Trots Down Hill

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Dear Julie:
My horse is generally great on the trails, but has one annoying habit that makes him uncomfortable to ride. Every time we head down a hill, even a small ditch crossing, he trots to the bottom like he was shot out of a cannon. This makes me uncomfortable and nervous and I feel like I have a lack of control. What can I do to make him walk down hills?
Thank you,
Down in the Dumps

Dear Down,
This is an obnoxious and disobedient behavior that your horse is showing and it needs to be corrected right away. This is a bad habit that he has learned because you or someone who rides him has condoned it–and it most certainly needs correcting.

The reason why your horse prefers to trot down hills instead of walk is that he’s lazy and succumbing to the force of gravity. If you have done much hiking yourself, you already know that going down hills actually requires more muscle strength than going uphill—which stresses you aerobically more than muscle strength. If he gives into gravity and trots down the hill it’s actually easier than walking because he does not have to brake his body weight.

But when a horse trots down a hill, he lurches forward and leans into the bridle–which makes him feel heavy on the forehand and out of balance. Furthermore, if your horse breaks into a trot without a cue from you to trot, he’s disobedient and making an unauthorized decision. One unauthorized decision will always lead to another, so it’s a very bad precedence to set.

It’s also bad etiquette when riding with others to allow your horse to break into a trot when going down a hill. It will cause the other horses to want to trot and may catch a rider off guard.

To fix this bad habit, you simply need to think ahead of your horse and be prepared. As you approach the hill—small or large—shorten your reins and shift you weight back to check your horse’s speed. Let him know you are monitoring him closely. Stop him momentarily at the top and let him proceed slowly.

As you maneuver down the hill, do so in a “check and release” fashion, picking up on the reins and shifting your weight back on your seat bones, then releasing momentarily before you check again. Bring him to a complete halt with each step if necessary.

Enforce this rule each and every time you approach a hill. Horses are very good at following rules, if the rules are well-defined and consistently enforced. Be diligent about requiring your horse to walk slowly down embankments and hills and in short order, he will understand this rule and monitor his speed himself.

Your horse seems to think he’s allowed to trot when he wants to, regardless of your directives. This could be an indication that you have given your horse this opinion by not being assertive. Take a broad look at how you interact with your horse. Is he making other unauthorized decisions? Is he walking off when you mount without a cue? Is he veering from the path you have dictated to avoid a puddle or something he doesn’t want to walk through? Is he speeding up and slowing down without a cue? These are all indications that you are not being a consistent leader to your horse and they could be indications that you are eroding your authority with your horse every time you ride him.

Leadership is a very black and white issue to a horse. Either you are in charge of him or he’s in charge of you. Make sure that you exert complete control over your horse at all times and do not compromise in your authority. Once you ask a horse to do something, make sure you reinforce it. He will appreciate your authority much more and come to admire you as a worthy leader.