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Walking Off The Stirrups: The Causes

By Jeffrey Rolo

One of the most frustrating problems that horse owners encounter is when their otherwise good horse decides to walk and/or race ahead the moment the owner inserts his foot into the stirrup. Not only can this consume time as the owner has to constantly restart the process until he's finally able to mount, but it can also prove to be a health hazard if the owner becomes inattentive and gets his foot caught in the stirrup as the horse shies away. So how does one solve this problem?

First, identify the cause.

It is impossible to train your horse to mount better or discourage him from walking off the stirrups unless you know the root cause of the problem, primarily because the corrective actions will vary dependent on the causes. So with that in mind, here are the most common reasons why a horse will not stand still as you mount:

bulletThe horse is uncomfortable or apprehensive about riding. The cause of the apprehension could be the rider or it could be the riding ritual itself, but in either case the horse is clearly nervous or downright fearful of what is to come, and as such he'll bolt forward in an attempt to either escape the rider or discourage the rider from being able to mount.
bulletThe horse is testing the rider's ability. Even the best riding horse is going to test your mettle from time to time, but try not to be too offended when it occurs since the horse is only following his natural instincts. If you watch herd behavior you'll notice that the alpha mare must always assert her dominance because others within the herd are always willing to take the role if she slips.
bulletThe horse is simply bored to death! Ever have one of those jobs where you are so bored that you just go through the motions much like a zombie? You're so focused on just getting the day over with that you don't pay attention to the small details. Well, the same can happen with horses.
bulletThe horse was trained improperly. Sometimes trainers do not properly teach their horses how to stand properly for mounting, how to stand still until given express permission to walk, or how to engage in all the various gaits and speeds.

Now that we know the most common causes of this behavior, let's take a closer look at how we can determine which category our horse falls under.

If your horse walks off the stirrups in a speedy or bolting manner, more likely than not the cause of the problem is fear or apprehension. When something concerns us enough we often recoil away from it, and that's what the horse is doing. Watch for other outward signs such as tensed muscles, bulging eyes, heavy breathing and any other signs of nervousness.

When your horse walks off with a slow to medium pace you next want to examine its demeanor. Is the horse sharp and attentive to your presence, almost eyeing you to gauge what your reaction will be? If so, chances are your horse is just testing you. He simply doesn't want to work or he wants to confirm whether or not you are indeed still the alpha leader. This can either be a harbinger of things to come or it can be a one-time test depending on your existing relationship with the horse as well as how quickly you establish firm and proper authority.

Does your horse tend to slowly plod forward with his head and neck drooped somewhat? Are his muscles relaxed and loose? If so, clearly your horse is not apprehensive about you or the ride ahead of him, nor is he testing your authority. He's just bored and wants to get the whole ordeal over with, so he's not paying proper attention to your status or your cues.

The fourth example improper training is often the most difficult to determine since the behavior can mimic any of the above. Some horses that were improperly trained may bolt on you while others may walk off in a seemingly bored manner. Let me provide a personal example.

I once owned a Quarter Horse who was an absolute gem; he was one of the most gentle and friendly horses a person could have the pleasure of knowing. Although he did not bolt ahead while the rider was trying to mount, the moment the rider's butt hit the saddle he'd surge forward like he was in the midst of a race. While it was possible to slow him down, the moment you dropped your guard he'd naturally kick into high speed again.

The problem? He was a gentle giant (on second thought, being a Quarter Horse perhaps a more accurate term would be "bulky giant") to be sure, but he was also an ex-barrel racer, and it was immediately clear his former owner knew only one speed: GO! Since the horse didn't have proper training, he was actually uncomfortable going at slower speeds because in the past it was clearly discouraged.

The good news is that after a few months of work and retraining he became just as comfortable with slow walks as he did with speedy canters and gallops. Although he didn't walk off the stirrups, exactly, it was almost the same thing since a novice rider wouldn't have been settled in properly and prepared before he took off.

Poor training can even cause nervous behavior (as in my Quarter Horse's case) even though the horse isn't nervous of YOU or the act of riding itself he's nervous because he's being asked to do something he's never done much of before. This makes diagnosing poor training a little trickier than the aforementioned three causes, but with enough observation you'll eventually be able to get at the root of the problem.

Before you even attempt to take corrective actions to resolve walking off the stirrups, make sure you first understand your horse and his reasons for behaving as he is. I cannot stress that enough, because corrective actions applied incorrectly can do more harm than good.

Now that we have covered the causes for walking off the stirrups, we're ready to apply the necessary corrective actions. We'll cover those in the conclusion:  Walking Off The Stirrups:  Corrective Actions.

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