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Trail Training Part 3: Hills and Ditches

Riding on varying terrain is great for building trust, strength, and cooperation in the horse. Incorporating hills and ditches into your training regimen will improve your horse’s over all versatility.

Again, before you start out on the trail make sure you have covered all the prerequisites. Horses need to be taught how to be trail horses in order to preform their job well just like any other sport. Like you did in the arena, you need to get rid of the horse’s magnets on the trail too.


Lunge or ground drive the horse up and down hills on your property. If you don’t have any natural obstacles haul to a nearby trail head or horse park to practice. Doing groundwork first allows the horse to find his footing without the extra weight of the rider, and also improves your groundwork skills as your cues need to be precise when working with obstacles. Many horses have a tendency to rush up and down hills. To correct this, send the horse from one side of you to the other. Start walking forward up or down the hill. Send the horse off as you would on a lunging circle, when his tail passes in front of you yield his hindquarters then send him off the way he just came, yield again and repeat. Remember to keep your feet moving forward the whole time. This exercise keeps the horse’s attention on you instead of just rushing. Another good exercise is to back the horse up and down the hill. Back up in intervals so it’s not quite so hard on the horse. Keep him straight just like you would in the arena. Expect the same level of calmness and responsiveness on the trail and in new environments as you would at home.

Start riding small hills at first. The correct positioning when riding up or down a hill it to sit straight and back a little, just as tree would grow out of a hill. One exercise to keep the horse slow is to walk a few steps then stop, back a few steps then walk forward again. This reminds him to stay slow and wait for you while going down. Another strategy for keeping the horse slow is to zig zag or serpentine up and down the hill. If the horse starts to rush on a small hill just keep going up and down until he relaxes and slows. Most horses trot when they get near the bottom. When he does that, turn him and go back up the hill. Keep going up down until he doesn’t break gait. Don’t let him rush through an obstacle and go on to the next one as he will just keep getting faster the longer you go. Another good way to correct the horse for speeding up without you asking is to to stop and back up. Backing up is doing the opposite of what the horse wants to do which is go forward, it also reminds the horse to get off of the bit and listen to your hands. Do this as many times as you need until the horse is waiting for your next cue. The faster your horse goes the more frequently you need to stop and back him. Balance the horse by doing the opposite of what he wants to do. The horse wants to speed up stop him and back him, if he wants to go slow speed him up, he wants to turn right turn him left and so on. By doing this the horse will stop taking control of your ride, staying straight and on your aids. Anytime you feel like your horse is going faster then you want do something about it. Don’t let the horse take control just because you are on a trail ride. He should listen to you at all times.


Practice crossing tarps in the arena first. Lay one out on the ground folded up a few times to mimic the size of the ditch. Use poles on the ground on either side of the tarp to keep it from blowing up or moving around. Send or drive the horse over the tarp a few times until he is comfortable crossing and stopping on it. Once he is comfortable in the arena, start practicing on the trail. Send him through the ditch on the ground first just like you did with the other obstacles. Start with the least scariest place. Ask him to cross on the smallest side and gradually get him over wider parts of it. If your horse has a tendency to jump over keep asking him to cross it until he walks through instead. If he hesitates back him up and ask again. Use approach and retreat on the obstacle. Don’t put pressure on the horse while he is at the ditch. Put pressure on the horse when he is away from the obstacle and take it away when he gets close to it. That’s how you will get him to cross it. Let him take his time; the slower the better. Repeat the obstacle if the horse gets too fast crossing it. Many horses may want to jump it. That’s ok, just turn and have him go over it again until he is calmly crossing. This may take a while so don’t give up too soon. Stick it out and wait until the horse has made even a little improvement.

When the horse can cross the ditch confidently on the ground start riding him across. Again, use the same methods of approach and retreat you did from the ground. Make sure the horse can walk through calmly before speeding him up. If he avoids the ditch use pressure and release. Bump his sides when he turns away, steer him back toward the ditch the opposite way that he turned. Then stop bumping his sides when he is facing he ditch. Continue to do this until he is not avoiding it any more. Then ask for one step at a time until he has crossed. As you both become more confident cross at a trot or canter. Even jumping small ditches if you want.