King of the Hill

How to use hill work to safely improve your horse's fitness.


Hill conditioning the western horseArena work is essential for all types of training. A controlled environment with good, level footing allows horse and rider the opportunity to perfect form, balance, rhythm and timing without worrying about unexpected wildlife encounters, hardpan, ruts or rocks. But one thing arenas aren’t particularly good for is cardiovascular, endurance and musculoskeletal conditioning.

Horses of all disciplines can benefit from incorporating time on the trail into their training regimens, and hill work in particular can be the shortest path to visible results. Hill work encourages natural collection and engagement by strengthening the horse’s back and hindquarters. It increases cardiovascular fitness and respiratory efficiency. It builds muscles, strengthens joints and connective tissue, and provides an all-important psychological break in the routine.

Whether you are seeking to beef up the hindquarters for better sliding stops, strengthen the forelegs for quick cow work, supple the back and shoulders of a western pleasure horse, or just add muscle definition for a more finished look, consider getting out of the arena and into Mother Nature’s fitness gym.

“It’s a very important thing to do for the horse,” says Tony Mendoza, of Redlands, Calif., who has been training champion reining and working cow horses for more than 25 years. “You can see the muscle changes on the shoulders, hindquarters and back. For endurance, there is nothing else like it. But it’s good for more than just that. It takes the pressure off the horses mentally, so when you take them back in the arena they are fresher and ready to learn.”

Tony and his riders take his string out for hill work at least twice a week, alternating hill work with rides in a dry, sandy wash nearby. Although he doesn’t use a heart monitor, Tony keeps a close eye on his horses during this work. “We use our judgment. If they start breathing heavy, we back off a little and slow down. But mostly, they really enjoy it,” Tony says.

Medical Benefits

In addition to the visible benefits of hill work, it also provides less obvious but significant health benefits. Kerry Ridgway, DVM, of Aiken, S.C., is a charter member of the Association for Equine Sports Medicine and lectures internationally. He sees numerous benefits associated with hill work.

“When you put a horse into most kinds of work, he develops muscles specific to that kind of work,” Dr. Ridgway says. “Cross training is appropriate no matter what you are doing with your horse. Wild horses travel many miles a day …This is a chance to add more natural horse concepts to your regimen, and a chance to tone and strengthen muscles that would not otherwise be used in most western disciplines.”

One example of a condition that can be helped with hill work, particularly the uphill climbing, is weak stifles. Dr. Ridgway also recommends traversing back and forth across a mild grade to stretch and strengthen the muscles in and around the stifle joint.

“This is particularly helpful to horses that have to make hard stops and fast turns,” Dr. Ridgway says. “The stifle plays a big part in western performance sports.”

Dr. Ridgway points out that, just as in humans, building equine cardiovascular strength allows the circulatory system to deliver more oxygen to the muscles and internal organs, and cleanse the body of waste products that cause stiffness and fatigue. Stronger muscles, tendons and ligaments mean less chance of injury and breakdown.

“Trail riding conditions tissues in ways that flatwork doesn’t,” Dr. Ridgway says. He explains that during flatwork there is very little circulation to the tendons, ligaments, feet and hoof capsules. Appropriate trail training helps these tissues gradually build strength.

Another benefit Dr. Ridgway points out is that while it is hard to measure, hill and trail work can benefit the nervous system.

“Horses that always work on level surfaces do not fully develop their proprioception,” he says. “This is how the body knows where it is in space,” a fancy way of saying horses that are ridden outside are apt to be more surefooted than those that are confined to the ring!

Start Slow

So how do you make the transition to mountain master? In a word, gradually. Body condition will only improve with systematic increases in the amount of physical stress the body is asked to handle. The secret to successful conditioning is to stress the body just enough to force it to remodel into a stronger structure, without pushing it to the point of distress. Learn how to measure your horse’s progress here.

To increase muscle mass and definition, as well as to build endurance in his performance horses, Tony Mendoza starts by ponying them off a mature well-trained horse for the first four to six weeks. This prepares them mentally as well as physically to carry the weight of a rider up and down the hills. Without the weight of a rider, a young horse can easily handle a few hours of hill work at a time, both walking and trotting. But once under saddle, Tony backs off.

“We mostly walk the hills for the first few weeks and stay away from the really steep climbs,” he says. Then we start trotting in the sand and then begin trotting the hills. Once we build them up, we can take them out for 60 to 90 minutes of hill and sand work.”

Lari Shea is a riding instructor, college lecturer and endurance competitor with over 5,000 race miles and many best condition awards under her belt. For more than a decade she taught the Tevis Training Seminar for riders entered in the 100-mile Tevis Cup. Her stable of 50 trail horses at her Ricochet Ridge Ranch in Mendocino, Calif., are all conditioned in the hills. She stresses that it takes years to develop maximum fitness of muscles, tendons, ligaments and bone. But a safe way to approach your first foray into hill work is to start walking over varied terrain for about half an hour, three to four times a week, in the company of an experienced trail horse.

“If you feel your horse needs to stop, ‘ask’ him if he wants to by feeling the reins and giving him the opportunity,” Lari says. “If he wants to stop, fine, let him stand and rest for a moment. Then ask him to go on. After a few trail rides, your horse will probably tell you he is bored with stopping.”

Too much hill work too fast can cause stiff muscles and sore legs. To avoid overwork, Lari says a good rule of thumb is to never increase more than one variable at a time. “To increase fitness you may increase speed, distance or difficulty of terrain, but never more than one at a time.”

For instance, if your horse is comfortably walking a 3-mile long logging road twice a week, you may want to increase it to three or four times a week. Then, begin alternating walking and trotting until he can trot the whole road. Then, start looking for steeper hills to climb.

Ride Right, Up and Down

“If what you want to do is develop the hind end for fast runs, turns and stops, going uphill will do that,” Lari says. “Going downhill can strengthen the shoulders and back for better lateral movement. But you have to be careful not to break down the front end by going too fast or too far down steep hills. As a rider, you can either hinder or help your horse to meet these conditioning goals.”

Horses carry 60 percent of their weight in the front half of their bodies. This puts their center of gravity just behind their withers. When riding on the flat, staying balanced depends on finding that “sweet spot” and staying there. But riding up and down hills requires some adjustment in your equitation.

For riding uphill, think of your horse’s hindquarters as the “engine.” All of the power and energy required for climbing is generated from behind. If it were left up to gravity, your upper body would shift back as your horse begins to ascend a hill. This places more weight on the hindquarters and interferes with engagement.

Lari used to teach her students to simply stand in their stirrups and lean forward when riding up a hill. But she has long since refined her technique. “Standing in your stirrups concentrates all your weight on two very small points,” Lari says. “I think it’s better to get forward slightly and get your rear end out of the saddle so that your crotch is just barely grazing the seat. This uses your thighs, rather than just standing up. It’s good to support your weight partly in your stirrups, but also use your seat and thighs. This distributes your weight more evenly across the horse’s back.”

This technique naturally balances you over your horse’s center of gravity. It requires some leg, lower back and abdominal strength on your part, not to mention balance and control. But it’s the best way to help your horse get to the top of the hill with a minimum of stress on his back. Maintaining this position will allow your horse to freely engage his hindquarters and climb more naturally.

For really steep climbs, grab a handful of mane halfway up the neck to help hold you in position. This also keeps the saddle from sliding back without having to over-tighten the girth or breast collar.

For riding downhill, think of your horse’s hindquarters as the “brakes.” The forelegs primarily provide support, while the hind end rates the speed. Going downhill provides the opportunity to develop the horse’s shoulders, and work on collection while suppling his back. Ridden correctly, a horse should lift his neck, round his back, and use his hind end—the same principles necessary for collection.

The difference is the amount of pressure on the shoulders and front legs increases. Horses already carry 60 percent of their weight in front. Adding the weight of a rider and going downhill increases the pressure on front leg joints exponentially. The faster you go, the greater the stress. Therefore, always walk down hills, even if your horse wants to rush or pick up a trot. Although many endurance riders train for competition by trotting down hills, they condition for this level of performance over several years, and even so, still risk bowed tendons and strained suspensories.

If your instinct is to lean back going downhill, hold on. Unless you are riding like The Man from Snowy River, galloping straight down a nearly vertical mountain face, a more balanced seat is better. Leaning too far back can push the cantle down into the horse’s loin, making it more difficult for him to use his hind end properly and risking a sore back.

“I teach my students to sit up relatively straight, and don’t lean back down hills,” Lari says. “I call this a ‘light balanced seat.’ ” While it’s OK to grip a little with your knees and calves, don’t push your feet forward or push against the cantle. Lari says, “Let your hips move with the motion of the horse’s hips, but keep your shoulders still. If you swing your shoulders back and forth, it walks the saddle forward onto his shoulders.”

While switchbacks make it easier to traverse a steep hill, if you find yourself bushwhacking with no trail to follow on an extremely steep descent, always point your horse straight down the hill. Allowing him to turn sideways can put him so off balance that he falls over.

What are You Waiting For?

Whether you just go for a hack a few times a week up the hill behind the barn, or you want to embark on a focused, scientifically monitored training program, hill work can benefit your horse’s overall health, attitude, condition and performance. Stronger muscles, tendons and bones reduce injuries, and better cardiovascular fitness can enhance any discipline. And if you and your horse enjoy yourselves in the process, well, who said fitness training couldn’t be fun?

Read more about conditioning with hill work.
Measure your horse’s fitness progress.

Sarah Christie is a freelance writer and endurance competitor who lives in San Luis Obispo, Calif.



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