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.]