By Jenny Richardson BHSAI
Even the most courageous rider can get butterflies in the stomach at the thought of riding downhill in the faster gaits – as you are required to do on the XC course, or at a hunter trial.
Your attitude to downhill riding will probably depend on your horse’s own attitude to self-preservation, as well as his temperament and jumping experience. The careful horse will be a pleasure to ride downhill, carefully placing his feet, going at a speed to match the going, and responding to his rider’s cues; however if you have a strong or hot-headed horse that goes too fast downhill, then you may need to do some preparatory work, perhaps considering a stronger bit, carrying out extensive schooling to manage his paces, or replacing excess calories in the diet with fibre sources, to optimise your mutual safety. You will be unlikely to restore your own confidence if downhill riding is simply too dangerous! In any case, whether riding downhill, uphill or on the flat, you should have the ability to go ‘up and down the gears’ in canter. This can be done on the flat in your arena, for example riding a short bouncy canter along the short sides and opening out along the long sides. Thrown in some smart upward and downward transitions, to hone obedience.
Assuming that you have done all that you can to create a safe environment on a well schooled horse, and that perhaps you are just suffering from a perfectly natural lack of confidence when riding downhill, there are steps you can take to make the experience an enjoyable one! On the undulating Irish hills at Castle Leslie, we teach guests to sit up and back wherever they can, to prevent themselves from getting in front of the horse’s movement, putting themselves in a vulnerable position for a fall, and tipping the horse on to his forehand. Use the ‘safety position’ when XC riding with the lower leg forward and anchored with the heel down, and push your shoulders back for stability. Keep your reins short enough to aid steering, but not so much that you have to lean forward to maintain their length. If you need to, straighten your arms a little rather than tipping your torso forward.
Remember that a horse may run out from a fence if not sufficiently balanced to jump downhill. Slow down if your approach is too fast, and try to lift the horse’s head a little if he is ‘ploughing’ too low into the approach to a fence. Keep a straight line, and remember that many fences can actually be jumped from a trot.
Top tips –
- Make sure you walk the course, or if you are at a training venue, at least walk around on horseback to get a good look at the jumps and the terrain.
- It is generally better to be behind the movement than in front of it over XC fences, in terms of confidence and staying on board, so put your shoulders back, your heels down and ride positively to the fences without rushing.
- Look up, look up, look up! It really does help when riding downhill.
- Consider riding with a neckstrap or a rider safety aid, or hold the mane if you need to, to aid balance!
- Don’t go too fast – simple but obvious advice. Forget about fast, timed elements and go for a safe round within your capabilities, until you are sufficiently confident to speed up.
If you need XC practice, consider a training break at a leading venue. Jenny Richardson BHSAI is Equestrian Centre Business Manager at Ireland’s Castle Leslie Estate, a venue that offers luxurious equestrian riding holidays and training breaks in the heart of Ireland. The team welcomes riders of all abilities and age groups and offers expert tuition, gentle hacks and exhilarating cross-country rides over an extensive XC course. Visit www.castleleslie.com