Good riding begins from the ground up, but sometimes, it’s getting off the ground and into the saddle that challenges our horsemanship most. Teaching a horse to stand quietly as you climb into the saddle is a problem for many riders. The additional thought of asking a horse to quietly walk up to a mounting block and present himself in perfect mounting position is beyond the expectations of many. The truth is that this simple request should be one of the basic questions your horse gladly answers before every ride.
In previous articles with trainer and clinician Josh Nichol, you learned how to perfect the communication between yourself and your horse. This new series will focus on bringing that new understanding into the saddle. Nichol will delve into some of the tasks and manoeuvres commonly asked of horses that even seasoned riders often struggle with.
We will begin by demystifying the mechanics of teaching a horse to willingly stand for mounting. After all, starting off a ride in a positive way sets the two of you up for success.
Factors to Recognize
Just as you may be able to recall a series of negative experiences while trying to climb into the saddle, your horse may have some concerns of his own.
When mounting from the ground, a rider can exert up to twice his weight into the stirrups. When this happens, the saddle typically shifts and places a great deal of stress on the horse’s spine. The mechanics of mounting also have the potential to throw a horse off balance, putting him at a clear disadvantage when it comes to standing still.
Add to that a horse’s deeply rooted flight instinct and it’s easy to see why mounting can quickly escalate into a disastrous experience.
“It is very common for a horse and rider to struggle with the exercise of mounting,” said Nichol. “The secret behind it all is to teach a horse to think into pressure rather than to flee.”
Softening Under Pressure from the Ground
In order to set your horse up for success, teach him how to soften to every request. “When a horse becomes anxious in his mind, his body will automatically begin to show signs of tension,” explained Nichol. “The last thing any rider wants is to get on a horse that is tense and unable to move freely.”
“I always start every exercise by making certain that my horse is focused on what I am asking and is able to move softly forward.”
Other than a rope halter and a 12-foot lead rope, Nichol likes to use a flag – a plastic bag attached to a stick such as a medium-length crop – when working through a series of ground exercises.
To prepare for work at the mounting block, grab the lead rope with your right hand and hold the flag with your left. Gently shake your flag and observe your horse’s response. His head should not rise and his neck and shoulders should not tighten.
If you observe any of these reactions, continue gently shaking your flag and ask your horse to softly lower his head. Meanwhile, maintain constant pressure on the lead rope with your right hand and look for a slight increase in the slack you feel through the line to confirm that your horse is indeed relaxing. (See ‘Understanding Resistance and Training Difficulties’ in the November/December 2010 issue for a detailed explanation of what this should feel like.)
“In order to encourage your horse to let go of his anxiety, you must guide him by releasing your the moment you feel him try to release some of the tension in his mind, which will be noticeable when you see him soften his head,” said Nichol. “As soon as you witness this type of try, release and let your horse reflect on that for a moment. You will find that before long, your horse will understand that pressure is an opportunity to think about what you are asking rather than something that instils fear and makes him want to move away.”
Once you are able to move your flag without any change in your horse’s demeanour, gradually increase the energy with which you are shaking your flag until your horse remains completely undisturbed.
Some would consider this technique to be a method of desensitizing your horse. “I disagree,” said Nichol. “This method does not encourage a horse to shut down in the face of pressure, but rather to soften through the lead rope as he continues to look to his rider for guidance. If the rider is shaking the flag, but doesn’t seem concerned by the flapping of the plastic, then neither should the horse.”
Preparing for the Mounting Block
“Before starting the mounting block exercise, I always recommend that a rider take the time to verify that the horse can remain soft while pressure is being applied on either side as well as over top of him,” clarified Nichol. “Since the goal is to ride, you definitely want to make sure your horse is comfortable with pressure originating from all directions.”
Take the time to practice shaking your flag above your horse’s head and around his entire body. Try not to release your pressure or your connection to the lead rope until you feel a softer give through it. If you do, you will simply be training your horse to become tense and resistant.
Once all of these steps become easy, step towards your horse’s hindquarters with the expectation that he will move his hind legs away from you. Use your flag as you step in and expect that you may also have to tap your horse’s hip with it.
“The majority of horses will need to be touched on the hindquarters with the flag before they understand that they must step away from the pressure when that is the intention,” said Nichol. “For safety’s sake, it’s also important to test a horse’s response to increased pressure like a gentle tap, before stepping onto a mounting block or into a saddle.”
“If the horse struggles with an increase in pressure by kicking out or pinning his ears, for example, then the rider’s job is to continue adding the same pressure until the horse relaxes and softly lowers his head once again.”
Even if your horse is sensitive to your body language and is immediately willing to move his hindquarters away, it is helpful to help create an association between the flag and his stepping the hindquarters away. “If you can simplify the meaning of things from the ground then you are already one step ahead when you proceed to the mounting block,” explained Nichol.
The Mechanics of the Mounting Block Exercise
If you’ve struggled with getting your horse to stand still for mounting, or if he has expressed an unwillingness to approach a mounting block in the past, the idea to get him to position himself perfectly as you tap your leg or give a little cluck might seem improbable at best. According to Nichol, once you and your horse become proficient at this exercise, you will wonder how mounting was ever an issue.
The goal of this exercise is to walk past the mounting block and have your horse pivot towards it so that the middle of his barrel lines up with you.
You will use the same pressure as you did on the ground to help your horse decide that he should softly move his body into the mounting block and wait for you to position yourself in the saddle.
To increase your odds of succeeding, begin by placing the mounting block close to a wall or fence. This barrier will help your horse understand that he should not pivot further than 180 degrees from the mounting block.
Once your mounting block is in place, draw a line that leads from one of its edges into the arena. This line will become the point of departure for the exercise and will be the visual marker that your horse should pivot his front legs around.
Position yourself closest to the rail with your horse on the other side of you. Hold your flag in the hand that is closest to the rail and lead your horse with the other. Walk towards the line you have drawn in front of the mounting block and as always, ensure that your horse does not take a single step into your personal space.
“As soon as you feel your horse crowding you, stop and immediately back him out of your space,” said Nichol. “This principle applies to every step you ever take with your horse, but is especially key when you are about to make yourself slightly more vulnerable on the mounting block.”
“You also have to remember to always continue hunting for softness through the lead rope as you walk forward,” said Nichol. “None of these principles ever change, the only difference is that we are about to ask a more sophisticated question.”
Once you have arrived at the line, stop and continue to make sure your horse is staying out of your personal space.
Now, step onto the mounting block. Take the hand that is holding the flag and raise it over your horse’s back and next to the hip that is furthest from you. Shake your flag gently and continue doing so until your horse makes an effort to move his hindquarters towards you. If your horse struggles and does not understand your question, gently tap him on the hip just as you did while on the ground. Once again, release your pressure as soon as feel the slightest try.
“A horse may succeed within moments or may require some time to process what you are asking,” said Nichol. “The key is to stay focused and relaxed while your horse thinks through the pressure and arrives at the correct answer.” “That said, if at any time your horse begins to crowd you or becomes either worried or unresponsive, return to the ground and try again from there.”
If your horse succeeds in understanding that you would like him to move his hindquarters closer to the mounting block, continue to reward him by releasing your pressure with every step closer to the mounting block. As this happens, his body will eventually become parallel to the mounting block.
Once your horse has put himself into the correct position, praise him and give him a few moments to process what he has just learned. Now, lead him away from the mounting block, turn around and start again. Once the two of you develop a better understanding of this exercise and begin to flow through it, you can move on.
“Once this becomes easy, the next step is to keep your flag next to you and gently shake it as you simply think and intend for your horse to step in towards the mounting block without having to reach over his hindquarters,” said Nichol. “If your horse struggles and cannot understand the new question, then do reach over him as you continue to shake the flag. Once again, you may need to touch his hip if shaking the flag does not produce quite enough pressure.”
“Your horse will likely understand what you were asking as you’ve already invested the time to make that clear. As he steps towards the mounting block, release your pressure as always.”
As you consistently shake the flag next to you while intending to draw your horse closer, he will begin to understand that the way to eliminate the pressure is to move in towards you. “This is a tremendously important lesson,” said Nichol. “What you are training is an ability to have your horse actively think when there is pressure rather than submit to his instinct to flee first and think later.”
Once this lesson becomes easy, replace the shaking of your flag for a tapping of your leg or whatever signal you would like to use. The exercise remains the same. The rewards, however, are endless.