There’s nothing more annoying (and unsafe) than a horse that won’t stand still for mounting. Once you step in the stirrup and start to swing your leg over the horse’s back, you are in a vulnerable position. Horses that wander a few steps will stretch your legs unnaturally, but there’s a chance for landing in the dirt if a horse begins to bolt or buck.
Learning to stand is a fundamental part of the training process. Seasoned horses should know better, but it’s often this group that are the worst offenders, says Kevin Oliver, an AQHA Professional Horseman.
“One of the biggest reasons a horse won’t stand still when you go to step up on him is because a lot of people aren’t mounting correctly,” he says. “A lot of people reach back and grab the cantle. When you do that it actually torques the saddle on the horse’s spine and it will make them walk off to get away from the discomfort.”
Getting on and off properly is often seen as secondary to riding, but Oliver emphasizes the importance of starting every session by mounting correctly and teaching the horse to stand. Here he offers five tips for success.
Every horse, even experienced, aged horses, should be mounted as if they were a young colt, according to Oliver. This teaches consistency and puts you, the rider, in a safe position. Western riders who mount from the ground should stand just behind the horse’s left shoulder. Riders should hold the reins in their left hand and place it on the horse’s mane. The right hand is used to grab the pommel.
“When I place my foot in the stirrup, I stand straight up with all my weight on that foot,” he explains. “I grab the horn with my right hand and hop once or twice on my right foot before throwing my leg over.”
A rider’s age, natural flexibility, or an injury can limit their range of motion making it difficult to smoothly swing a leg over from the ground. Saddles with high cantles make it more challenging. Oliver admits that after years of training, he has noticed his legs don’t separate the way they used to.
“I get on a treadmill and slowly walk sideways with big steps,” he said. “That helps a lot.”
The same position applies to mounting from the ground or a block. English riders should also place their right hand on the pommel to avoid twisting the horse’s spine. It’s easy to take for granted the importance of practicing mounting, but it is fundamental to safely enjoying the sport.
Sometimes horses struggle to stand still because they have too much energy. Young, high strung horses or those that are stalled may need to exercise before they can focus on staying still. For these horses, Oliver recommends working them in a round pen or on a lunge line.
“My mind is geared towards counting things. I've got it down so that when a horse goes 25 times around my 60-foot round pen in both directions it is usually enough to zap their energy,” he says. “But you have to get to know your horse. If they still can’t stand without wiggling around, they might need more.”
Horses are built for trotting, Oliver explains. To really burn off energy they need to lope for the pre-ride workout to be effective. He adds that horses are inherently lazy and want to find the option that requires the least work. When a horse doesn’t want to stand, Oliver asks them to circle around him four, five or six times. Stopping is the reward, and the “easy” answer.
“I always tip their nose into me before mounting so that if I do have to circle them they are coming towards me rather than moving away, which can put me in a bad position and teach them they can get away,” he notes.
If the circling drill must be repeated more than a handful of times, it may be that the horse needs more time in the round pen or on the lunge line before they’re ready to work.
Introducing the mounting block
For some riders the mounting block is a necessity. And a horse should be as patient next to a block as if the rider were mounting from the ground.
Oliver has observed most riders lead their horse to the block. He suggests the opposite, bringing the block to the horse. If the horse steps away, he instructs riders to pick the block up and set it next to the horse. Horses may take a step towards the block, which Oliver doesn’t mind because he says it’s the safest movement a horse can make. However, if the horse moves forward or steps away, he makes them circle around him as he would if mounting from the ground. And if after a few tries, the horse still moves, it may be necessary to expend more energy on the lunge line.
If your horse has a problem with the block, you need to work on desensitizing them. Placing the block inside the round pen or in the arena where the horse is lunged allows them to get used to its presence. “Then I pick it up and see what kind of reaction I have out of them,” he says. “If their ears perk and act like they want to leave that area, they haven’t spent enough energy and I make them work a bit more. If they just sigh or are interested in sniffing it, I let them investigate.”
Don’t skip the small stuff
Riders often take for granted the way their horse behaves during the mounting process is as important as working on maneuvers under saddle. Practicing correct mounting techniques protects the horse’s back, and teaching the horse to stand teaches focus, which carries into all aspects of riding.