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How to Use Hills in Dressage Training

dressage hillwork uphill downhill


If you live in an area where it’s quite hilly, you can use hacking out around those hills to your advantage when training your horse.

Hill work has many benefits that can help improve your horse’s overall dressage performance.

Read on to find out why and how to include hills in your horse’s training.

7 reasons for hill work

Reason #1 – Improves strength

Working your horse up and down hills can help build the muscles in your horse’s hindquarters, shoulders, and over his topline.

Reason #2 – Improves way of going

Going uphill encourages your horse to engage his hindquarters, step under, and push. This also helps to re-create the feeling of going “uphill”.

Reason #3 – Low impact

Walking up and down hills is just as beneficial as trotting or cantering whilst minimizing the impact on the horse’s legs and preventing strain and injury.

Reason #4 – Improves balance

The varying gradients, along with the addition of riding transitions on hills, will help improve your horse’s overall balance.

Reason #5 – Increases cardiovascular fitness

You don’t have to do much to get your horse’s heart rate up!

Reason #6 – Promotes soundness and surefootedness

Riding the horse on different terrains and surfaces with varying gradients helps to develop the horse’s soft tissues and muscles, therefore, promoting soundness. It also helps encourage the horse to think about where he is placing his feet.

Reason #7 – Adds variety

Hill work and hacking can help to spice up your training so your horse isn’t doing the same thing every day.

What are the benefits of riding uphill?

Riding uphill is an excellent exercise for strengthening the muscles of your horse’s back and hindquarters.

The horse learns to push himself uphill, making this a very useful exercise for horses that tend to work on the forehand.

What are the benefits of riding downhill?

As long as you’re careful that the ground is even and not covered in rocks and holes, riding downhill can be of great benefit to your dressage horse. 

Downhill riding develops strength in the horse’s stifles, as well as teaches him to relax his sacrum, use his hocks for balance, and swing more through his back. 

How can you incorporate hill work into your dressage training?

Although you do sometimes come across a slight sloping dressage arena if you compete at local unaffiliated shows on grass, or in horse trials where the dressage phase takes place on fields, most dressage arenas are leveled and flat.

So, the easiest way to incorporate hill work into your dressage training regimen is to take your horse out hacking.

Although many dressage riders may find hacking rather boring, your horse will appreciate the change of scenery that trail riding provides. Also, riding out in the countryside can help to desensitize spooky horses, which is very important for dressage shows.

Riding up and down hills helps to make the work interesting for your horse, as well as helping to improve his fitness. Of course, even though you’re riding on hilly trails, there’s no reason you can’t use transitions and lateral work. Ride your horse between your leg and hand and insist that he stays reactive, attentive, and in front of your leg.

Choosing the right path

Mature horses that are used to negotiating hills can generally cope with steeper inclines, provided that the going is suitable. However, if you have a young, inexperienced horse, it’s better to stick to riding up and down relatively shallow slopes.

Remember that you can also ride across hills and on a slight diagonal which will help horses that have a weaker and/or stiffer side.

What pace?

In theory, you can ride up and down hills at a walk, trot, or canter. 

However, to begin with, it’s best to proceed in a walk until your horse gets fitter and becomes more confident. This also creates less impact on your horse’s limbs and therefore reduces the risk of injury.

Hills are hard work and you may find your horse puffing even after a short while, so make sure not to overdo it.

Also, riding downhill in the faster paces requires better balance and control, so make sure that your horse can cope before you attempt that.

How to ride uphill and downhill

Before you tackle your first hill make sure that your horse is warmed up first.

When riding your horse uphill and downhill, it’s important that you sit correctly so that you help rather than hinder your horse.

Whether you’re riding up or downhill, you need to remain in an upright position as the level of your horse’s back alters with the incline.

Think of a tree growing on the side of a hill. The tree’s trunk does not lean but grows perpendicular to the horizon, even though the slope changes.

During an incline, if you lean forwards you put your weight onto your horse’s shoulders making it difficult for him to pick up and use his front legs.

During a decline, if you lean backward you put pressure behind the saddle and on the horse’s hindquarters making it difficult for him to swing his hind legs under to balance himself.

So, at all times, you want to keep the straight line from your ear, shoulder, hip, and heel. Like the tree in our analogy, keep that alignment perpendicular to the horizon without tipping forward or leaning backward. And to allow your horse to use his back and engage his hindquarters, keep your seat light and transfer your weight into your thighs and into your stirrups. If you feel that you need to keep your balance, grab a piece of your horse’s mane.

Lastly, maintain a soft contact on a longish rein to allow the horse to stretch forward and use his body fully.

You’re in control!

Make sure that you choose the pace you’re moving at and the tempo of that pace. 

Often, horses increase their speed, as that’s easier for them to do than bringing their hindquarters underneath them. For example, when moving downhill, the horse often loses balance and speeds up, such as changing from a walk to a jog. 

Your job is to choose the pace you’re moving at and regulate the tempo of the rhythm. Concentrate on using half-halts to ride your horse from behind into the bridle as if you were about to make a transition. If the horse speeds up or jogs, ride a downward transition and rebalance him before continuing.

In conclusion

Riding up and down hills can be a very useful way of getting your dressage horse stronger and fitter whilst also keeping the impact low.

Be sure to keep your body perpendicular to the horizon, keep the horse in balance and maintain the same pace and tempo by using half-halts and transitions.

Lastly, remember that moving up and down hills requires a lot of effort from the horse so be sure to build up the intensity gradually over time.

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