I grew up in hilly, coastal country. Looking back (as I peer out of an ice-covered Texas window), it was far more than just hills. In truth, it was the prettiest, most temperate climate of a place I could ever hope for.
Since there were so many hills, everything was pretty much up or down. As kids, we learned how to navigate said hills afoot and shift our weight while we’d ascend and descend. But then, I got a horse of my own, and I rode up and down those same hills instead.
I truly believe that as riders, we can be an active part of permanently developing our horses physically into their “best selves.” We can train their minds and bodies to a certain way, with certain parts engaged, to minimize weaknesses and enhance their strengths. It doesn’t happen overnight, and certainly the different disciplines and breeds have a huge influence on the end product, but amazing things can happen when a rider is conscientious and intentional in the saddle.
Tom Dorrance agreed. He lived on the tallest hill around my county, Mount Toro. He was a firm believer that riding up those hills could help settle the mind of a horse, while strengthening him to do other things as well. If you’ve ever seen a horse travel up a hill, he often lunges up it with speed to reach the top. The best thing, according to Tom, was to counter this and walk a horse up the side of a hill. Talk about a slow burn! A steady, uphill climb is a fabulous way to engage muscles, get them thinking about where to put their feet, and allow them to appreciate the steady rest at the end of a long ride like no other.
My family visited a friend of ours named “Donny” in Colorado two summers ago, with a trailer-load of horses in tow. We had two 3-year-olds for the Snaffle Bit Futurity that year, and they were very fit. They had been working a cow, loping circles, working on the pieces, mindset and mechanics, day after day. Donny had a couple of his old outfitting geldings in his field, ridden only on occasion that summer. We decided to take a half-a-day trip and climb hills on our snaffle bitters.
Donny’s “mountain geldings” got recruited to pack my parents. At the top of the hill, I wouldn’t say that his horses were necessarily in much better shape than ours were, but they were every bit as fit in regards to their air and physical power. And I know that his hadn’t been near the distance as ours throughout the year. It was impressive to me what living in the hills for years had permanently done for his horses.
We have also experimented with hill training on horses that need to learn how to stop with strength. Essentially, a horse that runs and stops is engaging and using his hind end, much like when he backs up. Our logic told us that if we wanted to develop a horse to best utilize himself in a stop, he needed to get stronger with that motion.
We made a little path up a short hill and got our horses backing up that hill repeatedly. And just like with people, a little can go a long way. Muscles get sore and need time to heal and strengthen. It seemed the most effective when we let our horse gather himself up and find his way up it slowly rather than just pulling our reins and making him back up that hill. Backing hills seemed to help with both strengthening and coordination. Plus, it gave us variety in the training process (which is always welcome!)
Maybe I’m wrong. (Usually, there’s a pretty good chance of it!) Maybe hills don’t make that much of a difference for a horse’s mind and body, and loping enough circles in an arena could do the same thing with the right rider and mindset.
But if all else fails, and we ride all the way to the top without a stitch of an advantage for our equine friends, at least we can count on a great view.