The gait used on hill work will also affect the horse’s development. Start off slowly and have your horse already warmed up so soft muscles don’t get injured. An out-of-shape muscle may pull or tear if subjected to sudden stress. As the horse becomes more fit and its muscles, tendons, ligaments and joints are able to take it, you can increase the speed.
Walking or trotting up hills is ideal for strengthening the lower leg, and the thigh and gaskin of the hind leg. A gallop uphill works the muscles in the rump. This should not be overdone, however, and should be attempted only after the horse is already quite fit.
A good way to build up strength, wind and stamina is to climb hills. Climbing up a grade forces the horse to use its body weight, exert more and use its muscles harder. Climbing a steep bank now and then will make the heart pump faster and lungs work harder and strengthen the muscles in the hindquarters and forearms.
Start with jaunts up gradual slopes, and increase the grade and length of time spent in “climbing” as the horse becomes more muscular. If your horse has a particularly weak side, negotiate the ups and downs on the diagonal, with his weaker side toward the crest. The “high” side of the body has to exert more muscle to maintain balance and coordination.
“When going around the face of a steep hill, especially if the footing is a bit uneven or loose, the horse must develop more dexterity and coordination, picking up each leg and moving it around the other, perhaps having to scramble a bit if its feet are sliding,” said Heather Smith Thomas. This improves agility and teaches the horse to balance itself to its best advantage. An agile horse is less apt to strain a leg or fall down when footing is unpredictable.
Riders on flat terrain can use man made “hills,” such as dry drainage ditches, in place of natural terrain; or they can practice jumping even if their horse doesn’t otherwise use those skills.
It sounds easy to work your horse over some rolling hills to get him in condition. However, if your horse isn’t in good condition to start with, or if he’s never done hill work, it will be quite an adjustment. As in part #1 of this article, monitor your horse during his strength training: heavy blowing or trembling muscles indicate that he needs a break. If he’s sore the next day you pushed him too far, so do less the next time out.