We’ve all been there: You gather yourself up to mount your horse, maybe even have a foot in the stirrup, and your horse moves away-sometimes subtly, sometimes emphatically. You might find yourself following him, hopping on one foot, and hoping to salvage the attempt by swinging up as he moves off. If you’re on a mounting block or fence or tree stump-or a friend is trying to give you a leg up-you probably have to line up your horse again and start over.
Getting on a horse seems like it should be a pretty simple operation, but it’s complicated by a couple of factors. First, there’s no “stand still” cue. Yet standing still is a prerequisite to mounting safely and successfully. Second, riders exhibit all sorts of misguided practices when they get on a horse.
They may haul sideways on the saddle (putting painful pressure on the horse’s shoulder and back) or pull him off balance, which forces him to move just so he can get his feet back under himself. Some riders collapse into the saddle with a bone-jarring thud once they get a leg over the horse. And some riders inadvertently yank on the reins as they pull themselves up, jab the horse’s side with their toe, or smack the horse’s hindquarters with their leg as it swings across. It’s not too surprising that their horses don’t want to stand still for that.
So the challenge of having your horse stand quietly while you mount is really twofold. First, you need to show him that standing still is a good option, one he’ll choose willingly. Second, you need to improve your own mounting skills and eliminate any bad habits that might give your horse a reason to move away from you.
Kindness & Courtesy
- Teach your horse to move forward, backward and sideways on cue so you can readily reposition him if you need to.
- Make sure your horse is standing squarely on all four feet and firmly balanced before you try to mount.
- Propel yourself softly into the saddle. Lower your stirrup if you need to in order to make mounting easy.
- If you can’t easily swing onto your horse from the ground, use a mounting block (rock, log, etc.) or get a leg up from a friend.
- Develop safe and considerate mounting skills-no bumping or jabbing the horse with your feet or legs-and be sure to settle lightly onto his back.
- When you first get on your horse, sit quietly for a minute or two so he understands mounting is not a cue for moving off.
Moving and Standing Still
You can’t prevent your horse from moving if he wants. But you can direct how and where he moves-and you can help him discover that not moving is sometimes preferable. Once he makes that discovery, it will be easier and more desirable for him to stand quietly when you ask.
We’ll consider a couple of approaches you can take to address the problem of a horse who moves when you try to get on. The first one involves teaching him to move in specific directions on cue. Using this method, you can “countermove” to reposition him and to show him that his choice to move resulted in a little extra work.
The second strategy relies on the technique of replacing the unwanted behavior (moving away) with something that channels his energy into doing something you do want (moving where you tell him). You’ll be reinforcing important lessons while he makes up his mind that he’d rather just stand still after all.
Forward, Backward, Sideways
When a horse tries to move away from being mounted, he generally moves in one of three directions: forward, backward, or sideways. So if you teach him to make those movements on cue, you can play the move-countermove game.
Say your horse takes a step back every time you lift your leg toward the stirrup. Some riders follow the horse and reposition themselves to try again. Others yank on the reins, either as punishment or to drag the horse back to his original spot. How many times have you seen a rider jerking the reins and hollering, “I said stand STILL!!”
It’s hard to imagine what part of that experience would help a horse understand what the rider is asking.
But if you’ve taught your horse the go-forward cue, you can just calmly ask him to step back into place. If he steps forward-and you’ve taught him to back up-you can easily request a step or two back so that he ends up where he started. If he swings his hips away, ask him to move in some other direction. (It doesn’t matter which direction; you’re just showing him that his decision to move on his own was the wrong choice.)
Responding to the unwanted moves with specific countermove requests will help you reposition him, as well as help him understand that it might be easier if he’d just stayed put in the first place.
Give Him Options
If your horse just moves slightly when you start to get on, repositioning him isn’t too tough. But what if he takes several steps or swings his hips way out? You can still reposition him with the move-countermove technique, but it’s likely to require some backing and filling to maneuver him into place. Once there, he’ll probably move again. An alternative is to give him some options.
Whenever a horse is using energy, we want to put that energy to good use. If he has enough energy that he doesn’t want to stand still, change your game plan and work on leading, getting him to be more responsive to your directional cues. Each time your horse moves away from you, give him 30 or 40 seconds of work on leading.
For instance, let’s say that when you start to get on, your horse moves his hindquarters to the right. In response, you put some pressure on the left rein and ask his hindquarters to move over. Give him a mini-release and then ask again. And again. After he’s taken several steps, release him, pet him, and prepare to mount.
He’ll learn that initiating the movement himself always brings on extra work-and pressure in his mouth. Once he’s made that connection, he’ll decide that he might as well just hold still for you.
When he’ll stand quietly as you put your foot in the stirrup, you might think you’re home free and that he’s ready for you to climb aboard. But that’s rushing the process.
To effectively teach this lesson, you need to reward him for doing the right thing. So simply remove your foot and pet him, giving him a moment to relax and process his success at making the correct choice. You can repeat these steps, gradually taking things a little further, until he’ll let you hop on and hop back off without moving. After he’s consistently quiet throughout that exercise, you’ll be able to hop on and stay on.
If you asked 10 riders to tell you the proper way to mount a horse, you’d probably hear 10 variations. And to some extent, that’s fine. Different circumstances are likely to dictate slightly different approaches.
But there are still a number of basic habits you should develop so that you can get on your horse in a safe, coordinated manner without hurting him, straining your own back, or torturing your saddle tree. Here are a few key do’s and don’ts of mounting:
• Make sure your saddle fits, is positioned correctly, and isn’t causing your horse any discomfort. If he associates your getting on with pinching, chafing or pain, he isn’t going to want to stand there quietly and wait for it.
• Before you get on, check that your horse is standing squarely on all four feet. If he isn’t, it will be hard for him to maintain his balance and stand still when you start to get on.
• Stand as close to your horse as possible so you can lift yourself straight up. The farther you are from your horse, the more sideways pull you’ll exert when you mount.
• Be careful not to poke your horse with your toes as you lift up onto him. Even if he doesn’t mistake that jab for a cue to move off, he’s likely to move just to get away from the annoyance of it.
• Raise your leg enough to clear your horse’s hindquarters as you swing your leg across.
• Avoid dropping heavily into the saddle. Gently transfer your weight from the stirrup and your hands to your seat.
• Allow the horse to stand for a few minutes after you get on. That way, he won’t think your weight in the saddle is his cue to move forward.
With these pointers in mind, let’s walk through the process of mounting from the left side. (Just remember to practice from the right side, too.)
Standing close to your horse’s left shoulder, take hold of the reins with your left hand. Keep a little slack in them so that you don’t accidentally put pressure on your horse’s mouth. Pulling on the reins when mounting can be an aggravation or distraction-and your horse may think you’re asking him to back up. You may want to anchor your hand by taking hold of some mane along with the reins.
Use your right hand to hold the stirrup as you put your left foot in, and then place your right hand on the saddle horn or pommel of the saddle. You don’t want to put it on the cantle, although some people do. For one thing, that can twist your saddle tree. For another, you’ll be getting in your own way when your leg comes over.
Bounce lightly on your right foot a couple of times and then spring straight up, leaning forward and swinging your leg across as you do. Sit down softly and put your right foot in the stirrup, making sure you don’t kick or jab with that foot as it searches for the stirrup.
Do You Need a Stirrup Extender?
If your horse is tall or you’re short (or you have back or knee problems that make mounting difficult), and you’re tired of constantly having to adjust your stirrup or search for a suitable object to stand on so you can mount, you might want to look into a stirrup extender.
Stirrup extenders attach between your stirrup leathers or fenders and the stirrup (or attach directly to the stirrup) to make it easier to climb into the saddle. A couple of the more prominent products are:
- E-Z Up Stirrup Extender (www.ezup stirrup.com); $89, plus $11 S/H.
- EZ Mount stirrup (available from various tack shops, including www.state linetack.com); $15.99.
Up You Go
Having your horse stand still while you get on may seem like a small request, but it’s not necessarily small in his mind. Depending on his previous experiences, standing still might be more challenging for him than the most athletic maneuver you can imagine. And like any goal, you can accomplish it only if you break down the process into teachable steps that help him see that standing quietly is the right answer.Develop your directional cues so that you can use the move-countermove technique to better control and reposition him. Replace unwanted behavior with something intentional and specific to give him a positive outlet for his energy and help him discover that the best option is to stand still. Work through the 12 steps of the mounting process (even backward, if necessary) so that he learns to handle all the aspects of having you approach him and get on his back. And develop your own safe, polite mounting routine so that he won’t be sorry he’s doing the right thing for you.