse is already careening down the hill it may be to late to stop that foreword momentum.
I don't lean very far back in my saddle going down hill. I can remember in 4-H we were taught to stay parallel to the trail. So you would lean forward or backwards at the same angle as the ground beneath you. What ends up happening if you do that is that generally going up hill your standing in your stirrups with your feet far behind you and going down hill you are leaning far back over the cantle with your feet jammed in front of you. Anyone who experiences pain in their knees or ankles when doing long days in the saddle in the mountains, this is why. You are bracing on your feet instead of keeping an active seat. As with any form of good riding, your seat is very important as an aid. You aren't just a passenger up there on the horse's back but responsible for helping the horse to adjust his weight with every stride. If you are taking all the weight in the stirrups you become a big lever on his back instead of a part of his stride. I do lean a little both forward and back as the hill dictates but try to always keep my seat engaged and my legs balanced beneath me.
This balance becomes very important when helping the horse to learn to shift his weight to his hind legs. In a horse that tends to barrel down the hill he is probably leaving his hind end out behind him instead of driving it forward. If you soften the poll and elevate the head and neck you can ride the hind end forward and up under the horse and encourage him to shorten his frame. (For you Cowboy Dressage folks, this is why mountain riding is so good for the building short frame in your show horses!). To do this you would raise your hands just slightly on the shortened reins, deepen your seat a little and move your legs back on the rib cage to talk to the hind legs and ask them to come forward one step at time. Then you are taking the impact of the down hill movement on your seat and thighs and not on your knees and ankles.
The other important safety tip when helping a horse to learn to go down hill in a collected frame is to not get into a fight with them. My Morgans often feel they are the ones who know best about the speed necessary for down hill flights and it can be a challenge to convince them I may have a better idea. If the footing is at all rocky or dangerous, like I mentioned above you don't want to take their attention away from the footing by bumping or pulling their heads around to stop them. Instead draw the horse to a stop with firm pressure on both reins until his feet stop and he softens at the poll and you can collect his frame again before asking him to move forward. This is one of the only times I advocated direct pressure on both reins. Be sure that you are riding with a bit that pressure on both reins isn't going to cause the horse to react by flipping or popping up. Keep your hands low and hold that pressure backwards until the horse stops. When the horse has stopped completely give him a chance to settle, pet his neck and breathe then soften the poll, ride the hind end forward and ask again to move down the trail in a shortened frame.
Another common problem for young horses learning to navigate down hills is for the horse to get crooked. This is generally due to the rider attempting to shorten the stride and slow the horse. Rather than the horse stepping up underneath themselves they attempt to evade that frame and step the hindquarters sideways. On steep mountain trails this can lead to tripping and falling off the mountain. Use your legs to keep the horse straight underneath you. Again, if it's not working and the hind end is attempting to pass the front end, draw the horse to a stop and start all over.
Now, we don't always want to have to help our horses down the hill. It's a lot of work and if you are doing 25 miles you do actually like to stop for a minute and just ride and enjoy the scenery! Creating the horse that can navigate a trail with some self carriage, no matter the terrain is what every long distance rider has in mind for his perfect trail mount. So, riding the brakes down the hill is not conducive to building self carriage in the horse. As with everything we do, when the horse is going down hill and softens and gets into the proper frame beneath you it is important to release the reins and reward the horse and see if he can carry it forward for a few steps by himself. You may need to pick him up and balance him after only a few steps but the release is important if you want to avoid having to carry the horse down every hill for the rest of his life.
I sure hopes this helps some of you that may be dealing with a run-a-way horse down the mountain. Great trail horses are not born, they are made. A good trail horse should really be the best broke horse in the barn. All that fancy arena stuff is even more important when you get out into the great wide open. Do your homework to make your horse safe and sane and perfect partner out on the trail or you may wind up walking home the hard way some day! Happy trails!