Friday, February 6, 2009

Getting On Board


" I hope you don't think you're getting on me - my tack is clean and you might mess up my braids " !

Getting On Board

Have you ever given much thought to how mounting affects your horse? Could it have deeper implications than we may realize? We seem to be obsessed with every other aspect of horseback riding and our horses’ care, yet seldom take the time to examine the technique with which we get from ground to saddle.

Unless, of course, there is a problem getting aboard safely; then we may stop to examine what went wrong and how to fix it.

It may be time to look at how we hoist ourselves into the saddle and its effects on our horses.

The Physical Forces of Mounting

Mounting a horse causes more stress and complications to the horse’s balance than you might think. The equine is designed with a relatively long body, with their feet comparatively close together. In addition, their body mass is carried relatively high off the ground; this particular design then makes them stable lengthwise but unstable crosswise. To a small extent, these genetics make the horse slightly off balance when mounting from the side. Putting your foot in the stirrup causes the saddle to pull a bit to the left, which in turn causes the horse’s weight to shift to his left legs, which then lightens his right side. To work against the pull, he must raise his back on the left side as well as swing his head/neck and hindquarters to the right to counteract this force. By doing this, the horse is reacting to the sensation that he is falling over and correcting his base of support and equilibrium. When taking up the reins while mounting the rider inhibits the horse's natural rebalancing maneuvers also. The horse might try to step forward, extend his head and neck, or swing them to the opposite side trying to counterbalance, but the rider usually will try to prevent this with the reins.

Other problems may occur while mounting, such as allowing your toe to dig into his ribs; this may cause the horse to shy away to the right, further complicating the mounting process. His natural reaction to being poked in the ribs is to move away, often leaving the rider to exacerbate this tendency by pulling the reins - this could have you spinning in circles.

Another thing to consider is torque. When weight is forced into the stirrup the horse may be required to take a step toward the rider or sideways away from the rider as the riders’ weight rotates onto/into the saddle. During mounting, the saddle twists or torques toward the rider pulling across the spine, particularly the withers, on the off side, and pushing downward into the muscles of the back on the near side. The horse bends or twists to the right, his right-side muscles drop to avoid the pressure from the panels, while those on the left side of the spine bulge upward as the horse attempts to support the burden of the mounting rider. This obviously puts considerable stress on the horse’s body.

Stop and consider all you are doing just by having your foot in the stirrup with some weight behind it, and you will see mounting isn’t as simple to the horse as it is to you, the rider. Following are a few techniques for mounting a horse.

Getting a Leg Up

Getting a “leg up” is probably one of the best and least stressful ways to mount a horse. If you can find a friend to help you, here’s how to do it:

With both reins in your left hand, face the horse, place your left hand on the withers and your right hand on the waist of the saddle for balance, crook your left leg, have your assistant take hold of your shin and hoist you up. Sometimes it helps if you do a little jump just as your helper is lifting for some added momentum. When you reach an appropriate height, you can use your hands, positioned on the withers and saddle, to help pull you up and over, as you lower yourself gently into the saddle. You should descend straight down and land gently with your weight evenly distributed. If you can catch your stirrups on the way down, all the better. It’s a little more work for the rider but, the up-side to this is the saddle is not twisted against the spine, withers and muscles. This takes some time, patience and coordination to learn correctly. In the beginning you may do a few embarrassing “belly flops” and have to wriggle yourself into the saddle or, if your assistant is too enthusiastic, you might go right over the other side to kiss the dirt. I did see this happen one time to a trainer and the look on his face was priceless. (Hate to say it, but he had it coming.)

Mounting from the Ground

If you’re athletic and graceful, being able to mount correctly from the ground is a check in the plus column. However, if you’re older or are less athletic, this could be a demanding exercise in futility and frustration - or just downright impossible. But, inevitability, there will be times when it’s the only way you have to get on, so it pays to know how to do it right. If you care to try it, this is how to go about it:

Take both reins in your left hand and place your hand on the wither for balance; stand close to your horse facing his butt; turn the stirrup toward you and put your foot in it; make sure your toe is pointing into the girth and not his ribs; then you pivot around on your right leg until you are facing the saddle or even the horse’s shoulder - you may need to hop a little to get closer and at the right angle for mounting; once in position, place your left hand on the withers (or grab a hunk of mane if you need a little extra help hoisting yourself up; place your left hand on the waist of the saddle (don’t grab the cantle and pull – this will jam the tree of your saddle into the horse’s spine!); then spring, hop, jump however you have to get up there, pushing down on your hands (not pulling) for help and balance; then, as you balance on your hands, swing your leg over and try to get your foot into the right stirrup before you land gently in the saddle. Don’t just heave yourself up and plop down on the saddle in a heap.

If your horse is tall, lengthen the stirrup leather until your foot can reach the stirrup and swing into the saddle from there. If you are on a trail ride and need to get off for any reason, but find it hard to mount from the ground, look for a huge rock or log anything to give you a boost. Sometimes uneven ground can give you that little extra advantage you need to be able to mount.

Mounting Block

The ever-popular mounting block is one means to help diminish the demands on horses’ backs and makes the mounting process a pleasant experience for all involved. For the horse, it minimizes the torque from the saddle as a rider mounts. The rider also benefits because it reduces the strain of having to pull up and onto the horse from the ground.

We always try to use a mounting block and the taller the better. We have some smaller horses that don’t even require putting your foot in the stirrup, but just slipping on. This could be dangerous if the horse moved away (Dusty!), so I do use the near stirrup every time I mount. Even though you do not have to pull yourself up, it is still a good idea to place your hands on the wither and saddle for balance; the right hand on the saddle can even help to stabilize the saddle as you climb on.

If you decide to get a mounting block, I suggest that it be sturdy and set on level ground. The last thing you need is a teeter-totter while you’re trying to mount. my daughter who is an excellent horse woman once ended up underneath her horse when the mounting block tipped over mid-mount... luckily no one was hurt and we all had a good laugh, but it’s generally the kind of thing to avoid....

A mounting block can be bought pre-made or you can build one yourself from wood, stone or any material that is sturdy, weatherproof and gives decent traction. We’ve seen some creative ones over the years, so use your imagination. It should have a flat surface on top possibly with some kind of non-slip tread for grip. My personal favorite is a mounting block with steps going down either side, so you can go up or down as needed and not have to jump off one side if your horse moves.

For me, the mounting block is the only way to go; I think it’s the safest and least stressful way to mount for horse and rider. I’d be interested in hearing what your preferred method of mounting is.

Until next time

Quote for Today

He who needs a mounting block had better not fall off in the middle of the field.

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