Riding and Training Trail and Recreational Riding Western Riding Young Rider

Riding Your Horse on Hills

Ready to ride out of the arena and on a trail with sloping hills or dramatic angles? You’ll need to know how to position yourself for optimum balance—and how to keep your horse calm and thinking about his every step. Follow these tips for safely riding your horse up and down hills.

A young cowboy riding his horse down a hill
Photo by Heidi Nyland Melocco

When traveling uphill or downhill, you’ll keep your posture in the same position as if you were hiking up or down. You want to be parallel to the trees. If you lean too far back or forward, you can change your horse’s center of balance and make it harder for him to carry you.

You’ll also need to think about your horse’s needs. If your horse is worried about the change in terrain, it’s best to ride with someone you trust in front of you and behind you so that your horse will feel confident and know he can’t turn back.

Here, 14-year-old Colter Ralston (riding a buckskin) and 16-year-old Parker Ralston (on the palomino) show how they ride up and down the steep terrain on their Colorado ranch. Their dad, Aaron Ralston, helps coach the brothers for ranch riding and cow-work events.

Riding Your Horse Down Hills

Think about your horse before you head down a steep slope. If he is young or inexperienced, it’s best to have an experienced horse and rider lead the way. The experienced horse will help pick the best route and show the other horses where to go and how to travel.

Young cowboys on a trail ride with their dogs along
Teach your horse hills with a more experienced horse in front. They will pick the best way and show a green horse how to travel. Keep at least one horse length between riders. Photo by Heidi Nyland Melocco

You may also want to ask a third rider to ride behind an inexperienced horse to block the way if your horse would rather turn back. If a worried horse only has a horse behind him, he may choose to return to his buddy instead of continuing the downward trek.

When you’re riding down, allow your horse to pick his path and maneuver carefully, as long as he is being patient and trustworthy. If your horse is nervous, you may need to steer him toward the safest path or in the direction that the lead horse chose.

Move your reining hand down to your horse’s neck to allow him to see where he’s going. Make sure you can pick up your reining hand for contact if needed. Riding with one hand, push your free hand down on the saddle horn.

Keep your shoulders up and back—but not leaning back on the horse’s hindquarters or touching the back of the saddle. Again, think of keeping your body parallel to the trees.

A young cowboy riding his horse down a hill
When going downhill, lean back toward your horse’s hindquarters until your body is parallel to the trunks of the trees growing on the hill. Photo by Heidi Nyland Melocco

“Make sure you are standing straight up between the earth and the sun,” Aaron says. He adds that you should keep weight in your stirrups and your heels down.

Go Slow

When a truck drives down a mountain pass, the driver uses a low gear to keep the truck moving slowly instead of riding the brakes. Imagine your horse moving in a slow gear as he travels downhill, too. You may need to slowly and gently pull up with your reining hand occasionally to apply the brakes. If necessary, ask your horse to stop and start again.

“If your horse starts to build speed, then his balance is much harder to control,” Aaron says.

While it may be tempting for your horse to trot or speed up once he sees the end of the hill, keep him slow. Picking his way along slowly will help him know where his hooves are placed and help him to build muscle, too.

Keep Your Distance

Make sure not to ride too close to the horse in front of you. The lead horse will need to find his way down and have time to pick the best path without rushing. Keep at least a horse-length in between horses just in case a horse takes a misstep. Plus, you don’t want to pile up at the bottom or the top of a hill. Make sure there’s somewhere safe to stop to as you wait for others to finish the path.

Aaron also recommends avoiding any narrow and steep paths. He says horses need space to widen their back legs as they lean back to balance. If you ride through two big rocks or bushes, your horse may not be able to widen his stance to balance.

“Voice your concerns to your trail mates and let them know what feels safe for you,” he says.

Riding Your Horse Up Hills

The skills you learn when going down apply when moving up a steep hill, too. Make sure to keep the horses spaced out and follow an experienced horse when possible.

To go up, your position changes to help your center of gravity. You’ll need to lean slightly forward, keeping the body position you would have if you were hiking up. Hold the saddle horn with your free hand and pull. Place your reining hand in front of the saddle, low and pointed in the direction you want to go: up. Make sure to keep weight in your stirrups and your heels down.

Two young cowboys riding through the mountains with their dogs tagging along
When going uphill, lean your body forward to the position it would be if you were hiking up the hill on foot. Although horses often want to trot or lope uphill, keep at a walk. Photo by Heidi Nyland Melocco

Aaron says horses often want to trot or lope when going uphill. Moving faster helps them gain momentum. However, it’s best to take one step at a time to make sure your horse doesn’t slip; this also helps him build up his hindquarter muscles.

Stay Straight

When you’re going up, be careful not to allow your horse to turn sideways. Horses that aren’t confident may choose to go back down to meet their buddy horses. Turning sideways doesn’t allow your horse to balance, and it’s easy for horses to slide in this position.

Keep your reining hand pointed uphill and correct your horse if he moves his nose away from your uphill direction. Don’t wait for him to turn a hoof sideways. If he does turn to the side, use your position to counter-balance him. Lean toward the steep side of the hill, and don’t add weight to the low side. It may be the safest option to return to the bottom of the hill and start again.

If you keep your horse in the correct herd position and moving slow, you’ll move up and down with ease and teach your horse to pick the best path.

Meet the Trainer

Aaron Ralston works his horses on his family’s Collbran, Colo., cattle ranch and prepares them for world-class competition. He won Top 10 honors at the 2021 AQHA Versatility Ranch Horse World Show and has championship titles in reining, cutting, working cowhorse, and calf roping. He earned gold for the United States reining team at the 2006 FEI World Equestrian Games. 

This article about riding your horse up and down hills appeared in the September/October 2022 issue of Young Rider magazine. Click here to subscribe!

Heidi Melocco

Heidi Nyland Melocco holds a Bachelor's degree in English from Ohio Wesleyan University and a Master's degree in journalism from the E.W. Scripps School of Journalism at Ohio University with a concentration in magazine and photo editing. At the latter, she was named Master's Student of the Year. Her stories and photographs are seen regularly in many equine publications, including Horse Illustrated and Young Rider. Melocco is an author of Western Horseman's Understanding Lameness, Western Horseman’s Legends 6 and 9, and Goodnight’s Guide to Great Horsemanship, and she’s a contributing photographer for the Certified Horsemanship Association's Instructor Manual, Hitch Up & Go, The Revolution in Horsemanship by Rick Lamb and Robert Miller, DVM; and Breed for Success by Rene Riley and Honi Roberts. She and her daughter are currently writing a new children's book called Pony Powers—all about what it's like to keep a pony at home. Melocco's photos have won awards from the Equine Photographer's Network and an AIM Award. Melocco holds first-prize awards from American Horse Publications (AHP) for training stories and equine photography. She has had more than 35 magazine cover photos. Melocco continues to write about and photograph horses and also works in video broadcasting. She directed and produced a popular RFD-TV show for more than 10 years. Melocco stays up to speed with social media and has grown accounts to reach and engage with hundreds of thousands of fans. She served on the Board of Directors for the Colorado Horse Council and has presented social media seminars at the PATHi and CHA International Conferences.She started riding Ponies of the Americas at age 5 at Smiley R Ranch in Hilliard, Ohio, with Janet Hedman and the W. E. Richardson family. In college, she was president and later assistant coach of the Ohio Wesleyan University Equestrian Team, coached by world-champion-earning trainer Terry Myers. Keeping active as a rider and riding instructor, Melocco began studying Brain Gym—an international program based on whole-brain and active learning. As a 4-H advisor, she used the simple movements to help horseback riding students relax and achieve their goals in the saddle. Melocco became a registered instructor with Path International, helping to combine horse knowledge and therapeutic experience with horsemanship training. Melocco has presented demos at Equine Affaire and at the Path International and National Youth Horse Council Annual Conferences. She taught at the Colorado Therapeutic Riding Center in Longmont, Colo. Melocco resides on her small-acreage horse property with her husband, Jared; daughter Savannah; registered AQHA gelding, Charlie; pony, Romeo; dogs Lucy and Rosie, and three orange barn kitties known as the "Porch Patrol."


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