Negotiate Hills With Julie Goodnight

Be sure that when you go up a hill on a trail ride that you Pick a safe path.

Do you dread seeing a steep hill on the trail? Do you worry that your horse will speed up too much to gain momentum going up or to move down without restraint? Do you feel like you aren’t secure in the saddle as the ground slopes beneath you?

If you don’t feel secure in the saddle and trust that your horse will listen to your speed cues, any slight change in altitude turns into a challenge, especially as you ride up and down rocky or slippery, muddy hills.

Here, top clinician/trainer Julie Goodnight teaches you how to sit securely as you ride up and down hills. She’ll also help you gain control of your horse’s speed, no matter what the terrain. She’ll first help you position your body so that you help your horse climb up and down hills safely.

Then Goodnight will help you note and correct common hill-induced behaviors, so you stay in control of your horse’s speed and direction.

Goodnight often sees riders lean forward or back too much as they’re riding up and down hills (or fail to adjust at all to the horse’s change of balance). “It’s common for riders that think that you should lean far forward as you ride uphill or far back as you ride downhill,” she says.

“But those positions can actually make it more difficult for your horse to carry you. It’s important to stay centered and ride so that you help your horse carry you and him up and down hills easily.”

Goodnight also sees riders who allow their horses to make small but meaningful (if you’re a horse) decisions about where to place their feet or how fast to go. While it’s sometimes important to allow your horse to navigate and choose his own foot placement (on your signal), it’s never acceptable to allow him to choose his own speed on hills.

“If your horse chooses his own speed as he goes up and down hills ? such as lunging up the hills or trotting down them ? you’re teaching him that he doesn’t need to listen to you and that he’s in charge. That’s setting you up to have a disobedient horse in many areas ? not just when it comes to riding on hills.”

Exercise Prep
Horsemanship lesson: You’ll learn how to position your body so that your horse can carry you easily on hills. You’ll also learn how to keep your horse’s attention on you and to stop him from speeding up on his own.

Why you need it on the trail: Hills are a part of most every trail. You may also trailer your horse to mountainous areas. It’s important to navigate the climbs and descents so that you and your horse are balanced, and can move safely and easily. It’s also important to make sure your horse listens to your cues for speed ? even if he’s tired or wants to gain momentum.

What you’ll do: You’ll learn to ride in a balanced position and learn how your horse’s balance changes according to a hill’s steepness. You’ll also learn how to identify your horse’s minor disobediences so that you remain confident and in control.

What you’ll need: Your horse tacked up with his usual saddle. On steep terrain, add a breastcollar and crupper. (For more on these add-ons, see Goodnight’s online exclusive, “Tack for Steep Terrain.”) You’ll also need a hill or slope on which to practice.

Skills your horse will need: Your horse should be responsive to your cues to move forward, stop, back, and side-to-side. You’ll need good steering and speed control at the walk and trot while riding in open spaces.

Step #1: Refine Your Hill-Riding Position
You’ve probably heard that you should lean forward as you head uphill and lean back as you ride down. While that teaching isn’t wrong, it’s overly simplistic. It’s important to refine your position to help your horse stay balanced on hills.

You actually need to stay in an upright position as the level of your horse’s back changes with the hill’s slope. Imagine a tree trunk growing on the side of a steep hill. The tree trunk doesn’t lean; it grows perpendicularly from the horizon, straight to the sky, even though the slope of the ground changes.

Similarly, as you ride your horse up and down hills, your torso should remain vertical and match the tree trunks. With this position, you’ll stay upright and centered on your horse.

When you ride on flat ground and strive for a balanced position, you keep a straight line through your ear, shoulder, hip, and heel. On the flat, this line is vertical (or perpendicular to the ground).

When you ride up a hill, keep this perfect-posture alignment, but change your placement in the saddle. Keep the line from your ear to heel perpendicular to the horizon instead of matching your alignment to your saddle’s tilted position.

As you ride up a hill, position yourself so that the line from your ear to heel cants forward. Move your lower leg slightly back, and move your head and shoulders slightly in front of the saddle; move as little or as much as needed to match the steepness of the hill while maintaining the straight line and keeping your balance.

Don’t sit with your leg too far forward, which will cause your seat to rest against the cantle in a chair-sitting position. Although this position may be comfortable, you’re not in balance with your horse and the broken line in your ear-shoulder-hip-heel alignment may cause your horse to work harder to carry your unbalanced body.

In the photo, Goodnight’s lower legs are back and her upper body is canted forward. If she wasn’t riding and instead was walking uphill, her body would be in the same canted-forward position, and she could maintain her balance as she hiked up.

Whether going up or down, you may need to lift the weight off your seat bones, as Goodnight is here, so that your horse can round his back and bring his hind end up underneath him. Don’t lean forward or back, but stay upright, and just transfer the weight from your seat bones to your thighs and stirrups.

If you feel uncomfortable or need security as you ride uphill, it’s okay to grasp your horse’s mane, as your body is already tilted forward.

When you ride downhill, your ear-to-heel alignment will shift so that your lower leg is in front of your head ? all the while matching the lines of the trees. She’s riding in a position that’s perpendicular to the horizon and that matches the trees.

When you ride downhill and behind the vertical, your lower leg comes slightly forward as your shoulders move back.

Goodnight acknowledges that many riders fear going downhill. She says that concentrating on your heel and ankle position can help you feel safe and in control. Keep weight in your heels and pronateyour ankles by placing your weight on the inside of your foot. By pronating your ankles when you’re in tricky terrain, you’ll gain security and bring your lower legs close to your horse’s sides.

Step #2:Control Your Speed
Many horses are allowed to choose their own speed on hills and learn that their disobedience is allowed on steep terrain. Making sure you’re in charge of the speed will help you feel secure on the slopes and will remind your horse that you’re the leader.

Horses often start up a hill at a walk, then lunge into a trot or lope to pull themselves up. As they lurch up the hill, riders feel out of control and unsure of how to balance. On descents, horses may start at a walk then trot down once gravity and momentum kick in.

It’s sometimes difficult for your horse to collect himself and maintain the walk as he moves up and down hills. However, his compliance with your chosen gait is possible; if he doesn’t comply, he may be? acting lazy or downright disobedient.

A gait change can also cause problems if you’re riding with a group. It’s poor trail etiquette to change to a fast gait without alerting your riding buddies so that they can make the necessary adjustments.

Any time your horse changes gait without a cue, he’s making an unauthorized decision. You may occasionally ask for a trot or lope as you ride up a shallow hill for conditioning or training purposes, but that decision should be yours and not initiated by your horse.

If you allow your horse to make one unauthorized decision, he’ll begin making more, and sooner or later, he’ll make a decision that you don’t agree with.

If your horse has learned the bad habit of speeding up on hills, you’ll have to check his speed by stopping along the way. Use your voice, seat, and rein aids in sequential order to help your horse understand you want to stop.

To reinforce your whoa command, pull up and back on the reins. If you need to slow your horse as you head down, sit back with your weight/seat, and pick up on the reins. It often helps to halt at the top of the hill before proceeding down. Then check your horse’s speed by asking him to halt every few steps.

After you’ve asked your horse to stop completely and find that he’s listening, ask him to slow by cueing for a half halt if his speed changes at all.

In the photo, Goodnight’s hands are positioned in front of her saddle’s pommel in preparation to cue her horse to slow down with a half halt (a momentary application of seat and rein aids). She’s also sitting securely on her seat bones, so she can cue her horse to slow with her seat aids at the same time.

Tip:Don’t allow too much distance between horses if you’re riding with a group. If the line is too spread out, your horse may trot to catch up ? especially on hills. You should be able to see the hind feet of the horse in front of you between your horse’s ears.

Step #3: Pick a Safe Path
Although you usually want to control your horse’s speed and direction, there are times when it’s appropriate to allow your horse to choose his steps so that he can find the safest way. In self-preservation mode, most horses will pick the best route. In very steep and rugged terrain ? and especially when it’s rocky ? give your horse control of his head so that he can balance and pick his way.

Your horse needs the freedom of his head to balance. Although you should use your reins (in coordination with your weight/seat cues) if your horse speeds up on hills, holding excessive contact on the horse’s mouth can impair his balance and cause him to slip or fall. Reach forward as you head up hills and don’t “ride the brakes” as you descend.

When you reach forward and loosen the reins, your horse will know that it’s okay to control his own head and pick his route. In these instances, you’ll usually be on an obvious trail, which he knows he should follow.

If your horse veers off a trail immediately and tries to turn back toward home, he may not be reliable and well-trained enough to be riding in rugged terrain. Go back to mellower terrain, and do more basic training.

You shouldn’t have to micromanage your trail horse. Like any obedient horse, he should go straight on the path you indicate, without constant guidance. The more rugged the terrain, the more important it is that he have freedom of his head to balance.

Surefooted horses will do a great job at picking their own routes. But not all horses are naturally surefooted. If your horse is a klutz, practice on obstacles and ground poles at home. This will help him to pay more attention to where he puts his feet on the trail.

If your horse habitually speeds up going downhill or you feel that he’s not picking a safe path, it may help to follow a well-trained horse that takes the hills slowly and methodically. You’ll gain confidence and will more easily get into a balanced position when you can trust the horse beneath you.

Julie Goodnight ( lives in central Colorado, home to miles of scenic trails. She trains horses and coaches horse owners to be ready for any event, on the trail or in the performance arena. She shares her easy-to-understand lessons on her weekly RFD-TV show, Horse Master, and through appearances at clinics and horse expos held throughout the United States. She’s also the international spokesperson for the Certified Horsemanship Association (

Heidi Melocco ( is a lifelong horsewoman, equine journalist, and photographer based in Longmont, Colorado.

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