How to safely mount a horse
There are a couple of reasons why a horse won't stand up safely to be mounted but most commonly the root cause is the feel of the saddle twisting on their back and girth pulling on their sides as a result of this twist. This discomfort from the saddle can either be due to not correctly backed, poorly fitted saddle, sore back, or their topline not developed to support the weight of the rider pulling themselves up onto their back. While these are the common source of the problems that I have seen over the years training and backing horses, it wasn't the reason that the horse who taught me this lesson had.
Poor mounting technique
The horse that taught me I had the absolute worst mounting technique was a blessing in disguise. As a child I had an instructor who was a hacky judge and drummed into me the pony club mounting technique. For those of you that haven't learnt this you want to put your left foot into the stirrup facing their tail and swing with grace and agility into the saddle. I don't know about you but the whole grace and agility thing has always eluded me and probably why I became a horse rider and not a ballerina. So with this as my objective, I would put my foot in the stirrup facing my horses tail and hop around until I was facing the ears and then swing on. My instructor gave up on me trying to get this right and this become my mounting technique. It wasn't so bad on my horses because my legs were longer than their belly. Fast forward 10 years and I'm in the early days of my training career and notice quite a significant problem. One of the horses I have on training broncs everytime I try to mount. What I didn't realise is that while I was hopping on the ground to face forward to his ears I was scraping my toe along his ribs!!! Poor little guy! But I didn't know better, and as you do when something is going wrong with your horse we went through the standard saddle, teeth, chiro, with nothing to point the finger out, until I finally pointed the finger at me and realised what the common denominator was. Me and my mounting technique. Unfortunately by this time I had trained into the horse to bronc when being mounted, I had landed on my tail bone too may times to count and was becoming scared of riding him because I didn't understand why he was doing it. We needed to get someone in just to sort it out. 2 rides later and the mounting problem was resolved and it was up to me to sort out my mounting problems.
Now not only did I have an awful mounting technique but I was also scared to mount unknown horses for fear of them broncing before I got into the saddle. Not an ideal situation for a young girl with high hopes of being a breaker and trainer. Time and again I put my big girl panties on sucked it up and got on each unknown horse that came in on training and I learnt some new skills, because I understood now why the horses had issues with being mounted. It took 5 years. 5 years before I could confidently look at a horse, know what its personality was and how it would react to me working with it, to get to the point where I could confidently get on or work with any horse without being scared of the mounting part. This lack of fear was no longer naivety but was due to an understanding that I knew how to get a horse to stand up for being mounted and keep myself in a safe (relatively) position if there were any issues.
Now as I said I am no graceful, dainty ballerina. I heave ho myself into the saddle with the best of them. I don't see that to be the issue as we need the horses to be desensitised to the awkward fumbling that we as riders put them through as we scramble onto their backs. The issue that needs to be addressed is setting our expectations clearly and following through on them with thorough consistency.
When it comes to training we can break it down into several steps that need to be addressed:
- Identify what the ideal outcome would be (safely in the saddle, with the horse standing still)
- Identify the "pressure" the horse is trying to evade (standing still while putting your weight into the stirrup)
- Identify the reward or the horses ideal situation (being put back out to the paddock with food)
- Break down the components that are required from the horse (standing still and standing still while being mounted)
Once we understand these steps we can put together a strategy to teach the horse how to stand still to be safely mounted. Which doesn't necessarily mean that you will get the whole way onto their back in the first training session depending on the problems. Depending on how bad it is you may need a professional to do this for you because if you release the pressure (you mounting) for the incorrect behaviour (anything other than standing still) you will reinforce that behaviour when they are being mounted.
While being in the saddle is the ideal outcome there are a couple steps leading up to that point:
- Standing still
- Standing still while you put your foot into the stirrup
- Standing still while you stand into the stirrup
- Standing still while you stand into the stirrup and lie across the horses back
- Lastly, standing still while you stand into the stirrup and swing your leg over their back and sit into the saddle
Each of these points is a "pressure" to the horse and while we may think that getting onto their back is no biggy, going straight from the ground to the saddle skips 5 integral components to a horse understanding its job in the mounting process. It skips 5 opportunities for the horse to communicate that it is uncomfortable with the situation. It skips 5 opportunities for you to identify there is a problem with the horse and 5 opportunities for the horse to react to the pressure and let you know there is a problem before you are in a vulnerable position with your foot in one stirrup and your leg half way over the side with the horse exploding underneath you (not ideal, trust me).
I must note that it is important to listen to your horse through these steps and not "make" it behave. Offer them the confidence they need to willingly accept you onto their back. Offer them the opportunity to express if they are unsure or uncomfortable because it is only then you can address any problems they have. Horses are incredibly good at hiding their stress or exploding with no inbetween. The turmoil builds and builds and builds with no external warning other than a tightening and coiling of their muscles as they brace themselves ready to fight or run. It is your job to keep their brain calm, so they can process and learn rather than react.
You can watch me teaching this process to a horse in the video below. While he isn't green and has a sound back it is important to me in my training to clearly and thoroughly define my expectations in each task.
"What you have on the ground, will be worse in the saddle. What you have in walk, will be worse in the trot and worse again in the canter."