Does your horse stand still for mounting?
At every clinic, there is at least one participant who tells me that her horse won’t stand still for mounting, followed by the question, how can I get my horse to stand still?
This is a very common issue that a lot of horse owners are faced with. The first step in solving the problem is to find out why the horse won’t stand still for mounting. Is the horse stressed and unfocused? Unbalanced? Scared? In pain? Is the rider inadvertently causing the horse to move? Is the horse walking off out of habit or because the rider is allowing it? A rider may allow the horse to move by not proactively – with blocking reins – telling the horse what not to do.
If pain is the cause, this obviously needs to be addressed first. Where and why is the horse hurting? You may need to get an equine chiropractor or massage therapist to assess your horse.
Is the saddle ill-fitting or placed in the wrong position? If, for example, the saddle is placed too far forward, this not only impedes the horse’s shoulder movement and therefore his impulsion, but it may also cause discomfort and even pain. The bars of the saddle need to be placed behind the horse’s scapula (shoulder blades) to allow for ease of movement. Also make sure there is enough clearance between the horse’s withers and the gullet of a Western saddle or pommel of an English saddle so the front of the saddle doesn’t touch the horse’s withers once the rider is mounted. A saddle touching the withers not only causes discomfort and pain, it may also lead to fistula of the withers, which can permanently ruin a horse. It is a good idea to check your horse’s back after removing the saddle to see if there are any dry spots, which often – not always – indicate pressure points, or ruffled hair, which may indicate too much movement of the saddle. Also, keep watch for developing white spots to catch problems sooner rather than later, and check the saddle underneath for areas that are uneven or for compressed areas in the flocking panels. Also make sure the saddle pad or blanket is clean.
Is the rider’s way of mounting causing the horse discomfort or pain or throwing the horse off-balance? This is often the cause with young and/or green horses or riders who are overweight. You can test for this type of problem by having someone hold the far side stirrup as you mount and observing any difference in the reaction of the horse. It is important to remember that you still may get a reaction of discomfort because the horse is anticipating discomfort or pain so you may need to do this multiple times to determine if the horse is merely anticipating.
Is the rider’s position in relation to the horse inadvertently causing the horse to move away from the rider? This is a very common problem, which is easy to solve as soon as the rider starts paying attention to his own body language. For example, if the rider’s core (belly button) is pointing at the horse’s hind end, it is sending impulsive energy into the horse’s hindquarters, essentially asking the horse to move the hind end away from the rider. Or, if the rider is inadvertently sending impulsive energy into the horse’s sensitive head and neck with his hips and shoulders, the horse may move away sideways, or he may just invert and bend into the rider (pushing his ribcage into the rider’s space).
Does the horse fear what happens once the rider is up in the tack, for example an unbalanced, bouncy rider, or a rider pulling on the reins or constantly kicking or spurring the horse? Does the horse anticipate work when the rider starts mounting and is trying to avoid it? And if so, is there something about how the horse is worked that causes stress, discomfort or pain?
All these are possible causes that need to be ruled out or addressed before we can ask a horse to stand still for mounting.
Sometimes the rider just expects the horse to stand still for mounting, but isn’t actually doing anything to prevent the horse from walking off by proactively blocking forward movement with the reins. As mentioned before, it is always in the horse’s best interest that we are proactive and set the horse up for success instead of waiting for him to make a mistake and then correcting him.
It is important to understand that we should never, ever force a horse to stand still. A horse has to want to stand still and he can only do so if he is not stressed. Restricting movement is a common tactic used in the predator world to establish dominance, but in the world of prey it only causes stress and fear. If a horse is stressed, he needs to move, and we actually need to encourage movement in the horse instead of forcing the horse to stand still. Forcing the horse to stand still is counterproductive and just compounds the horse’s stress. What we do need to do is control the horse’s movement and shape the horse’s body in such a way that it relaxes him.
It’s important to understand that there is a big difference between forcing a horse to stand still (and punishing him for moving) versus asking a horse to stand still (and responding appropriately by redirecting the movement in a way that does not cause punishment or discomfort or stress when the horse declines the request).
In order for a horse to be able to stand still for mounting, he needs to not only be calm and relaxed, but also balanced, meaning standing square with a level to low neck. In order to achieve that, we may need to help the horse find this position. Facing the horse’s girth, I apply blocking aids with the reins to prevent the horse from walking away and at the same time I ask the horse to bend his ribcage around me by gently massaging the horse’s bending button at the girth (which is the natural axis of the horse) with my thumb. You should be able to find a small indentation just where the ribs start to curl under. Massaging the horse’s bending button encourages him to move his ribcage away from me and also bring his head down and towards me while softening his poll.
Once the horse stays in this relaxed frame (remember, frame of body is frame of mind), I keep one hand (if I am mounting from the left side, my left hand) on the reins and grab a piece of mane with it. With my right hand I start putting some pressure into the stirrup. If the horse needs to walk off, I will allow him to move, but I will control the direction of the movement. I may ask him to do a very small circle around me, or a turn on the forehand or to back up, all the while keeping him in a relaxed frame, with his poll level or below the height of his withers. These are all exercises that are physically way more demanding for the horse than just standing quietly. You are essentially showing the horse that it is a lot easier (physically less challenging) to stand still than to walk off while at the same time allowing him to move without adding to his stress.
Once the horse is comfortable with some pressure in the stirrup, I start hopping up and down beside him several times, making sure my shoulder and hip closest to his head are not sending any impulsive energy into his head and neck. If the horse walks off, I again encourage him to move while controlling his direction and keeping him in a level to low frame. Once the horse is comfortable with me hopping up and down beside him, I place my left foot in the stirrup (without poking the horse in the elbow with my toe!) and hop up and down beside him several times.
If he stays relaxed without walking off, I take it a step further and, staying close to the horse, hop up and gently bring my weight over his back, leaning over the saddle, without bringing my right leg to his other side. Make sure that you don’t pull yourself up on the horse by grabbing the saddle horn or pommel of your saddle, or even the horse’s withers, but instead push down on his opposite shoulder so as not to throw your horse off balance and cause discomfort and pain. I often see people, especially Western riders, grabbing the saddle horn and heaving themselves up into the saddle, with their full weight hanging off the side off their horse. This is very hard on the horse’s spine and makes it difficult for him to stay balanced. It is one of the most common reasons why horses won’t stand still for mounting.
If the horse walks off when I put my weight over his back, I jump down, create movement in the horse and bring him back to the original mounting spot, and then repeat jumping up and putting my weight on the horse’s back. I repeat this movement several times until the horse is comfortable with it and stays balanced and standing still.
If the horse stands quietly when I put my weight over his back, I then swing my right leg over his back without touching his rump (another common reason why horses walk off) and gently sit down in the saddle. Please remember that you are sitting down on the spine of a living being, so don’t let your weight fall down into the saddle. If the horse wants to walk off right away, I turn him onto a small circle or ask for a turn on the forehand. I then repeat the entire exercise – getting off and mounting again.
I find that horses that I have started myself usually never need or want to move during mounting and so this lesson can usually be taught in a single session. On the other hand, a horse that is being retrained from a bad habit or is anticipating pain or discomfort will need several sessions to reinforce the lesson and/or to be convinced that he doesn’t need to anticipate pain or discomfort.
With young and/or green horses who aren’t as balanced yet with the additional weight of a rider as an older, trained horse, with horses that tend to invert while being mounted (without me causing the inversion), or horses that have a history of walking off while being mounted out of habit, it is helpful to have an assistant who gently flexes the horse’s head down while I mount. This method, however, is only helpful if the assistant is aware of his own body language and doesn’t inadvertently send impulsive energy into the horse’s sensitive head and neck area from his core, hips and/or shoulders. This would be counterproductive and cause stress for the horse.
Of course, mounting can be practiced from both sides. I just described mounting from the left side as it is more common. You can practice the mounting procedure both from the ground and from a mounting block. However, if you struggle mounting your horse from the ground, it is advisable to use a mounting block to make it easier on your horse’s back. If you have difficulties mounting your horse even with a mounting block, practice mounting on a stationary horse (barrel with legs) first. There is a technique to it.
If the horse is at first worried about the mounting block, I will first lead him up to it and let him look at it and sniff it, and, once he is comfortable with it (if the block can be moved), spend time keeping the horse moving and drawing him to the mounting block with my body language to take advantage of the fact that horses are very rarely scared of things that they are able to push (which is how they perceive the situation when they are drawn towards a continually moving object).
I then place the mounting block a few feet away from a solid boundary such as a wall or fence and lead the horse through that space, gradually making the space between the mounting block and the wall or fence narrower. Every so often I ask the horse to halt next to the mounting block. Again, I will not force the horse to stand still, I just ask him to stand still. If he needs to move, I’ll just circle him around and bring him back to the mounting block until he is comfortable standing there without having the need to walk off. I will then proceed to practice the mounting as described above.
If a horse has a tendency to walk off while being mounted (after having ruled out the above mentioned possible causes), I position the horse next to a solid boundary, and, if using a mounting block, between the mounting block and the wall or fence. Some horses may feel claustrophobic in this position at first, which would require preliminary work in getting the horse used to walking through tight spaces, and generally improving the relationship with the rider doing work not related to mounting in order to avoid simply treating the symptom of a more substantial issue between the horse and rider.
Once I am mounted, I won’t ask the horse to walk off right away, but instead I sit and wait, while continuing to block the horse from moving with the reins, and keep the horse in a relaxed frame of body and relaxed, but focused frame of mind. By doing so, the horse learns that once I am mounted, I don’t want him to do anything but stand still – until I ask for movement.