As our last article addressed the very important topic of safely and properly tacking your horse prior to the ride, we can now move on to stepping up in the saddle.
This advice is written for those who have maybe taken a break from riding, those who are just getting started, or riders who may be doing great on the ground and tacking up, but possibly face a few challenges with the initial mount and ride procedure. If you’re already the world’s foremost authority, there’s probably no point to you reading this.
Once your horse is groomed, properly and securely tacked, and you’re ready to get in the saddle, it may be a good idea to clip on a 12’ - 22’ lunge line and ask your horse to move around a little. If there are any bucks or silliness left in the horse, it’s nice to get those out before you’re on his back.
Okay, so your tack is in place, your horse is going well on the lunge line and looks like something you’ll enjoy riding. Now it’s time to climb aboard. Whether you mount from the ground or prefer to use a mounting block, you’ll first want to make sure that your horse will stand still as you step up into the stirrups. We’d like to point out that, not only is a safe and sturdy mounting block a great help for riders who are short(ish) or older, as well as those riding in English or Dressage tack; it can also drastically reduce the strain to any horse’s back.
What if your horse will not stand still when you try to mount? The horse typically has a very good reason for any perceived “misbehavior” or argument. The number one cause of fidgeting or lack of cooperation is an ill-fitting saddle. If every time a person puts weight on the horse’s back it creates pain, the horse will naturally protest the act of being mounted. Check your saddle fit.
If you’ve tested and measured and are thereafter absolutely positive that your horse’s saddle is truly not causing him to be unhappy and uncomfortable, look at the way you are mounting. More often than not, if your horse has a problem, you are the problem. Make sure you place the near foot in the stirrup, nicely and smoothly swing your leg over the horse’s back, putting the off foot in the other stirrup.
Only then do you SOFTLY and GENTLY lower your weight into the saddle. Do NOT just plop down like a sack of cement onto the horse’s back. What horse would ever want to be mounted in that manner?
Also make sure you’re not pulling on the reins or pushing the horse off balance as you mount. Have your reins short enough that you’ll maintain control but don’t pull on her face. Take a bit of mane in your left hand (if mounting from the left side) to steady yourself and prevent unintentional pressure on the rein.
Okay, so now you’ve gently and considerately placed yourself into the saddle. What should you do next? Nothing. That’s right; do nothing. Sit there for a moment. Relax. Breathe. Make sure your reins are even. Check that your weight is evenly distributed and that your stirrups feel level. Talk to your horse for a moment. This helps your horse relax and understand that they don’t have to jet off like their tail’s on fire every time a person lands on their back. Your horse should wait for your direction before moving out.
Before walking off, pick up lightly on one rein and ask the horse to tip his nose toward your knee. Be thoughtful and quiet in your actions. It’s a polite request, not an abrupt command. The second the horse gives to you, release the rein. Do the same thing now on the opposite side. Remember the light request and a full, immediate release the second your horse responds. This simple act gets your horse in the habit of listening to you, and reminds the rider to make respectful requests of their horse.
Next you’ll want to walk your horse forward. Forward is the direction in front of you. Make sure your hands are not pulling back. Gently squeeze with your legs. Do NOT kick. If your horse is reluctant to move, step into the stirrups alternately with a little energy, just to get going (this isn’t something you’ll have to do constantly). Sit up, assess your even and correct weight placement. Head up, heels down. Even if riding with rein contact, remember (as Craig Cameron always says) “a short rein is not a tight rein.” Tension on the rein will immediately translate to tension throughout your horse.
Walk for a short distance, shift your weight ever so slightly back, reach your hand forward and say in a low, confident tone (breathing out and relaxing as you do so) “whoa.” Whoa means stop. Whoa doesn’t mean slow down or turn or anything other than stop. Say “whoa” if you want the horse to stop. Don’t say it, ever, if stopping is not your goal.
But what if your horse doesn’t stop? Repeat the steps above and pick up on one rein, putting a little more pressure on the horse to respond. Don’t pick up on two reins because the horse can just take ahold of the bit, throw their head up and say, “Nope.” When the horse does stop, relax and put your hand forward and down, releasing any rein pressure.
Once your horse is flexing, stopping in a relaxed and confident manner, and walking forward when you ask, you may choose to move at a faster pace (a trot or canter). Deciding whether to ride in a small area or wide open spaces, staying on for 20 minutes or an all-day outing, or the particular focus of your riding session, will depend entirely on your level of experience and confidence, as well as the training level of the particular horse.
These suggested steps can create basic, getting-started habits that may help both horse and rider begin each excursion on a safe and positive note. Here's to a fun ride!