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Leaning When on Hills

Should you lean forward or backward when on a hill? If so, how much? Does it really matter?

These are good questions because I often see riders leaning much too little or too far backwards when going downhill or vice versa. Leaning too far either way actually makes it harder for your horse. To lean properly, you need to understand that you don't actually lean at all. A short discussion of the physics of movement will help clarify this (DON'T WORRY! There will be NO MATH here.)

As soon as we deviate from level ground, more of the horse's weight, plus our own, shifts to whichever legs are on the downhill side. That's his rear legs if going uphill or to his front legs if going downhill. Downhill is hardest for a horse because of the way they're built.

Even on level ground, the front legs of a horse are more heavily loaded for several reasons. Looking at just the mass of the horse between the front and rear legs (mid-mass), most of the weight is in front because the chest is larger than the abdomen. In addition, the weight of their large heads and necks is cantilevered out in front of the front legs, so the overall weight on those legs is greater still than the weight on the rear legs. When going downhill, even more weight is placed there because more of the mid-mass weight shifts to the front legs.

When going up or down a hill, keep your body vertical and don't move around or squirm — this will keep you more stable in the saddle and make it the least burdensome way for the horse to move himself and you up or down that hill. To a fellow rider, being vertical when going downhill will look as if you're leaning back in relation to your horse, or look as if you're leaning forward when going uphill. If you're not sure whether or not you're vertical, look at surrounding trees (if any) — most will grow relatively vertical, even on a hill, and then align your torso with them.

However, definitely don't over-lean, especially when going downhill. The more you lean back, the more difficult it is for your horse to get his legs under himself. When you lean too far, it puts more strain on your horse's legs, and if extreme enough with a heavy rider and load, can unbalance your horse and even cause a slip and/or fall. Horse's with joint illnesses, such as Lyme disease, are even more affected — be kind.

Besides being an avid trail rider, Jerry Tardif is a technology consultant and a horse and nature photographer in SE Connecticut — see his work at: www.jerrytardif.com. He is also co-founder and President of QueryHorse.

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