In the Night Farm…Your Ride is Here.

Stand By Me

You see it at every endurance ride:  Riders hopping along with one foot in the stirrup and one hand clutching a bundle of mane, yelling “whoa, dammit!” as their horses prick their ears and start walking.  By the time the riders lurch into the saddle, cockeyed and groping for the offside stirrup, the horses are trotting.  In most cases, the riders are so relieved to simply be aboard that they stifle their cursing and go along for the ride.

I’ve done it.  Haven’t you?  It’s so easy to “let it go this time,” because his buddies are going ahead, or we need to make up time, or it’s a race day and he’s distracted.  And after all, it’s great to see an eager horse!  Unfortunately, it’s almost as tempting to ignore the behavior during conditioning rides, time after regretful time, reinforcing a habit you don’t like but can’t be bothered to break.

The problem is that refusal to stand for mounting is a nuisance at best and a danger at worst.  What happens when you need to mount on a narrow trail with a drop-off to one side?  When you have a sprained ankle?  When you’re at a busy water tank early in a ride?  When another horse is out of control?  All these situations — and plenty more — also apply to the related behavior of refusal to stand quietly, either in hand or mounted, out on the trail.

I’ve been riding Maji and Jammer for between 4 and 8 weeks now.  They’re both young, enthusiastic, and eager to move out — and the same goes for me!  But when I noticed their behavior trending toward moving off when mounted, fidgeting during pauses on the trail, and rushing toward home, I knew it was time for a lesson.

Maji, who needed the most work, went first.  Here’s what I did:

1.  I got my head straight.  This involved thinking through my strategy and setting aside several hours specifically for the lesson.  Conditioning was temporarily off the table.  This was all about training.

2.  I checked my toolbox.  This meant making sure Maji understood and responded well to the cues I wanted to use for correction.  I chose the single-rein stop (SRS: her head to my foot, disengage the hindquarters) because it’s efficient, safe, rewardable (easy to release), scalable (keep pivoting or stop as needed), and easy from the ground or from the saddle.

3.  I stacked the deck.  It’s always best to set the horse up for success.  In Maji’s case, we were coming to the lesson on a crisp, sunny, breezy afternoon after several rest days.  I lunged her for 25 minutes before saddling up to take the edge off.

4.  I introduced the concept.  Though Maji typically stands for mounting when we’re someplace boring, like in the round corral, I started there so she could get the right answer without added stress or distraction.  As luck would have it, she did try moving off that day, so I was able to SRS her both from the ground and from the saddle, depending on my position when she moved.  We also practiced just standing still with me in the saddle.  This gave us plenty of opportunity to establish the rules of the game:  Stand still when asked, or SRS and keep disengaging those hindquarters long enough that we pivot a time or two or more, depending on responsiveness and attitude.

5.  I upped the ante.  Once Maji was standing on a loose rein in the round corral, we moved out to the driveway, then just beyond the horse trailer where I usually mount up and where the other horses are out of sight.  Lather, rinse, repeat.  We probably spent 20 minutes discussing whether she would stand for mounting, then remain standing as long as I asked, there beyond the trailer.

6.  I took the show on the road.  Down the hill and along the neighboring farmer’s field, we stopped just to look around or for me to dismount and remount.  Much of the time we were pointed toward home.  We must have spun in a hundred or more circles, but I never fudged on the rules:  I ask once.  You obey, on a loose rein.  If you move so much as one hoof, one inch, we SRS.  There’s no emotion involved.  No frustration or kicking of ribs or yanking of reins.  Just calm requests and consistent consequences.  By the time we quit, about 2 hours from the beginning of the lesson, Maji was standing on a loose rein in a spooky area with her face toward home, for minutes at a time.

7.  I reinforced the lesson.  Maji is a quick study.  She often puts up a real fight during Round 1, but when I stick it out and win, she capitulates pretty thoroughly.  Due to a minor hock injury, she spent the week after our lesson resting.  When I finally took her out yesterday, it was clear she remembered.  We had almost no trouble riding the same route, stopping here and there, dismounting and remounting.  We cut our SRS repeats down from 100+ to maybe 5.

Now, all I need to do is remain consistent in enforcing my request during conditioning rides, especially as we find ourselves in ever more stimulating situations, such as riding with other horses, on windy days, and in new locations.

It’s that easy.  You just gotta *do* it.  Two hours of work for a lifetime of cooperation is a great bargain.

[A brief caution:  This post is intended to address situations in which the horse moves off because he is impatient and eager to go.  This is not the same thing as a horse that doesn’t want to be mounted!  If you’re dealing with a horse that moves sideways or backwards, or even rears(!) to avoid mounting, you probably have a pain issue to address.  Consider saddle fit, rider balance, LS/SI/stifle/hock soreness, ulcers, etc.]

Pain situations

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14 responses

  1. Dom

    I cannot stand a horse that won’t hold still for mounting and owners who ALLOW IT drive me INSANE!!! When I catch ride it’s the FIRST thing I address, and it’s a skill I demand of all my own horses.

    November 11, 2012 at 6:39 pm

  2. Love the new guy, by the way!

    I was having difficulty with this a few years ago with my mare. When she went to the trainer that spring, that was on my list of “fixes” for the trainer. She fixed her. Appreciate your step by steps. Good to use when she does step off for me.

    November 11, 2012 at 8:03 pm

  3. Applying this theory to my dog. 🙂

    ty

    November 12, 2012 at 6:14 am

  4. Debby

    Great training! I have that problem because I’m short and its double trouble just to get my leg in stirrup. I usually have to use a chair or block to stand first. Sometimes that helps with mounting but not if other horses are around, leaving. Plus she’s a nervous girl! Frustrating!

    November 12, 2012 at 9:04 am

  5. This is awesome. and even though you have tailored this post to a specific problem, this basic formula would work for everything- I especially appreciate Step 1- get your head on straight. this is my life’s work!

    Thank you for continuously sharing your good work with us!

    PS- love your new horses, so beautiful!

    November 12, 2012 at 12:50 pm

    • You’re so right, Lorie. I try to apply this approach to every training situation.

      November 14, 2012 at 8:05 am

  6. So timely for me to read this! I am taking my new-to-me horse on the trail and while he stands perfectly at the mounting ladder or in the arena, he is quite the dancer on trail. Before I got him, he spent 6 years hauling his owners and their friends around the Great Smokey Mountains, so it’s most likely he’s testing to see just what he -really- has to do. I’m rebuilding my own confidence and having your steps helps me know I’m not skipping something important. Thanks!

    November 13, 2012 at 5:12 am

    • You’re welcome, Rosalie! All the best for working through your boy’s impatience. 🙂

      November 14, 2012 at 8:04 am

  7. Thanks so much for the step-by-step instructions. This is on my training list this Winter for Levi. As you have experienced at my first LD ride, very much needed! I do training with all my horses on trailer loading too. Starting training when I don’t even need to go anywhere so that when I do need to trailer, it is not a problem. Different problem, same concept!

    November 14, 2012 at 9:52 am

  8. Sarah

    You have shared some amazing insights… for life. I don’t even have a horse, but I can see how having a plan and practicing consistency can pay off big time in so many areas of my life. Thank you.

    March 2, 2013 at 11:22 am

  9. Tamara, I like the way you write and the way you explain the “how to’s” when describing what to do for a particular issue. I find that my horse gets so use to doing things but over time will maybe just take one step and if I don’t do something about it then, the next time he will take 2 steps. Before I know it I have a problem. Once I get after him about it, he stops doing it because he knows what he is suppose to do but just kinda likes to see how much he can get away with. Horses are really amazing animals. A friend of mine and I call them 1000 lb toddlers. Keep posting and before you know it spring will be here.
    Thanks
    Linda

    March 6, 2013 at 12:46 pm

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