Riding outside of the arena can help motivate a lazier horse to find more desire to go forward on his own, as it can help a hotter horse to blow off some steam. For example, I might use hills to help a fiery stallion stay balanced in his extensions and to learn to carry himself since the incline will keep him from taking over. The gradients in the fields allow him to keep pushing without falling on his forehand on the inclines, and encourage him to lower his croup and take more weight behind when he goes downhill, both of which produce a horse who is stronger and more balanced.
Trot and Canter
Riding uphill encourages the horse to step with his hind legs toward his center of gravity and helps him to step evenly into the bridle. When riding downhill, I am very mindful to keep the horse’s shoulders aligned in front of his haunches, so his weight can honestly shift back. Some horses will have the tendency to avoid carrying the weight behind by moving out of alignment.
Before I start working on the hill, I spend time walking my horse in the arena, making sure he is on my aids. Particularly for a young horse or a horse I don’t know well, it is important that he feels secure and relaxed enough to leave the arena.
Once we’re ready to ride out, I start by trotting uphill, which makes it easier to keep the horse light and controlled as his weight is shifted more to his hind end. While trotting uphill you can often find the first strides of a lengthening as the horse pushes and reaches into the bit and the shoulders become more free.
Trotting downhill requires good rider balance to help the horse stay light and not fall on his forehand. I think of half- halting through my core while using my hands only for quick balancing of the horse’s topline, so he will not curl or get too low in his head carriage. It is important to not let the horse lean on the bit, since it will prohibit him from finding his own balance. Some horses immediately balance themselves, others might need help with some downward transitions.
Once the horse can maintain his balance in the trot I will repeat the same exercise in canter. Riding uphill will again help the horse to develop power, and I make sure that I don’t let the stride flatten but, instead, maintain jump.
Cantering downhill can be the biggest challenge for either young horses or those who have a weaker canter. To introduce this exercise, I ride a very collected canter transition out of the walk and help the horse stay balanced on his hind legs through my body and soft rebalancing with my hands, if needed. The horse’s topline needs to stay balanced—as I mentioned earlier, if he curls or gets too low, it will make it hard for him to balance. Most importantly, the horse must stay light. Once he is leaning on the bit, momentum will most likely increase his speed while the weight shifts onto the forehand. If this happens, I will make a downward transition before the horse gets too heavy.
Riding a Figure Eight
I use two trees on my hillside to ride a figure eight. The incline is a little steeper between the trees. It allows for a quicker change from uphill to downhill. On the downhill portion, I ride a transition to walk, or with a more advanced horse, a very collected trot or canter. I take this collection into the uphill part to see how much movement we can create. This way, particularly in the trot, I can work toward the biggest extension uphill to some piaffe steps downhill. Most of this work I will do in the rising trot, but as the horse gets stronger I will also sit the trot. The hill helps to make some of the transitions stronger, lighter and more beautiful, while showing the horse how to use himself.
Settling the Hot Horse
Riding outside can be a little like playing with fire. It is important to give the horse enough opportunities to go forward and use his energy. Particularly quick changes from collection to extensions can create extra stimulation. This energy channeled, while keeping the horse in self carriage, can show the horse how to use himself. The fire will turn into positive tension that the horse’s body needs to perform with cadence and expression for true collection and extension.
Should the horse become over stimulated, explosive and too hot, he will lose relaxation through his body and the tension will turn negative. The softness in the topline will suffer and so will the horse’s self-carriage. I am always prepared to go back to the walk or an easier exercise to let the horse relax.
Walk breaks are a very important part of this process. It is also good training for the Grand Prix where we want to be able to go from passage, which asks for more power and fire to extended walk, which requires relaxation.
If the unexpected happens and the horse spooks I will try to redirect his energy and put him back to work to reestablish rhythm and tempo, with a soft connection so tension will not build. If the rider’s hand gets too tight at that moment, often the tension will grow. The horse should always feel like he can move and should not be held.
The End Goal
Working on the hills provides a wonderful opportunity for the horse to build strength, stamina and balance, while giving him a change of scenery. Different footing and stepping over logs can be an excellent tool for the horse’s proprioception, and seeing different things helps to grow his self-confidence. It can help the horse enjoy his work and sometimes we can teach some of the hardest movements as they happen accidentally, like the little piaffe or passage when the horse gets excited. What a wonderful tool to help our horses become more beautiful and confident athletes.
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Want more from Felicitas von Neumann-Cosel? In her four-part video series “Out of the Arena,” this FEI trainer takes viewers into the hills while discussing how riding outside can help motivate some horses, but can also be used for horses who have a little more heat. Enjoy a sneak peek of this series or watch all the training videos, plus more than 3,000 others, by taking advantage of a free trial membership with Dressage Today OnDemand at ondemand.dressagetoday.com.