Who carries your burden, who carries your load
On tumbleweed land or a long dusty road
Who asks you no questions, who tells you no lies
That four legged friend with the two honest eyes
–“A FOUR LEGGED FRIEND”
From the film “Son Of Paleface” (1952)
(Jack Brooks) (sung by Roy Rogers)
You and your horse have worked hard toward the privilege of riding. Give yourself a big pat on the back for having invested many months and countless hours earning respect and establishing a balanced relationship with your horse. Now it’s time to get on!
My last article walked you through some very important final preparations (aside from all the groundwork exercises) to ensure success and safety once you are in the saddle. Click here to read Final Pre-Ride Preparations.
This week we start to build the basics for communication and respect in the saddle. Your horse should be familiar with these skills and maneuvers because you have taught them on the ground already, therefore teaching a cue from the saddle should be an easy transition.
Any advanced maneuver, whether executed on the ground or under saddle, is nothing more than basic skills put together. Therefore it is important to put quality effort into getting the basics just right. Continue to put the same diligent and detailed effort into your mounted exercises as you did with your groundwork and you’ll see big results!
Mounting in Partnership (or, How To Get On Without Your Horse Thinking You’re a Jerk)
Goal: To have your horse stand still and be relaxed while you mount.
This exercise is not designed to re-invent the wheel. This is not about coming up with new-fangled ways of mounting. Rather, mounting in partnership is simply about slowing things down enough to consider the horse.
I can’t tell you how often I see someone heave themselves up by the saddle and haphazardly plop down on the back of the horse, acting as if the horse had no opinion of the process. No wonder some horses learn to walk off – they have come to dread the mounting moment.
Before you attempt to mount, be sure your horse is in partnership with you, your saddle is adequately snug, and your horse is desensitized to the movement of the stirrups against his side. If you are unsure what it means to have your horse in partnership, refer back to “The Privilege of Riding” for a list of suggested criteria.
Instructions: Before you put your foot in the stirrup, help your horse get prepared to receive your weight by grabbing hold of the saddle horn (on a western saddle) or the front of the pommel (on an english) saddle and rock it back and forth. This movement will encourage your horse to arrange his feet in a way that he becomes steadfast and balanced, therefore able to handle your weight without getting thrown off balance.
Once your horse has assumed a good steady stance, you can move on to the next part of mounting in partnership.
It is important that we ask our horse’s permission before mounting. This is one of the key elements that make mounting in partnership different from the traditional “just throw a leg over” mentality.
This is done by standing up in one stirrup long enough to ensure that the horse is giving the go ahead to put your other leg over and settle into the saddle.
When you stand up in the stirrup you will turn slightly so that your body is facing forward. You will also want to lean your upper body weight over the horse’s back slightly to counterbalance yourself, so that your weight self sustains. If you are truly balanced you should not feel like you are grabbing or straining to stay in this position.
Remember the goal is to have the horse stand still and be relaxed, both of which are signs that they are willingly accepting us on their backs.
If your horse walks off at any point in this mounting process, do your best to maintain whatever movement you were doing at the point they decided to leave. Continue that movement until they stand still and relax.
For example, if your horse wanders off when you are about to guide your foot into the stirrup, keep moving the stirrup until your horse stands still and shows a sign of relaxation (lowering of head, sigh, lick and chew, etc.).
If your horse tries to walk off once you are standing in the stirrup, stay in that risen position until your horse can stand still and only then lower yourself back to the ground. Repeat mounting part way up and waiting a handful of times until your horse can consistently stand still. Staying in this position is made easier by shortening the rein on the side you are mounting so that if your horse does walk off the shorter rein will direct them in a circle. A controlled circle is going to feel safer than an uncontrolled straight line.
Never attempt to throw your other leg over a moving horse. Not only is this not safe, but it will cause injury to the relationship. It is one of our duties in horsemanship to keep a watchful eye at all times so that our predator within (and yes, we all have one) does not get so agenda-set that we disregard the horse’s communications.
If your equine partner has not given you permission to mount, it is your job to do the groundwork necessary to get the relationship right so that the horse welcomes you on their back. Do not lose sight that riding is a privilege, not a right, and as such needs to be treated with regard and respect.
Posture and Position in the Saddle (or, Tuck that Butt)
Goal: To be able to allow and enhance the horse’s movements as a rider through proper position in the saddle.
Instructions: A good rider knows how to stay out of the horses’ way – meaning the rider’s balance and body finesse is sound enough that they do not inhibit the horse’s ability to move beneath the rider.
The good news is you are already a pro at sitting in the saddle with correct alignment because the alignment is exactly the same as when you are standing on your own two feet.
The correct body alignment in the saddle reveals a straight line through the ear, shoulder, hip and heel of the rider, just like when standing up.
Position of the Pelvis
The position of the pelvis is also very important to your ability to move in harmony with the horse. When sitting in the saddle, you want your lower back relaxed, so that your pelvis rolls slightly underneath you. This will cause you to sit deep in the saddle, allowing you the greatest balance.
A helpful image in finding this position is to imagine you have a tail. Think about reaching between your legs to grab your tail and pulling upwards. Doing so would cause your tailbone to drop down and your buttocks to roll under you.
A good way to check if your pelvis is in the proper position once you are in the saddle is to reach one hand behind you, laying the palm of your hand flat on your horse’s rump. If you are truly sitting on the deepest, most balanced part of your seat you will find that you can lay your palm flat against the horse’s rump with ease.
Above all, you will find your greatest riding success when you stay loose and relaxed in your own body. Tightness or tension inhibits movement – looseness allows for motion to come through.
Lateral Flexion Under Saddle (or, Bend Around and Say Hi, please…)
Goal: For the horse to softly bend their head and neck around when asked with the rein.
You and your horse should have already practiced this on the ground in the rope halter before attempting it under saddle using a bridle (see “Final Pre-Ride Preparations” for a review of lateral flexion on the ground). You will want to be sure your horse is competent on this exercise before proceeding to doing it from the saddle.
Before we make it any further into the riding exercises, it is important to talk about the appropriate use of the reins. In most cases, the reins are depended upon far too much and are used in a way that confuses communication and hinders movement in the horse.
In both groundwork and riding, we should be communicating with our horse through our body language predominately. Tools and aids may be used (i.e. the halter and leadrope or training stick when doing groundwork, or the rein and leg aids when in the saddle) to enhance our message, but it should be our body language that gives the strongest and clearest message.
With that said, the reins should be used as merely an aid through which we support the communication from our body when riding. Therefore as you learn to ride as a partner to your horse I will be asking you to use your reins in a way that may be new to you. It is important that you commit to this way of riding for a while as it is what will get you to be the kind of rider your horse desires to carry.
From hear on out you will hear me use the phrase ‘riding on a loose rein.” What that describes is holding the reins with just one hand directly in the center of the rein.
Riding on a loose rein promotes relaxation throughout the rider’s body and encourages a balanced and independent seat as well. It is also a safer position to ride as it is easier to gain control of the horse in the event of an “Oh, no!” situation (more on this next week when you learn the emergency stop).
For you English riders, do not write off riding on a loose rein as a Western style of riding only. In fact, I believe that one of the biggest mistakes made in the English riding world is allowing the rider to have contact with the horses mouth, before developing balance and fluidity in their own body.
Learning to maintain balance and enable communication on a loose rein will greatly benefit Western and English riders alike. And will make the transition of riding with contact and collection a much easier and more pleasant experience for you both.
Instructions: To ask your horse to flex laterally, begin by holding the reins in a loose rein position. Lift the hand you are holding the reins with straight up in the air. This will take the slack out of the reins. Slide your other hand down one rein as far as it can comfortably go and begin closing your hand one finger at a time. Putting the pressure on progressively like this will teach your horse to respond to the lightest request possible.
Once you have hold of the rein, keep holding it as you pull your hand out and around until it rests on your thigh. This will encourage the horse to bring their nose around. With your hand firmly planted on your thigh, just wait until your horse softens their nose toward your foot. Once the horse brings his nose to your foot, release the rein, allowing the horse to have their head and neck back.
When a horse is learning to mentally and physically yield their head and neck, it is not uncommon for them to pull against the rein or move their feet in a circle as they search for the right answer. Do not take any more slack out of the rein, just wait with your hand steady against your leg until they tuck their nose down and in toward your foot. Only then should you release the rein.
Be sure to practice this on both sides. You will likely find that your horse is stiffer on one side than on the other. If so, flex them to their stiffer side twice as much as on their good side, to help your horse develop equality.
Learning how to stand still while being mounted and also during lateral flexion are very important skills for a 1,000 pound flight animal to learn. Now that you know the importance of standing still, next time we’ll move on to movin’ on.
About the author: Emily Johnson, owner of Mountain Rose Horsemanship Training, LLC, located in Broomfield, Colorado, is an accomplished horse professional with a passion for bringing horses and humans together through credible and approachable instruction.
Emily studied Equine Science at Colorado State University before spending the following years traveling, mentoring under many accomplished trainers nationwide, as she developed her own natural horsemanship style. Her training methods utilize a direct approach the horse naturally understands, which she combines with her knowledge of human learning to create the most effective environment for both.
Emily specializes in areas that include young or troubled horses, as well as horsemanship that emphasize the mind and behavior of the horse. Her instruction reflects her passion for equipping both horses and humans for success on their journey toward partnership. She may be contacted at [email protected]