The safest way to ride down a steep trail is slow and steady. The faster your horse goes down a steep trail, the more his weight is on his front end. The problem with that is if he trips and his weight is already on his front, he’s pretty likely to stumble or possibly fall. If he goes slower, his weight is probably going to be on his back end, which means he’ll be less likely to stumble, and if he does there’s a much better chance that he’ll easily recover from it.
To get your horse going downhill slow, start with trails that aren’t very steep. Ride down small hills and stop him several times before you get to the bottom. This will cause him to think of going down hills as a time to go slow. If you feel him start to rush, stop immediately and back him up a few steps. Backing up a hill is a lot of work for a horse, so this is a mild reprimand for rushing and it also really causes him to use his hind end.
Another exercise is to make small changes of direction when going down hills that aren’t very steep. Sometimes when a horse goes down a hill, he will start picking up more and more speed. Making slight changes of direction and going down a hill on different angles forces him to slow down and think more about what he’s doing instead of rushing.
Once your horse is good on small hills, progress to steeper ones. If I feel a horse really putting his weight on his front legs as he’s going down a hill, I will put light pressure on the reins to keep him from going faster and at the same time squeeze with my legs to drive his hindquarters up under himself which re-engages the back end. This is really just asking for collection, but doing it while going downhill.
As far as rider position goes, I have heard reasons for sitting forward in the saddle, but I always sit back. I do this because if a horse trips or stumbles and I’m positioned over his front end, my added weight is going to make it harder for him to recover his footing. I’ll usually hold one rein in each hand and put light pressure on both reins when going down a steep trail, as it helps most horses keep their balance. However, if I’m going down an extremely steep hill and I feel there is a chance that I could fall over the front of the saddle if the horse were to trip, I will put both reins in one hand (making sure they’re the same length) and reach back and hold onto the cantle with my other hand. This holds me tight in the saddle.