Laura Phelps-Bell has over 25 years experience in the equine industry as a trainer and instructor. Her background includes successfully competing in dressage, on the “A” Open circuit in hunter/jumpers, showing in many western events, management of several large training/boarding facilities and teaching equine management courses at the college level. More about Laura
Hi Laura, I have a nine-year-old gelding, mostly used for trail riding. I have only had him for about one year. My problem is that when I start to mount, he moves out. He stands until I put one foot in the stirrup, but moves out before I am in the saddle. I have tried stopping and backing him, but it does not seem to help. What do you suggest?
Hi, There are actually several courses of action that you can take to teach your horse to stand while being mounted. I will go over the methods that I use and that I think might work best for you.
First, make sure that your horse does not have any soreness issues. Some horses walk-off (or run-off) while being mounted because they are sore in the back. As the rider puts a foot in the stirrup and then begins to mount, the saddle actually gets pulled over to the side from the weight of the rider as they mount. This can displace the saddle over to the side and pull the horse laterally on their spine. For many horses, this is not an issue at all, but for some, it is highly painful, so they walk away as the rider is trying to mount to avoid the pain. For many young horses, I actually teach them to stand next to a mounting block or a fence so that my student can mount without pulling the saddle over and pulling on their horse’s spine. A second reason that horses may be sore is because of an improperly fitting saddle. Take a close look at your saddle and make sure that it isn’t falling on and pressing down on your horse’s withers when you are mounted. That would indicate that the tree is too wide for your horse. A saddle that presses on the horses withers can lead to a very sore back and can also lead to what is called “fistula withers”, a very serious condition that can take months to heal. Many problems can also arise if a saddle is too narrow. If a saddle is “perching” on the horse, the bars of the saddle may actually be pinching in on either side of their spine, causing pain or discomfort. A tree that is too narrow will also prevent the saddle from resting more stationary on the horses back and it will be constantly moving and shifting, creating a load that can be uncomfortable for the horse to carry. A third reason that horses won’t stand for mounting is because as the rider goes to sit down into the saddle, some riders drop like a rock into the saddle. This is highly uncomfortable for the horse and can actually lead to a bruised back or kidneys because of the weight of the rider dropping hard onto their back. The horse will learn to anticipate the coming discomfort or pain, so they walk away while being mounted to avoid the pain that they know is coming. A considerate rider learns to mount properly and sits down softly into the seat of the saddle and onto the horse’s back. Many problems can be solved just by examining how we are doing things and correcting things that we may be doing wrong and then what we thought was an issue disappears because the horse is no longer uncomfortable or in pain.
If you’ve gone over all of the above points that I have brought up and find that there is nothing that could be causing discomfort or pain to your horse, then let’s begin to teach your horse to stand still while he is mounted. Very often, not standing while being mounted is an evasion, even when not an evasion caused by pain or the anticipation of pain. Your horse may just have an “I’d rather not” attitude toward riding so he tries to keep you from riding by walking away. Maybe your horse actually likes to go riding and just wants to go. Or maybe your horse is just working on his positioning in your “herd-of-two” and he wants to see how you will handle his challenge to you. So, if it’s any of the above, what we can do is implement positive reinforcement when he responds positively (stands still) and negative reinforcement when he responds negatively (walks away). Depending on how coordinated you are when you mount, you can either work on this solo, or you may want to enlist a ground support person to help you initially. I normally will start off by just taking the slack out of the reins evenly and establishing light contact with my hand to my horse’s mouth. If I can teach the horse to stand quiet as I get on with even rein contact and not have to manipulate their head to the right or the left with a shorter rein or by exerting pressure on the reins, that is the best way to do it. My eventual goal is to be able to get on without even having to establish contact with the reins at all. I should be able to ask my horse to stand and they should be willing to do that without me “holding” or even touching their mouth. However, since we are training step-by-step, we will just begin by taking the slack from the reins evenly to encourage the horse to stand with light contact. I don’t teach my riders to completely face the rear of the horse and hop around to mount because I feel that it’s more comfortable for the horse if the rider faces the horse’s side about even with the girth/horses elbow area. The rider will place their foot in the stirrup with their toe up against the cinch or girth so it doesn’t jab the horse in the side and then does two small hops and smoothly puts their leg over and sits down softly using their thigh muscles to control their descent into the saddle. Sometimes, when a person faces the rear of the horse and hops all the way around to mount in a semi-circle, their toe will slip off the cinch or girth and accidentally jab the horse repeatedly in the side, causing them to walk-off or to jump away. The rider also has more distance to travel in order to get to their mounting point and may lose momentum and be unable to get up into the saddle. The rider should also take a handful of mane, along with their reins, in their left hand and not mount by pulling on the horn. Many people don’t realize that horses don’t have the nerve endings in their neck where their mane comes out as humans do with their scalp. You can take a handful of mane and pull on it and it doesn’t bother most horses at all. By mounting using a handful of mane, there will be less displacement of the saddle so that 1.) The saddle won’t slip and be pulled all the way over to the horse’s side, especially if you have a horse with low-or mutton-withers which may prevent you from ever being able to tighten the cinch sufficiently to keep the saddle from rolling and 2.) There will not be as much pull across the horse’s spine laterally which might cause the horse discomfort, or outright pain.
So now, you’re all set and ready to mount with a foot in the stirrup. You have the reins gathered up evenly in one hand along with a handful of mane. You’ve said “whoa” and cautioned the horse to stand. As you begin to take your first hop-step, if your horse begins to walk-off, stop trying to mount and now back your horse up, move them sideways by tapping them in the side, back them in a circle, etc. Once you have done the negative of vigorously moving them around, then lead them forward to your starting point and begin again. Reins in left hand along with a handful of mane, foot in the stirrup and take one hop-step. At the precise moment that your horse finally does stand for this, one hop-step, you will utilize what I call “modified” clicker training. You will immediately “mark” the horses good behavior (standing) with the word “good”, remove your foot from the stirrup and then you will positively reward him with a treat of a little grain or carrot slice (which I carry in a small fanny pack worn in front). Now you are putting your gelding in a position of making choices in regard to how he wishes to feel and dealing with the negatives or positives that occur when he moves while being mounted or when he stands instead. On the one hand, when he goes to walk-off, you negatively reinforced his incorrect behavior by vigorously backing him and moving him sideways or backing him in a circle. When he responded correctly by standing, you positively reinforced him with praise and a treat. Usually, after a very short period of time, your horse will stand find for the first hop-step and you will go another step using the same system of negative or positive reinforcement depending on what choice your horse makes as you progress. The progression through the steps, and whether he receives positive or negative reinforcement, is entirely up to your horse. Once you have gotten to the point of doing the actual full mounting of your horse with him standing quietly, you can reward your horse from the saddle by leaning over and having him curl his neck around for the treat. Or, if praising and rewarding is a maneuver that you are having trouble coordinating with trying to mount, this is when you can have a ground support person stand at your horses head for the express purpose of offering the reward after you “mark” the behavior with the word “good” and praise. When your horse is put in the position of making choices that directly impact his own comfort-zone, he will more then likely choose the positive of being praised and rewarded rather then the negative of being made uncomfortable by being vigorously moved around. If you don’t prefer to use food treats as rewards, you can locate your horse’s favorite “scratchy” spot and give him a nice scratch instead. Once this correct behavior is conditioned onto your horse’s brain, you will find that you will be able to phase out the reward and just praise. Finally, you will not always have to praise and reward at all for a behavior that your horse is trained for, although I do praise the horses that I train quite often. I do it with my human students too and it really works very well from a teaching/learning standpoint.
If you have used the above method and your horse is still making the incorrect choice in regard to standing still for mounting, then you can “turn-up-the-heat” a bit and make it more worth his while to stand for being mounted. The way that I would do this is by doing everything exactly the same in preparation for mounting with the difference being that if your horse tries to walk-off, I’d give him a “bump” in the mouth by giving a short tug on the reins with my rein hand and then go into the backing-up, moving sideways, backing in a circle, etc. What you are doing is making the negative of him walking-off a little bit more negative and you will be “suggesting” a little more strongly that he may want to consider standing still and getting praise and rewards instead. Your response will escalate, or not, in direct relation to your horses response, or lack of response.
Another technique that I see used quite often is shortening the left rein when preparing to mount with the reasoning being that if the horse walks-off, he’ll find himself walking in a tight left-hand circle. One of the problems with this approach is that by taking a shorter left rein, it may actually cause the horse to move their body to the right, away from the handler. When a horse has their head turned to the left, it will cause their balance to shift to the right, causing the horse to move that direction if they begin to walk. The rider will now have to hop in either a tight circle, or hop in a larger circle trying to keep up with their horse as they are circling on the outside track. From the standpoint of shortening one rein or the other, it would be more practical to shorten the right rein so that if the horse starts to walk-off, their body will move toward you, making it easier to step-up into the saddle. However, the problem with this approach is that the horse might bump into you, knocking you down and perhaps stepping on you. Actually, I don’t use either of these methods because I feel that neither approach promotes relaxation of the horse, or harmony between horse and human. Both of these methods instead encourage restraining the horse by pressure on the horse’s mouth and do not cause the horse to make decisions based on the negatives and positives which occur because of their own decisions.
Sure, if you absolutely need or want to get on your horse right now and don’t have the time or the inclination to train the horse, then a method based on restraint could be used and will probably work. However, I prefer to train based on positives and negatives, praise and reward and having the horse make decisions that directly impact their comfort-level.
The other issue to consider, and I believe that many skillful trainers/instructors forget this, is that some people are more coordinated, skillful or agile then others. It is not practical or fair for me to train/teach from my position of being a skillful, educated trainer/rider for 25+ years and expect that everyone can do what I can. It doesn’t matter what I can do, what matters is what someone who is less skillful, educated or agile can accomplish in their situation. For some people, hopping around on their left leg as their horse is turning circles right or left is either too darn difficult, or just plain impossible because of physical limitations or a different coordination level. I try to teach in a way that will make my advice easier to implement for a wider array of people who have different skill levels; physical coordination and who are all different shapes and sizes.
If we train from a position of using common sense, psychology and our intellect, training usually will proceed much more smoothly. Although it usually takes longer to train/teach this way, I believe that it is a much better choice then getting into a power-struggle or strength-battle with our horse.