Updated: Nov 30, 2022
As the saying goes variety is the spice of life – and the same applies to the work you do with your horses. As his personal trainer it’s important to expose him to a wide variety of surfaces and experiences. As more and more of us have access to artificial surfaces to ride on some horses aren’t being ridden over more natural terrains such as grass, hills, tracks, or different road surfaces. If your horse is worked only on one type of surface he will be less resilient and more susceptible to injury when he is faced with a different surface.
Riding your horse over different terrain and surfaces will make him more surefooted, improve his spatial awareness (proprioception), neuromuscular and motor control.
Concrete or sun-baked ground absorbs little energy and creates increased concussion forces that reduce your horse stride length and swing. Horses often don’t move freely on hard ground and long-term it may cause injury to bones, cartilage and joints.
However, walking and short bursts of trot on hard surfaces does improve bone density. Learn more about this in How Your Horse Moves.
Riding on loose, deep surfaces such as a dry sandy beach reduces concussive forces. However, it will make your horse’s muscles work harder and use more energy and if the surface is very deep you run the risk of your horse becoming sore, or injuring muscles, tendons and ligaments.
Riding up and down hills is a great way to boost cardiovascular fitness and strength. Horses that are turned out on hills tend have stronger hindquarters and better balance compared to horses that are on flatter ground.
Regularly incorporating hill work into your horse’s exercise routine will give him a full body workout, improving his topline, coordination, balance and lower leg strength.
Walking and trotting uphill strengthens the back, hamstring and gluteal muscles that will then give more pushing power in your flatwork and jumping.
Trotting uphill opens the shoulders and is great preparation for medium and extended trot as well as improving straightness and symmetrical development of muscles.
To avoid placing to much strain on your horse’s body increase the frequency and steepness of the incline gradually.
Cantering uphill also has benefits. The thrust from both hindlegs created when you canter uphill develops jump and elastic recoil.
Learn more about using terrain in Posture and Performance
Traversing down a slope helps promote coordination and confidence. It’s also an extremely effective workout for the thoracic sling, abductor and adductor muscles.
It’s important not to make your angle too steep or you’ll put the collateral ligaments in the lower leg under strain. If your horse has a history of lower limb ligament conditions slope work should be avoided.
Riding curves and lateral work across, up and down slopes encourages greater eccentric muscular contraction, develops lateral expression, controls stability, balance and proprioception.
Riding downhill has benefits too – great eccentric and concentric muscle contraction is required to control braking power. The thoracic sling muscles work hard to support the thorax between the forelegs and control the weight of both the rider and horse.
Increased muscle strength developed will help to lighten the forehand and increase forelimb expression. It also strengthens the hindlimbs as they flex more and come further under the body for braking, balance and stability.
Exercises to try
An effective balancing and core stability exercise is to ride downward transitions from trot to walk when you are riding down a hill. For your horse to feel the benefits it’s important that the transition is smooth and a consistent outline, contact and self-carriage is maintained. Gillian talks more about this in her webinar on Understanding Muscles in the Horses Inside Out Academy
Trotting slowly downhill builds hind end strength that will help with your horse’s jumping.
Most horses enjoy going through water and it has many benefits too. It gives him a different feel and experience and is a great way to create energy and enthusiasm.
Walking in shallow water encourages your horse to lift and flex his limb joints. This strengthens muscles and has a similar effect to walking over a series of raised poles.
The additional lift created from trotting through water conditions the muscles that will produce more expression, power and cadence.
Many horses will lower their heads to look at the water, plus the splash and extra effort required is good for your horse’s posture by encouraging recruitment of the abdominal and core muscles.
Working your horse in water also has the benefit of cooling the legs.
There is more on the biomechanics of horses working in water including slow motion video analysis of aqua-treadmill work in the video course: Anatomy in Action:
Learn more about the effect of different terrain on your horse's anatomy in Posture and Performance: