When a normally eager trail mount suddenly balks at walking downhill, it’s a clue that something is wrong physically. Descending an incline requires a horse to balance and brace himself with various parts of his body. Pain or dysfunction in any one of them can cause him to be less willing.
Reluctance to walk downhill could be a sign of navicular pain as the horse shifts more weight to his heels with each step. Similarly, a horse with ringbone0 may experience more pain on a downhill stretch than he does on flat ground or an upward slope. Descending a hill can also be unpleasant for a horse with a sore neck---his discomfort may increase as he uses his neck for balance. In addition, an ill-fitting saddle can cause pain when a horse heads down a slope.
A horse with a neurological condition may also hesitate to go down a hill. A common test for cervical stenosis (narrowing of the vertebrae to impinge on the spinal column) is to walk the horse downhill and carefully observe his feet. A horse who is uncoordinated may allow a hoof to “hover” for a few seconds before he sets it down with each stride. This is more easily detected when walking downhill and is more pronounced on steeper slopes. Eventually, the horse may refuse to walk downhill because his incoordination makes him feel unsafe.
This article first appeared in EQUUS issue #461, February 2016.