Downhill training and the competitive sport horse

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The terrain on the eventing course at Gatcombe in Britain.
The terrain on the eventing course at Gatcombe in Britain.

Should eventers be trained downhill? It’s a simple question but the answer may be a little more complicated.

If you only ever compete over flat courses I would suggest you don’t need to train up or down hills. In fact, you may be putting your horse at a disadvantage if you train uphill and/or downhill. The reason being is that the muscles used (recruited) during uphill or downhill exercise are subtly different to when cantering/galloping on the flat. Clearly going uphill shifts the loading to the hindlimbs and going downhill shifts the loading to the forelimbs. Cantering uphill also results in a lower stride frequency and longer stride length than the same speed on the flat. Also, for this reason, training up and down hills will result in a slight loss of speed on the flat.

A good practical example of the effect of where you train versus where you compete is in endurance. Horses trained over hills in Wales, the West Country and the North often find it hard to compete successfully against horses trained on the flat in East Anglia over flat “fast” courses in the forests and vice versa.

The results of a survey asking eventing riders about training on gradients.
The results of a survey asking eventing riders about training on gradients.

Another reason you might avoid or limit any downhill training would be if your horse has a forelimb injury or a history of forelimb injury. Exercise downhill clearly shifts the horses weight onto the forelimbs.

“I compete over hilly courses”

If these consist of both uphill and downhill gradients then I would suggest for optimal balance and less risk of injury you should be doing some training downhill (as well as uphill) in the gait you are going to compete in i.e. canter/gallop. You may also want to consider schooling over some downhill jumps if you are going to have to jump these when competing. Gradients on UK cross-country courses vary – Badminton for example is relatively flat. Blair Castle is quite hilly and the overall total cross-country course increase in effort compared to if it was a flat course is about 12%. Typical gradients on UK cross-country courses (up and down) would be in the order of 1-3% with some even higher. A 3% gradient is used on treadmills to increase the effort to compensate for the lack of a rider. An example of the gradients for Gatcombe is shown which was mapped using Ordnance Survey online.

The gradient at Gatcombe.
The gradient at Gatcombe.

Training downhill

It’s probably best to start to train downhill on slight rather than steep gradients and to start in walk and trot and short distances before building up to canter. When you progress to cantering, again start at low speeds on moderate gradients for short distances and build up to XC speed.

Should I slow down downhill when on the cross-country?

If your horse is not used to being trained downhill or not 100% balanced then probably yes. Actually, a horse uses the least energy going down a slight slope. To maintain a constant effort a horse should go slightly faster downhill and slower uphill. Going up a 10% slope is actually twice the effort of cantering on the flat.

Gatcombe's cross-country course.
Gatcombe’s cross-country course.

So what do eventers do?

The purpose of the short and simple survey was to try to gauge what most people do. Just over 500 people answered the question. I know there were a few comments about not all options being available. It was intended to keep it simple. I assumed if you cantered downhill for example you would be happy to walk and trot downhill. There may also be a difference according to where you live, where you compete and what level you compete at.

Respondents: 75% were from the UK, 13% Australia, 3% USA, 3% Ireland, 1% Canada, 1% New Zealand. In total riders from 18 countries took part.

Whilst the majority of respondents (44%) said they sometimes cantered downhill, only 14% said they cantered downhill often.

Kiwi eventer Dan Jocelyn riding Special Advocate at Gatcombe in 2011. There are several uphill and downhill portions on the cross-country.
Kiwi eventer Dan Jocelyn riding Special Advocate at Gatcombe in 2011. There are several uphill and downhill portions on the cross-country. © Al Crook

Summary

(1) If you compete only on flat courses, don’t exclusively train uphill and balance your fitness training more to the flat.
(2) If you compete only on flat courses there may be little or no value to training downhill.
(3) Trotting downhill will not balance your horse for cantering downhill or result in the correct muscle development to make downhill cantering easier and more balanced.

David Marlin

Dr Marlin has worked with the FEI (Fédération Equestre Internationale) and IOC (International Olympic Committee) and as a consultant to the British Equestrian Teams since 1994 and has been a member of the World Class Performance Scientific Advisory Group. » Read David's profile

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