Mounting – the bridge between groundwork and ridden work

By Lizzie Hopkinson

Mounting is essentially the bridge between your groundwork and your ridden work. In one sense, mounting, and the process of it, sets up the interaction between the horse and rider. The moment that the rider gets on the horse, gives the horse a series of messages. If the rider is crashing down on the horse’s back, snatching at the reins, the horse has already learnt so much about their rider. If the rider is gently sitting down, using their core to engage their own muscles as they sit, quietly holding the reins, reassuring the horse, the relationship has already got off to a better start.

We tend to spend time practising the same movements when we ride our horses. How many times did you ride a 20-metre circle the last time that you schooled? And how many times did you practise getting on? I think we can confidently assume that you rode more 20-metre circles! Yet mounting is probably more important than the ability to ride a 20-metre circle. The process of mounting is one where the rider and horse can be unbalanced, and the probability of accidents is greater at this point. So, spending time practising this will pay off in the long run.

Anyone who hacks out needs to be able to confident mount their horse in a variety of different locations. Even if you think that you never get off out hacking, you never know what will happen. You might meet an obstacle that is safer to pass on foot rather than ridden. Your horse may get a stone stuck in his hoof. You may meet a fallen tree, or an accident. Whatever the cause you may be forced to dismount. I recently met a jockey walking with his racehorse in a forest, he had dismounted to extract a stone from his horse’s hoof and couldn’t get back on. I gave him a leg-up, he gave me a tip for the 3.30 at Newbury. Knowing that you will be confidently able to get back on, will save you a long walk home! Just make sure you spend some time finding a safe place to remount.

When you work on your mounting practice at home you can spend time teaching your horse to stand by different obstacles, or if you have a moveable mounting block, spend some time moving it round the yard to different locations, so that your horse isn’t only used to being mounted in the same place.

Anyone who is even the slightest bit nervous, is always reassured by mounting a quiet well-mannered horse. Setting the tone for your forthcoming ride, seems to me, to be vital for building a good relationship with our horses. A horse that stands quietly and waits till you have collected yourself before you move off together, will give you the opportunity to have a good ride. Optimise your riding experience by putting the time into teaching your horse to stand properly – you won’t regret it.

Don’t miss out on more great articles, sign up to our newsletter today!

Photo by Vincent Botta on Unsplash

How not to mount your horse!

“When she went to get back down onto the mounting block her foot slipped, and both the mounting block and Mary ended up underneath Apple!  Apple freaked, took off, and trampled Mary on his way!  Now both horse and rider are petrified and Mary hasn’t been able to get back on – what on earth are we going to do?!”

What we did was break the end goal down into small, achievable steps.  First of all, we taught Apple to move forwards, backwards, sideways, and around, when asked.  Next we asked him to stand by the mounting block, with no one on the block.  When he did this for a few seconds, I led him away – remember it’s the release that teaches the horse that he’s done the right thing.  
We progressed to having someone standing on the mounting block, and asking him to stand.  Initially he chose to stand on the wrong side of the block – that’s fine, it’s still standing.  Gradually we asked him to stand another side of the block, and then another.  I kept rewarding him by leading him away from the block when he’s got it right for a few seconds, but only stroked and talked to him when he was standing by the block.  The release of leading him away lets him know he’s done the right thing, but the stroking and gentle murmuring when he’s by the block lets him know that’s the safe and comfortable place to be.
Finally, we employed the ‘moving over’ work that we taught him earlier.  I used a schooling stick as an extension of my arm (because I don’t have Go-Go-Gadget arms!) to touch the far side of his quarters and ask him to move them towards me, whilst I was standing on the mounting block.  Initially he found this difficult to understand, but as always, the key is in releasing the very instant he responds, as quickly as I would if I touched a burning hot oven.
Because Mary was so nervous, I did the majority of the initial work myself.  This meant that Apple could learn more quickly, because my experience made my timing and application more accurate than Mary’s would have been.  I talked Mary through the whole process, and once Apple understood, then Mary was easily able to replicate it.
Within 30 minutes, Mary had got on and off Apple at least 20 times, and I set her homework for the next few days of mounting at least 50 times each day.  A couple of days later I had a report back “Apple has been really good to get on.  He’s presenting himself to the block and moving away from the stick if he’s too far away and I need to straighten him up.  He hasn’t moved a foot on any of the numerous times I’ve got on him.  I feel so much more confident now – thank you!”

Time

If there’s one training tool that’s more effective than any other in the horse world, I think it would have to be ‘time’. So many people are looking for quick fixes, and in some cases this is necessary (for example where the horse is dangerous, or where the horse has to be loaded to get to the vets). But in most cases, it seems to me that the investment in time is actually why we have horses in our lives in the first place.

I guess the difficulty is that the time needs to be spent in the right way, or at least not in the wrong way. Often people need to see that the results can be achieved before they’re willing to invest the time, and potentially the learning that they themselves will need to undergo in order to achieve the results they are looking for.
The horse who has prompted this post is a cob mare, Pixi. She stands about 14.2hh, dark chestnut, and she’s a young mare (I can’t remember exactly how old, I think 5 or 6). Her owner Mel called me initially to help with picking her feet up. I think its fair to say that Mel was a bit sceptical about what help I could offer, £70 was a lot of money to spend on a training session that potentially could give no results at all. But luckily I had been recommended to Mel by Dori’s owner (those of you who read my newsletter may remember Dori’s story, and I’ll post it up as a blog sometime soon). Dori had been an exceptionally difficult case, and maybe Mel thought that if I’d been able to help her then there was a chance I could help Pixi.
Pixi was rescued by Mel, I believe because she was too much for her owners to handle. She was actually booked in for slaughter when Mel came across her and fell in love with her. 
I asked Mel the usual questions, especially in relation to feet handling, and she showed me Pixi’s reaction to Mel asking her to pick up her foot. Mel couldn’t get her hand much lower than Pixi’s elbow before Pixi snatched her foot away and darted to the other side of the stable, as far away as she could get. It turned out that Pixi had never, as far as Mel knew, let anyone pick her feet up without sedation. Mel had owned her for 9 months and had not been able to get any further forward.
I worked with Pixi for nearly 2hrs that first session, and at the end she was willingly and relatively calmly giving me her left fore. I didn’t even start working on any if the other feet. At the time I was quite heavily pregnant, so you can imagine I was exhausted! Because of the pregnancy, I had to tell Mel that I wouldn’t be able to do any more sessions myself, and there were no other Intelligent Horsemanship Recommended Associates locally. So Mel got to work learning from what she had seen, and she put in the time and the understanding that was needed. A couple of weeks later I got a message to say that now she could pick up both front feet – what an achievement on both their parts, and what a relief for Mel, and probably for Pixi as well!
Over a much longer period of time Mel worked with the back feet as well, and eventually came the day when she messaged me to say that the farrier had been able to trim all Pixi’s feet 🙂
On from there, and Mel sent Pixi to a local yard for a few weeks for starting. When she came home, Mel was able to long line her comfortably around the yard, and she was pleased with how her pony had come on. She’d seen her ridden while she was away at the yard for schooling, but when Mel tried to get on Pixi at home things did not go at all smoothly. Pixi seemed petrified, and took off like a rocket before the rider could get in the saddle. This happened more than once, and Mel knew she was stuck again. She called me for more help.
It was great to see Pixi again, and to see how far she’d come with her feet. Mel was happy for me to do some physio checks so that I could ascertain to the best of my knowledge that there was no physical reason why Pixi should bolt off as soon as she felt the weight of the rider on her back. Although Pixi holds a lot of tension, I am as confident as I can be that this does not affect her in relation to carrying the weight of a rider. Most of her tension is through her poll, which although it will probably contribute to her general spooky demeanour and could potentially be affected by the bridle or by the riders hands contacting the mouth through the reins for example, it is unlikely to be affected by the weight of the rider on her back. The tension does need to be relieved, as I believe that it is related to her extremely heightened flight response, and each time she gets frightened or takes flight the tension in her poll will increase. So the tension triggers the flight response, and vice versa. In my opinion this is best approached by dealing with the behavioural symptoms alongside the physical symptoms, as one is not easily resolved without the other. Mel allowed me to do some Physio treatment, and I gave her some exercises to be continuing with long term.
In relation to the mounting issue though, in my opinion Pixi was nowhere near ready to accept a rider. If you walked up to her a little too fast, or moved a little too sharply, she was away from you as fast and as far as she could go.
I explained this to Mel, and again showed her how to help Pixi through this, then left her to it. I warned her that I expected the work to take months rather than weeks because of the severity of Pixi’s reactions, and Mel accepted this and got to work. I called in a month or so later just to see how they were doing, and was pleased to see some improvement already, but there was a long way to go.
Four months later, Monty Roberts was doing a demonstration not far from where Pixi is stabled, and Mel decided to give the Intelligent Horsemanship team a call to ask if they thought Pixi was suitable for the demo. Ultimately the answer was yes, and Monty worked hard to help Pixi overcome her flight response and accept a human being on her back. The demonstration was so powerful that it’ll be on Monty’s Online University for everyone to be able to learn from. At the end of the 45 minute session, Pixi stood, with no one holding her, while Jake vaulted onto her back, then tentatively walked a few steps.
Going back to the theme of this blog, I’m not sure any of the audience that day quite understood how much time doing the right thing Mel had spent with Pixi for her to be at the stage she was at the beginning of the demo. Monty proved in a short space of time that the desired results can be achieved, but he made sure Mel understood this wasn’t a ‘quick fix’. She still has a lot more work to do, and I think Pixi is very lucky to have found an owner who is willing to put in the time it takes.