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Benefits and risks of working my horse on hills


My Quarter Horse mare has done most of her training in arenas and flat areas. I’ve heard that hill work can be helpful for improving a horse’s condition, but I don’t want to cause an injury. Is it safe to ride her on hills? Are the benefits worth the risks? – from

Your question mentions two important words: training and conditioning. To gain a better understanding of what may help our horses stay sound and remain competitive for as long as possible, it’s first necessary to define these different but related terms. I turned to one of my favorite resources of all time, Conditioning the Sport Horse by Dr. Hilary Clayton, published by Sport Horse Publications in Canada.

Training or schooling, according to Dr. Clayton, develops neuromuscular coordination and mental discipline. Examples of training include teaching your horse technical skills such as the mechanics of a simple or flying lead change, going forward or coming back in the canter in a line of fences, or sitting during a sliding stop in reining.

Conditioning or physical fitness, on the other hand, induces physiological and structural adaptations that have the dual benefits of maximizing performance and reducing the risk of injury. Because every discipline is different, the thing I really like about Dr. Clayton’s book is that she tailors programs for many different equine sports, from dressage to chuck wagon racing, no kidding!

Without knowing what you do with your horse, it’s hard to make a recommendation about whether or not adding hill work to your program will be beneficial. What specifically are you trying to accomplish? Move your mare up a level for which she needs increased fitness? Return her to full work following an injury or time off? Help her compensate for a weakness or condition?

There’s another wonderful book by Jean-Marie Denoix and Jean-Pierre Pailloux called Physical Therapy and Massage for the Horse by Trafalgar Square Publishing out of Vermont. It contains gems like “Exercise on a sloping plane” which describes the effort associated with descent and ascent, in conjunction with cavaletti, that is especially helpful for horses with weak backs, poor muscular strength, and propulsion difficulties. On page 15 is an illustration of a “Sensory Re-education Path” used to rehabilitate the neuromuscular system and recover coordination by walking the horse over different types and depths of surfaces such as sand, pebbles, asphalt, water, etc.

My point is that hill work, cavaletti, and work over varied terrain all have specific benefits to horses and can be utilized for increased performance or successful rehabilitation but need to be added gradually and thoughtfully to your existing program.

Lydia F. Gray, DVM, MA SmartPak Staff Veterinarian and Medical Director Dr. Lydia Gray has earned a Bachelor of Science in agriculture, a Doctor of Veterinary Medicine (DVM), and a Master of Arts focusing on interpersonal and organizational communication. After “retiring” from private practice, she put her experience and education to work as the American Association of Equine Practitioner’s first-ever Director of Owner Education. Dr. Gray continues to provide health and nutrition information to horse owners through her position at SmartPak, through publication in more than a dozen general and trade publications, and through presentations around the country. She is the very proud owner of a Trakehner named Newman that she actively competes with in dressage and combined driving. In addition to memberships in the USDF and USEF, Dr. Gray is also a member of the Illinois Dressage and Combined Training Association (IDCTA). She is a USDF “L” Program Graduate and is currently working on her Bronze Medal. Find Dr. Gray on Google+

Posted in Ask the Vet

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One comment on “Benefits and risks of working my horse on hills
  1. Alex says:

    They are, Hancke, and they’re sold to the public as a ptreoction of the public interest.Most of the public doesn’t care because these horse regulations don’t concern them and consumers are not an organized interest group anyway while industry groups are. Consumers don’t spend all their time trying to figure out how to seek rents, industry groups do. In search of ptreoction, people like Larry shoot themselves in the foot and then cry “no fair”. You get what you ask for.

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