What makes you nervous?

I think that every rider has the one thing that really makes them nervous when it comes to horses. For some it may be a bucker, a rearer, bolter, spin drop the shoulder spooker, etc. I am raising my hand to say horses with mounting issues scare me a bit.

I don’t think that this has always been the case. Growing up I practically rode anything and everything. For a brief time, I was pretty damn scared of horses that went faster than a slow canter after a death-defying experience with an ottb who took off on me when I was 10yrs old after he got stung by a bee. Riding the world’s slowest Tb who prefered to run backwards rather than forward pretty much cured that fear.

After I got out of college, I had this grand idea to buy this really pretty horse who never raced. He sure was pretty- dark bay with tons of white and a tail that every horse would die to have. I was sure that I would be able to retrain him and sell him for good profit. I bought him off a picture and this was before there was video and all that good stuff. I am sure he was broke or at least I was told he was broke.  However, he had a special move that put me in the dirt too many times. He would stand perfectly still at the mounting block until your foot hit the stirrup and then he would bronco with the best of them. I tried everything to get him past this. He cleaned my clock one too many times and I sought outside help from an excellent professional who told me they could ride him but they really didn’t enjoy it. Move him on to somebody else who was willing to take the risk. Sure enough somebody bought him from me because of his beautiful tail! He really was gorgeous.

That one horse gave me a real complex about mounting. I am now slightly paranoid but sometimes that is a good thing when it comes to horses. Whenever I get new horses in, I always lunge them first and take my time getting on them. I always have a helper for the first few times that I get on. I wear my vest. I like the farm to be quiet. I totally trust my gut and never force an issue. I am quick to realize when a horse just needs more time. If I sense an issue than I go back to ground work first.

I think horses give you a good indication of what is to come if you listen well enough. When I take them out to the ring the first time I get an indication of what they are going to do. If they are spooking and their eyes are rolling around in their head than I am not getting on (rarely has that ever happened though!) Most ottb’s are scared of the mounting block. It is totally foreign to have somebody standing over top of them. I am always a bit surprised when I stand on the block and a horse is just ho-hum about it. That is a good sign!

For those who are worried, you just take your time and lunge them around the block until they realize they are not going to die. I find that most of them this takes 10-20 min tops before they figure out it is just no big deal. They understand what happens when your foot goes in the stirrup. They don’t generally panic about that.

This is where having a good helper is totally necessary. You can absolutely get very hurt without the critical job of a person handling that knows what to do. I was reading some of the comments on Steuart Pittman’s youtube videos from the initial rides of the horses in the trainers challenge. People were sort of joking that he was making a big production out of getting on them and why didn’t he just get on (he was doing all the steps that I talked about from lunging, to laying over them, to going halfway up and then slowly over). Obviously ottb’s are used to being ridden, just get on them…um no!  Sure, they are used to being ridden but they are not used to being mounted from a mounting block, standing still and having either taller or heavier riders on them. You mess up this critical first ride and you can be digging yourself out of a hole when you scare the horse half to death.

I personally instruct my helper to stand to the side and face forward (as in ready to walk forward). If when I go up the horse shoots forward than I am going to try to balance on the stirrup and they need to walk the horse in a circle. You always turn the horse’s head into the circle which gives the rider space to dismount if needed. It puts the horses body on the outside of the circle. Placement and positioning is important.

I personally don’t ever “make” a horse stand still at first. They don’t know how to stand and it makes them anxious which can lead to an explosion. I generally can feel the horses back when I go up on them and know whether they are tight or if they are just fine. If they feel tight than I generally don’t swing over or I ask my helper to lead me forward. I wait until I feel them relax and then I lightly swing over but use my knees to hold myself and generally I don’t have my other foot in the stirrup. I want to be able to exit fast if needed. Once I do settle in the saddle than I just sit as still as possible and ask to be led forward again. I will then gently put my feet in if the horse feels relaxed. If they feel tight don’t go fishing for your stirrups. One misplaced leg in the belly and you could get launched 🙂

The importance of having a horse that is reliable to mount is huge for me. I have short legs and of course I have this little fear of mounting. I have been in a bit of a stressful situation here lately with one of the project horses that I bought for myself. It illustrates why buying a horse from the track and not seeing it being ridden can result in some surprises when you get it home.

Looker is the really cute 3yr who ran 7x and has been with me for about a month now. He got to hang out a few days and then we attempted to get on him using the mounting block. My tall skinny friend was out helping me with horses while she was home for school so I was going to have her get on and I would be the grounds person. When she stood up on the mounting block he was freaked out! Now it was wet in the ring and the sound of wet feet going up the mounting block can be scary. We worked with him for about 15 min but he honestly was scared and you could tell. Getting on him from the mounting block wasn’t anywhere near happening. I had Kurt come out and we gave Amanda a leg up onto him while I walked him forward. He was a bit worried but settled right down once she was in the saddle. He was great to ride and super-duper brave which impressed me for such a young horse.

He got another few weeks just to settle in and I was doing some ground work with him. I had lunged him and was marveling in how awesome he was doing. I finished up and was just going to play around on the mounting block for a while. I snapped the lead rope on and walked him over to the block. When I stood up there he bolted away and it took a bit for me to catch him. Well duh! Really I knew better at this point and should have not even approached it that way. I went back and got the chain shank and broke down the steps of walking up and down on the block first. In 5 minutes he was totally relaxed about me going up and down and leaning over his back. Good boy!

Next day I head back out for more lunging and mounting block work. Lunges over jumps like he had been doing it forever. Nice hind end!! He is good with me going up on the block and leaning on him and touching him all over. Then I think to mimic the act of putting my foot in the stirrup. Wow, okay horse is terrified. Luckily, I had the chain shank on and he hit the end of the rope and stood still. I tried to touch him behind the elbow a few more times and he was just super scared. It wasn’t happening out in the ring. No point in pressing the issue.  I knew he wasn’t ready and I wasn’t going to win.

Revise the plan and go backwards to baby steps. What do racehorses know? They understand being mounted in the stall. The stall also confines them so they are forced to deal with the pressure. He is NOT a mean horse so I wasn’t worried about anything bad happening in a stall (some of them would be very scary in a stall). I went in with just the halter and chainshank on. I brought in the mounting block and first lunged him around me left and right. When I tried to touch him  near the girth area he was totally running circles. I would just calmly bring him back to a halt and kept touching him. This took about 10 minutes before I could put my leg all on his body, up on his back and in front of his shoulders. Good boy!

We then followed this up with a session where we got on him in the stall. Started off the same way just lunging him around, touching him with the feet near the girth and only then did I have Whitney go up. First she went halfway up and then all the way up. He totally is fine when you actually go up on him which is great to know. We did this a few times in the stall and then took him outside. He is tougher in the larger area but within a few minutes he stood nicely.

I actually had a friend who wanted to come and see him (possibly to buy) so I figured I better actually ride him 🙂 I took him out and this time I used the corner of the ring and lined him up so he was facing out of the corner but the fence controlled the right side of his body. He was really good! Each time was clearly getting better. The next day I showed him to my friend using the same routine and it took even less time. I had a great ride on him where we did some w/t/c and popped over a little flower box. We got back on him yesterday and it took about 2 minutes for him to relax near the mounting block. Yay!

I still have to take a deep breath and tell myself it will all be just fine. He doesn’t want to be bad so this has been an easy fix. We have basically just making him realize that this is all no big deal. I think we are probably about a week away from just going right out and getting on him.

I think this particular horse could have scared the crap out of somebody who didn’t know any better. I think of those people who I know that don’t take all the little steps that I do when it comes to getting on the first time. It can result in some wild rides. Slow and steady lead me to discover the major hole in his training so I could fix it calmly which in the end gives us both confidence. Now if I didn’t have ground help this could be a bigger issue. I don’t think  I will need help here soon but it has been critical for our progress so far.

I will try to video one of our mounting sessions just to give a glimpse of what we are working at right now. He is such a cool horse and ultra sweet. I am glad that I have gained his trust so easily.


8 responses to “What makes you nervous?

  1. Great posting with lots of good points.

    Have you dealt with rearing? That has always been my scary thing and now that’s what I’ve got.

  2. It’s so encouraging to hear you listen to the horse and take as many steps backwards as you need to. Your knowledge of how they are handled and mounted at the track certainly helps and anyone working with a horse who is this unsure should know that taking your time will only set the horse up for success. I can’t wait to see when he settled.

  3. the drop and spin spooker – especially when there is nothing to spook at. Every trainer Rascal ever had at some point refused to get on him…

  4. Oh Wow! Lydia reacted pretty much the exact same way as Looker. It took me several months to truely get her to be unafraid of the mounting block. Alhough, thinking about it now, I think changing what I used helped. I went from using the barn’s plastic 3 step block to a 3 step stepstool (I know…incredibly unsafe, but I’ve used it for years). I can’t tell you how many days our “work” was a bit of lunging and then hanging out at the mounting block…not even riding, just ground work and mounting block desensitization. I went through the baby steps of mounting, even faking them without tack on her, every time for months, even after I could get on easily. We did this routine in the ring, round pen, and finally, in the pasture. I think it was the pasture that did the trick…no sand, no hard footing reminding her of the track.

    My reward is now Lydia stands like a ROCK when I get on, which is awesome as she is over 17 hands, and I am 5’4″ and have had knee surgery in the past.

    Lydia is very much the sterotypical thoroughbred…spooky, jumpy, nervous, high-strung, sensitive, opinionated, and incredibly sweet. I have had her for three years, and we should get to cantering this year. 🙂 I tried taking her at a more normal training pace when I got her, but she mentally started falling apart, so I had to go back to the very basics again and again. I intend to keep her for the rest of her life, so going slowly hasn’t bothered me too much. Lydia is also the culmination of pretty much all of my fears about riding. Every time I have put my foot in the stirrup over the last three years, I have had to face those fears, and still do (even yesterday!). Feeling her step through her back for a few strides, feeling her relax when I’m riding, and getting to take one more baby step forward in our training makes it all worth it, and makes me want to try again the next day.

    • Wow, your attitude is music to my ears! Sounds like you are doing everything right – giving your horse what she needs. Love it!

  5. Your patience is enviable!
    Spooking makes me nervous. As it tends to come out of no where as the monsters hiding in the corners of the ring are apparently invisible to my eye. Refusing jumps is also a huge fear of mine. My old horse went through a stopping phase when I rode w/ a trainer that pushed us too far too fast. My little guy would canter gamely to a jump and throw on the brakes. After a few months work with a new trainer he would jump anything from anywhere, but I always had it in the back of my mind that he was going to stop.

  6. My mare was pretty impatient with the mounting block, so my solution was to get on quickly, work her a while, and only after the ride ask her to stand nicely at the mounting block. She was much more manageable then.

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