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Mounting a Difficult Horse

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By Bonnie J. Hilton  ( Horse Training article copyrighted by Saddle & Bridle Magazine.)

Most equines that are brought along in training slowly and introduced to mounting in methodical stages, don t develop attitudes about being mounted.  Conscientious riders who can mount fluidly from the ground, or use the assistance of a mounting block if they can t, don t produce problems either. The problem equine is usually a product of too little training, rushing the process and less than tactful mounting techniques.

Pulling on the saddle, causing the equine to actually lose its balance, as well as obviously producing some uncomfortable feelings, will make the young equine apprehensive about mounting. As you will note, even older well trained equines will develop issues when mounted in incorrect form. Compound the apprehension with fear of correction when they don t know what they have done wrong, and the equine becomes difficult to mount. They want to get away from the situation somehow, or defend against it. The behavior problems that develop can be either singular in nature or in combination.

The difficult to mount equine may turn to bite, cow kick, attempt to move away; either to the side, forward or back and may try to buck or rear. If we stop to watch, we will see equines walk off during mounting all the time. It should not be allowed. I see horses backed into walls and held by assistants. What if you don t have a wall and don t have an assistant? The deterioration in manners can eventually affect the tacking up procedure as well. Problem behavior will start when the saddle is brought out.

Before retraining begins, there has to be agreement that the final goal is an equine that stands still to be tacked up and mounted, without excessive restraint by the rider or from an assistant. As with most retraining, if you don t have the patience and don t have the time, don t blame the equine.  I ll assume some reader is going to say the reason their horse has become a problem to mount is because they are sour. Another reader is going to use the excuse that they have a mare. So what can be done? As part of the definition of sour the word morose comes up, morose means ill-tempered, gloomy, sullen. Gee, I know a few people like that! They need a vacation, a change of life style, some attention and treats! As for the mare problem, you need to have the exams done. Rule out the physical conditions that can cause the female equine to have issues and then if needed, work with your veterinarian to help your mare, not put her under more stress.

 I thought that if we truly cared for our equines we would put their welfare before ours. It s hard to take an equine from the top bloodline and admit that it isn t show ring material because it would rather be out on a trail or nursing a foal. (Sometimes, after the foal, the mare will be ready for her performance career!) It s hard to admit that what you are calling sour is a horse that would be a lot happier with another owner/rider. The truth is apparent when you allow another person to work with your horse and the problems disappear.

There is one variable that can cause mounting issues to develop that may be illusive to pinpoint in some cases, and that is sore back. If back palpation produces indication of sore back, you have to go to alternative methods of exercise to increase back strength and some form of stretching program to reduce the tension. I have written on this subject in the past and I will assume that if a horse suddenly develops a problem with being mounted, that sore back would be the first place to look. The other place to look is saddle fit and we need to remember that structure is dynamic in nature and it does change a lot during the growth years and during the fitness/training years. Don t assume that your saddle fits from one season to the next as your horse changes structure. When an equine is in fitness training, structure can change in weeks and unfortunately saddles don t change with it unless you make the adjustments. Even the older equine has change going on as the aging process progresses. We have to be more diligent with the older equine to keep them back fit to carry us. As I have written in the past, you must be aware of the fit and functional integrity of the saddle you are using as it pertains to your position and how you are affecting the equines back.

Although I have worked with minor problems in mounting with many equines, I have been involved with only one horse that had most of the above problems, including the rear and buck. It was back in 1987. The same year I purchased Tom Robert s book, HorseControl-The Young Horse.) All the quick fixes had failed, or had contributed to the problems with the gelding, along with several other trainers, who were noted for their riding ability, not their in hand work. Why I ended up with the horse was probably due to the fact that back then I was cheap, I was also available, because I came into the barn with two new boarders who belonged to one of my clients. I also fell for the thoroughbred gelding from the moment I saw him and wanted to work with him. I did not remain his trainer, I was only one in the that for the next several training sessions all I did was put the saddle on, take the saddle off, praise him, give him treats, walk him around, stand him up to stand still and put the saddle on and take the saddle off.

I was working with both a long lead and the shank applied. There was a lot of reprimand. I also worked off both sides and this caused a major explosion at first. He had no idea of how to handle being tacked up on the off side. Please, work the basics from both sides diligently with the youngsters. They need to learn how to balance themselves both ways in the process. Here again, there is absolutely no possible gain in rushing through this stage. Do you want the equine to understand and be comfortable? This horse needed to totally relearn new responses to this procedure. He had to stop tensing his muscles, which caused the discomfort, which caused all the bad behavior.

I wanted him to look forward to being with me, or anyone, and that it was going to be a positive thing, not negative. He was standing to be saddled by the third training session. If the process sounds like the old sacking out method, with just a little revision, it is. Nothing new and extraordinary about it, so don t think that it is. Do your research if you want and debunk the nouveau masters that are touting methods that aren t new, but only modified applications of what the true masters from many of the western disciplines perfected years ago. I did slap the saddle pad on him and he just about jumped out of his skin the first few sessions with that approach. I believe it was with him that I started wearing a baseball cap and I would slap him with that. What a classical training tool! There may be a negative in the photo file of him wearing the hat as well.

Once I had the saddle on without problems I went to longing to get his back in better shape. He had been out of work for about a year when I started with him so I don t think his cringe was due as much to pain as expectation of. I didn t want to start his back under saddle until I knew he could carry me. I used low side reins and I used a ground rail grid of four. If he did have memories of pain and if I wanted him to get over them, I could not in good conscious mount him knowing that he was far from any kind of fitness to be under saddle. He was carrying himself wrong to begin with, so what would he do under saddle? I needed to get the muscles working the correct way before I got on and asked for the same performance while he was carrying my weight as well. The grid at trot would demand that he track up with his hindquarters, that were obviously tagging along behind and lower his neck and head and lift his back.

I used single rail work at first and he did work the rails at walk for the first week and was paying attention to where he put his feet. Full splints all around and front bells. (I think if I had to do this again now, I would have bells on all four. I got away with it then, but I have a youngster in initial under saddle training now and I have him in full bells along with the full splints.) Once he was working the ground rail grid at trot I went to raised cavalletti and started to stress the mounting work.

First on the agenda was the stirrup slide. With an English saddle we slide the stirrup down ever so nicely and adjust, etc., etc. Well, I would take hold of the iron, give it a mighty tug and slap the leather on the saddle several times. We danced all over the place and just like the initial saddling, I did it over and over and over from both sides, but I intertwined it with his regular longe work. I would just stop him, slide a halter over the bridle with shank, stand him up and pull the stirrups down as if I was going to mount.

He wasn t as ugly as his reputation said he would be, but I believe at this stage he knew that I would take his head off if he tried to rear on me or otherwise pull his antics. Plenty of treats, asking him to stand, taking breaks of walk, but going back to the stirrups. This same technique is used with a western saddle but obviously you don t slide the stirrup. You just pick up the complete leather, fender and stirrup and slap in down, it makes a lot of noise and is startling, so be ready for the reaction. (At the present time this technique is being used with the two year old I have in under saddle training. I like a western to start, it is heavier so it helps us start that adjustment and it is sturdier for me to hang off of from both sides. The heavy leathers get slapped on his side, I pull on them as his owner leads him and I have just held on the horn and placed my full weight off both sides without him being alarmed. I am stepping up in the stirrups from both sides from the standstill and have laid over his back. He just waits for me to stop and give him his treats.

 Most horses that have mounting issues with stirrups have never been line driven and have never been desensitized to lines. You may want to step back a few stages and do some single and double line work if you have the expertise and train the horse to become accustomed to the touch of strange things on their body. With this youngster, he was line driven all last year prior to the actual mounting training.)

I have an interesting photograph of the problem gelding being longed with the stirrups down. This is controversial to do since some horse will bolt on you, usually at the canter. Since he had such sensitive sides, I thought I would try to get him over it or he would be of the category for only riders with the most experienced legs. The photograph shows him walking the grid of mixed ground rails and raised cavalletti with the stirrups down. I did eventually work him at trot and at canter with the stirrups down and flailing about on his sides. He did cow kick at the inside stirrup and he did bolt, but he responded to voice and calmed down. He got to the point that he tolerated the flapping stirrups and I was able to ride him eventually and quit my stirrups with them down.

 Words of caution for everyone s safety, if you can t handle the horse, if you have never tested the deep waters out at the end of a full longe at what could be called a strong canter, then don t go there. You may say why not round pen? I ll just say no at this time.

It was either the second or third training session with the stirrup sliding that I started the mounting routine. This is exhaustive work if you don t have the muscle tone and range of motion to be able to do it from both sides with fluidity from the ground. Make absolutely sure the saddle is not going to slip on you, another reason I often opt for western. This horse was over 16h and I was 37 years old with a lot more bounce to the ounce than I have now. Use some common sense for your safety. As I have written before, more accidents happen in mounting and dismounting than we care to admit. We drag ourselves on and crawl off! Not safe.

I simply stepped up into the stirrup with no intention of actually getting on. I was trying to push his buttons and at first he was tense. As I have done in the past, he was wearing a shank and I was holding it along with the reins. You have to change the shank when you change sides. I had shanked across the bit using the cavesson to break the bite. It is a severe position if you have to use it. Only you can make the judgment in training on how dangerous the situation is. I was not going to deal with a rearing or bucking equine. I didn t have to deal with either, he only tried to run off. He had been held by an assistant with the last trainer and I was purposely working alone. Just like all the aforementioned steps, I would step up and down on one side, give him praise and get on the other side and step up and down. He was nervous from the off side, but after the first initial attempts to move off, he stood. After a laborious half hour, during which he had some breaks by longing, I simply mounted and sat there. He didn t know what to think and I didn t know what to expect.

 I treated him from under saddle with neck flexions to both sides, which I think helps let them know they are being good and relieves some tension. Then I got off. Then I got back on and I got on from the off side and just sat on him. On and off, on and off for another 15 minutes with him longing under saddle for break time. His next training session I was up and walking him around the ring. I still got on and got off, I still repeated the steps and it continued each and every training session, but the amount of time spent at it was getting less and less.

 Sometimes when you get off an equine and try to get back on, the problems may show up again. Do they think they are done working? If you never get off and back on, they probably do. I am only making a suggestion for those riders who want to train for better behavior. I get off and get back on often, I work alone, without assistance and I am setting up cones, grids or cleaning up a pile of fresh manure that I don t want to spread in the ring. I may ride for several minutes and get off and work in hand for several minutes and then get back on again. Sometimes I may stay on. Horses need to learn to be led around with you with manners and paying attention. It usually takes time for them to get used to all the interesting stuff going on, but they learn.

Never drop your guard when you start picking up things with a new horse for the first time. It may be all new to them. I drag rails around in one arm while I handle the horse in the other. Sometimes it is nerve wracking to keep your patience as they spook, but keep you reins or lines free of being wrapped around your hand and just stay patient.  Every time you go to get on take your time. Make sure your saddle is secure, check that girth, and be sure of your footing so that you have a foundation to lift off of if you are mounting from the ground.

 In a perfect training world we would work bilaterally at our mounting. I don t work bilaterally in my mounting with all the horses, but I do suggest it to the younger riders who can bounce up with elastic bodies. I m thinking of one in particular who has the body of a gymnast and retrained her mounting problem to stand for the off mount, which she would demonstrate when I came to teach. I got on the near side! If you have to make excuses, use a mounting block and never put yourself in a situation where you may have to get on and off again without one. At some point, without hip surgery, I may be there myself, so I can relate.

I think in conclusion I will remark about another horse, which had developed a mounting problem, that I was called in to work with. The young woman owner got the nice gelding ready to ride, no problem grooming, feet cleaning, tacking up, nothing wrong. She had only owned him for several months. He was supposedly made. I thought he looked it, kind eye, nice muscle. She led him out to the ring and I asked her to show me the mount. She didn t speak to the horse, she didn t prepare him by standing him up square and while she mounted she didn t have rein contact, her toe caught him and as he walked off she landed hard in the saddle. He didn t do anything really bad, he just walked off as she started her mount. I had her get off and come back to me. By the time I had her into her fourth or fifth mount, the quality gelding was standing still and she was looking up and mounting the way she should have been taught to begin with. It was a short training job, but I remember that when I left, the owner could mount without rein contact, the gelding would stand like a rock as she quietly spoke to him to whoa stand and bounced correctly and quietly up into the saddle. Tom Roberts would have been pleased.

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