Q: My horse always walks on when I am trying to mount him. I always have to ask somebody to hold him, but when nobody is around it’s a problem. My question is how can I teach my horse to stand still at the mounting block? He is a quiet gelding, who is being schooled in lower-level dressage. I am new to the sport and I want to learn everything correctly from the beginning. —Laurie Pratt, Portland, Oregon
A: Having your horse stand to be mounted is an important training opportunity, as it ensures that you are able to mount him safely. If your horse walks off while you are in the process of mounting and you are not yet properly seated and stable in the saddle or don’t yet have your feet in the stirrups, you are quite vulnerable and might even risk an accident.
Most horses learn to stand if you work with them on a daily basis. Most importantly, you need to be clear and consistent in your commands and expectations as well as fair. Food motivation can also be used to train a horse to stand. In fact, initially, it is often the biggest motivator. To get a horse to stand and look for the reward at the mounting block, I have given a treat from the saddle after mounting successfully.
Mounting from the ground can be hard on both your and your horse’s back, so I will discuss mounting from a mounting block. First, do some ground exercises with your horse such as leading him at the walk and walk–halt–walk transitions. If your horse is cold-backed (which means the horse tenses when he is faced with the sensation of the saddle or girth, humping up or even bucking), which is a possible reason for not wanting to stand still, it is crucial to longe him properly and/or go through some ground work to make sure he’s safe to mount and ride. I recommend including some walk–trot transitions in-hand in this case. You can also do turns on the forehand or haunches from the ground to improve his listening and suppleness. Be sure to reward your horse whenever he is responsive. If he is bossy or pushy when doing these ground exercises, do a few rein backs. Use the word, “back,” and either put some pressure—on his chest with your hand, tap him on his chest or even apply some pressure from the reins. What works depends on your horse’s personality. Once your horse has responded by stepping backward, make sure to release the pressure. If you use your aids in a pressure-release fashion, your horse will soon understand and respond.
When doing the ground exercises, make sure your horse listens to your voice commands and stands quietly when you say “whoa” and “stop.” Your horse should willingly walk out of the halt and trot willingly out of the walk if you ask and come back to either walk or halt. The horse must learn to follow your voice commands and body language. Horses usually mimic what the handler does as they follow your intentions. This kind of work will generally improve the relationship with your horse as he learns to listen to you as a ground person, not just a rider.
Once you have completed some of these ground exercises, lead your horse to the mounting block and say, “whoa,” or “stand.” Horses recognize both your tone of voice and words. Have your horse stand next to the mounting block and make it a pleasant place to be as long as he stands. If your horse is food-motivated, use treats to reward good behavior and create a pleasant experience for standing and mounting.
When your horse stands quietly at the mounting block, step onto the block. When he stands as you do this, step down from the block. Reward him either with praise, a treat or a pat every time he stands. Repeat a couple of times or as many times as you need until he stands as you are stepping onto the block. When he consistently stands as you step onto the block, you can add mounting as the next step.
Some horses swing away from the mounting block as you step on it. If your horse does this, either step down from the block and straighten him or try to tap him lightly with the whip on his hindquarters to encourage him to move back toward the block.
Once your horse stands and does not move when you step onto the block, swing your leg over his back and mount. Make sure to sit down lightly to ensure a pleasant experience for him. Next, dismount and repeat several times. Make sure to reward him every time the mounting goes well.
Many horses get into the habit of walking off as the rider is mounting because the rider isn’t clear and consistent enough in her approach and expectations. With young horses, we sometimes let them walk off because they are not yet comfortable with weight on their backs. Remember, however, that regardless of your horse’s age, learning to stand while mounting is a crucial part in his training. If you are consistent with your approach and act clearly and use reward and correction, your horse will learn to stand when you mount.
Janet “Dolly” Hannon is a USEF “S” dressage judge, a USDF bronze, silver and gold medalist and a USDF Certified Instructor through Fourth Level. She is chairperson of the USDF Freestyle Committee and helped develop the USDF Continuing Education program for “L” graduates and judges on the judging of freestyles. She trains at Legacy Valley Farm in Colorado.