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Walking Off The Stirrups: Corrective Actions

By Jeffrey Rolo

In the last article we covered the primary reasons why a horse walks off the stirrups when a rider attempts to mount. Now that we have hopefully diagnosed your horse's particular problem it's time to get down to business and take the necessary corrective actions.

Use A Partner

The first and most obvious solution that horse riders attempt is to simply have a partner hold the horse's reins and/or bridle while they mount. If you decide to do this it's important that your partner do it correctly to help minimize the chance of injury to you or your horse. Since you'll be mounting from the left side of your horse, your partner should be standing to your horse's right. His body should face the horse and his left hand should hold the stirrup while his right hand holds the slack in the reins. Your partner should be aligned around the horse's withers, ensuring his feet are a safe distance away from the horse's hooves.

I've seen too many amateurs attempt to simply hold the horse's reins while the rider mounts, which is downright ineffective and potentially harmful! Although technically no human can overpower a horse that is determined to surge forward, the goal of a partner is to provide enough leverage such that your horse doesn't THINK he can get away with leaving you or the rider behind. No one can gain adequate leverage by pulling back on reins, nor should they even try as it can severely hurt your horse's mouth if someone yanks the reins and bit sharply backwards. By holding the reins and opposite stirrup, you have two leverage points, and thus if some amount of "holding" proves to be necessary you can apply most of the pressure to the stirrup where it will do no harm.

Now that we know how your partner should hold your horse as you mount, I want to share an important caution: depending on this "corrective" action is a mistake!

Having a partner attempt to keep your horse under control for you is nothing more than slapping a Bandaid over a deep gash; while it may help relieve the problem temporarily, in the long run you'll do more harm than good. It's far better to cure the problem rather than mask it via the use of a partner.

Does this mean I advocate never using a partner? Absolutely not! Technically a partner can help you diagnose the root cause of your horse's behavior as you mount. If the horse is fearful, chances are he'll attempt to get away despite the presence of your partner; fear overpowers everything else. But if your horse stands still and doesn't fidget with the presence of a partner then you'll know that you can instantly rule out apprehension and probably poor training as the causes for his misbehavior. When you're alone he's either testing your authority or is simply not paying attention due to boredom.

Focus Your Horse's Attention

It is essential that you focus your horse's attention on you while you mount, because if he's not paying attention to you then chances are he's not going to respect your wishes. Rub your horse's body and talk to him soothingly as you approach the stirrups. Let him know where you are and keep him focused solely on you. Don't let his mind ramble off and think about the ride that is to come, the hay he'll get when he's back from the journey, etc. If you feel that his attention is drifting elsewhere as you mount then be sure to remind him to focus on you.

Lack of focus is usually a problem when your horse is perfectly comfortable with you (perhaps TOO comfortable!) and just bored with the whole routine.

Proper Horsemanship

Novice riders will often mount a horse and immediately nudge them to move forward. This is a serious mistake and can actually develop into the problem being discussed in this series of articles! You want your horse to be comfortable and loose at all times, not wound up like a top.

I find it a good practice to simply stand still with your horse once you've mounted. Take a moment to pat his neck, talk to him, lean back and pet his haunches, collect the reins properly – whatever you decide to do, just make sure he's standing still for a moment and his muscles are loose and relaxed. This reinforces to him that "human on back" does NOT automatically equal "move forward."

On a similar note the LAST thing you want to do is ask your horse to trot, canter or gallop immediately after mounting. Unless you're in the midst of a race, you should always start each ride at a smooth, leisurely walk. Ignoring this advice can eventually lead to your horse walking off the stirrups or bolting the moment you hit the saddle.

Conquer Boredom

By now we know one of the causes of poor mounting etiquette is boredom, so it's important to analyze your riding routine if you suspect this might be your horse's problem. Do you constantly ride in the same arena? Do you constantly perform the same types of exercises?

Horses need excitement and change just as much as people do. If your horse is asked to walk clockwise around the same arena during the same time every single day eventually that behavior is going to become a boring chore… so spice things up! Vary the gaits, directions and exercises you perform while in the arena, and if you can safely take him outside the arena from time to time do that also.

The moment you feel your horse's attention is drifting off during a riding session it's essential that you regain it. Don't mistake boredom and inattentiveness while under saddle for contentment. A content horse is always alert to his owner, whereas a bored horse stops paying much attention.

Reestablish Authority and/or Regain Trust

If your horse is challenging your authority consistently or is showing some reservations about you then it's time for you to STOP worrying about mounting him and START worrying about developing or reestablishing a connection with him. Ironically enough, the secret to solving most riding problems isn't done anywhere near the saddle, but rather in the round pen.

When I am training (or reeducating) a horse I will not even think about saddling him up and riding until I am satisfied that the horse and I both have a comfortable understanding of each other. Round pen work is absolutely invaluable because it teaches the horse to trust and respect your authority while it simultaneously teaches you your horse's nuances and subtle cues.

I know it can be frustrating for a rider to be told to forget the riding for a while and go back to groundwork, but it's sound advice nonetheless. I would say a safe and comfortable ride is 90% dependent on the horse-human relationship and only 10% dependent on riding skills or technique. A slightly unpolished rider that has a proper bond with his horse will make out far better than a skilled rider that has a poor relationship with the horse. Relationship is everything.

Don't Rush Things & Expect the Unexpected

When I'm working with a horse that has poor mounting etiquette it's pretty rare that I'll instantly get up and ride after applying the above techniques. First I'll saddle the horse up in a round pen and practice mounting over and over again, mixing things up from time to time so that the horse isn't quite sure what to expect.

Mount your horse without the aid of a partner. Make him stand still, then dismount. Do it again. Try leaning over him as if you were going to mount, but change your mind occasionally and don't actually complete the mount. Mount him and walk him around the pen once, then dismount.

Until you are certain that your horse is not going to walk off on you while you mount you should not leave the round pen. Keep practicing until he understands that he's expected to stand perfectly still and await your further instructions.

One quick word of caution, though: don't abuse the above suggestion. If your horse behaves like a perfect gentleman through a series of mounting exercises then it's time to move on. Repetition is a double-bladed sword; it can be incredibly useful, but if taken too far it can also create boredom and resentment. Even during your most monotonous exercises you want to try and keep things fun and unexpected – don't let your sessions develop into predictable drudgery.

Naturally there may be other small techniques you would want to try with a problem horse once you have personal knowledge of him and his ways, but the above tips should get you off to a good start. If you keep all of the above in mind then chances are high with some time and patience you'll be able to make your horse stand like a gentleman as you mount.

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