Is It My Horse, Or Is It Me?

Time spent with horses can be inspiring and stress relieving–most of the time. But, like with any relationship, things don’t always go smoothly. When there’s a problem, it’s important to understand why the horse is doing what he’s doing so we can develop a specific, effective solution. Sometimes the cause lies within the horse, other times within the human. Often it’s a combination. Here’s one reader’s dilemma:

Bob Jeffreys and Suzanne Sheppard teach at the 2010 WEG. Journal photo

Dear Bob & Suz,
I trust my mare completely, and we’ve ridden a lot of trails together over the years. The only problem we have is mounting. About a year ago, she began to fidget and move around when I got on. She’s not trying to be mean, she just keeps moving away. Sometimes I almost fall down. What should I do?

Let’s begin by examining some possible causes:

  • Pain–A sore back, poor saddle fit, a rib popped out of place, spine issues, etc.
  • Hasn’t been taught–Maybe no one ever taught this horse to stand quietly until the rider is securely mounted up.
  • “I don’t want to”–If the horse has a poor work ethic or doesn’t enjoy her job, then she may be avoiding being ridden.
  • Rider error–the rider might be accidentally poking the horse with her toe when she puts her foot in the stirrup, pulling back on the reins as she gets on, or landing on the horse’s back abruptly and heavily.
  • Distraction–The other horses at the barn may have been running around in the paddocks nearby, or perhaps they were all getting fed and this mare was so busy thinking about her grain that she wasn’t paying attention to her rider.

We contacted Mary and invited her to the ranch so we could help. We found that, in this particular case, the rider had unknowingly created the problem. Over the years, Mary had gained about 100 pounds and developed bad arthritis in both knees, so it took a long time and a lot of effort to mount. She’d grab the horn and the cantle and pull herself up, putting a lot of pressure on the withers. The horse wasn’t misbehaving when she moved away; she was trying to let her human buddy know that it hurt.

Mary needed to find a more efficient, less awkward way to mount. The solution: some training and a three-step mounting block.We desensitized her mare to this new piece of equipment, and then mounted and dismounted repeatedly in a light, efficient manner, until the horse no longer anticipated discomfort. Then we taught Mary how to mount properly without pulling on the horn, but instead holding onto the mane and rein with her left hand (to protect the horse’s back, and so that if the saddle slipped, she still had something steady to hang on to), and the cantle with her right. She learned to land lightly and to ask her horse to wait until she was organized and ready to move. Soon, both Mary and her mare were enjoying their trail rides again.

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