Horse Training: Issues at the Mounting Block

Many people have problems with mounting their horse because it wants to move as they go to get on or immediately they sit in the saddle. Most people try to block the horse from moving, but this is addressing the symptom of the problem and not the cause. The solution is in the preparation of teaching a horse to be with us and not make plans to leave before we attempt to mount.


Ripplebrook, Victoria 3 Day Clinic


Horse trainers and riding instructors talk about the importance of transitions in developing balance, obedience, and fluidity in the movement of a horse. Transitions are often thought of as a panacea to many training issues. But they also give a rider an insight into the feelings a horse is carrying towards the work. As I have said before, a horse reveals more about how he feels not by what he is doing, but how he reacts when you interrupt what he is doing. In that regard, transitions very often shine a light on problems that lurk in the shadows.


A transition is usually thought of as a change from one gait to another (eg walk to trot or trot to walk). But they can also, and should also, be within the same gait (eg slow walk to medium walk to extended walk to slow walk). Both are invaluable and should be mastered for exactly the same reasons.


One thing I feel a lot of people misunderstand about transitions is the idea of energy or impulsion that accompanies a transition. A common mistake is the belief that as a horse goes from walk to trot to canter there should be an ever-increasing level of impulsion and effort from a horse. Conversely, transitioning from a canter to a walk equates to a decrease of impulsion and effort. In my mind, this is not how I like to approach the transitions. I always want my horse to be putting out the effort I ask irrespective of the gait. With that in mind, I feel a transition from say a walk to a trot is nothing more than a re-arrangement of the feet from a 4 beat to a 2 beat pattern, with the horse putting out the same amount of effort. The same is true when directing the horse from a 2-beat trot to a 4-beat walk. I don’t want a loss of effort; I just want the movement of the feet to be rearranged.  If we train our horse that a transition is about by changing the effort and impulsion, then we will build in problems such as the walk will always be the same walk and the trot will always be the same trot with no variation. If we ask for more impulsion or more effort at the walk we run the risk of our horse interpreting that to mean he should trot. I see this at nearly every clinic.


In a broader sense, a transition can be any change we ask of a horse. It can be a transition from one direction to another or a rein back to a forward gait or a leg yield to a shoulder in or a turn on the haunches to a turn on the forehand. Anything that requires a change in a horse can be thought of as a transition.


As I said, transitions can be incredibly valuable as a training tool. But they are only of value if we focus on the quality of the transition. This is where people sometimes get stuck in their thinking. Often times the ability to perform a transition is considered the measure of the training success. But this is not true. In my opinion, the quality of a transition, any transition, is dependent on the change in a horse’s feet being preceded by a change in the horse’s thoughts. It’s not the transition of the body that counts, but the transition of the thought. Without a change in thought, there can be no quality to the transition and little for a horse to learn.


An example of this that I see regularly at clinics is how a horse transitions from a walk to a trot or a trot to a walk. I estimate in the majority of cases I see at clinics, horses leap into a trot from a walk and the same is often true when asked to canter from a trot. The transition is abrupt. Often the horse throws their neck up, hollow their back and sometimes flings their head. In most cases, this happens because the horse is not thinking forward at the lower gait and holds back from thinking forward when a rider asks them to change gait. I know this because in the vast majority of instances the problem is solved by just helping a horse think more forward in the lower gait. I want the transition from walk to trot or trot to canter to appear seamless – if you blinked you would hardly notice that something changed.


Much of the time when we ask for a transition a horse is not prepared for a change of thought and instead of giving a horse a new thought to go with the new task we simply block the thought it already has. It has learned to stop going with the old idea, but not go with the new idea. This leads to resistance and ill feelings.


As an example, so many horses that I ride at clinics will automatically slow their feet when I ask for them to make a turn. This is because when I pick up the feel on the inside rein it blocks their thought to be forward. Rather changing their thought to go with me in the new direction with the same effort, they grind to a sluggish motion as if there is a wall in front of them. The horse has learned that an interruption of their thought is not a signal to take on board a new thought, but instead to hinder the old thought.


No matter what type of transition we ask of our horse, the quality and value of it is dependent on our effectiveness for evoking a horse to change its thought. It needs to swap the old thought for the new thought as if it was its own idea. Without that mental gymnastics, there will be plenty of physical exercise for a horse, but very little learning that will pay dividends in the future.

Working With A Horse Is A Constant Conversation

Training is something we do with a horse, not to a horse. This involves a constant stream of conversation back and forth between the rider and the horse. In this video I give an example of what I mean by conversing with a horse during a short working session.


Extreme Behaviour

Most of us are lucky when it comes to working through problems with horses. For the vast majority of us, a problem is something as benign as not standing quietly at the mounting block or won’t load into a trailer or won’t listen to us when separated from its friends or perhaps has a little buck going into the canter. I realize at the time that these types of issues can appear monumental, especially when the solution is not obvious and the behaviour drags on for eons. But in the overall scheme of what headaches we could have to deal with, these types of problems are in the minor league of problems.


There are a small number of horses in the world that exhibit such extreme behaviour that not only are they a danger to a rider, but they are a danger to themselves. I’m thinking of horses whose reaction is to bolt uncontrollable and crash into things or horses that rear vertically and flip over or that buck so big they lose their balance and fall over. I’m not talking about the occasional time a horse might do these things in a rare case of panic. Instead, I’m thinking of the horses that will react this way as their “go to” response when life gets a little challenging.


I’ve had a couple of experiences of this type of horse. Both would rear over backward. One was a Standardbred sent for training that wouldn’t go forward off a rider’s leg. If a rider applied their leg the horse would stop and flip over backward. It was a super quick response and there was little build up to it. The horse would be going along pretty well, but when asked for a little more forward the brakes would be slammed on and next thing you know you were looking at blue sky with a feeling of falling backward. It was a very extreme and life-threatening to both horse and rider. By the time I first saw the horse the owner estimated the horse had done it over 20 times to her and had accumulated many months of convalescence to recover from injuries, including a broken wither. Eventually, I was able to get a change by circumventing the rider’s leg with a squeaky toy. When I applied my leg to the horse I immediately followed it with a loud squeaking sound before the horse had a chance to stop. The squeaking toy interrupted the horse’s idea to stop and sent it forward, albeit with some worry. Eventually, I was able to do away with the toy and got a nice response from my leg. Some of you might recall I used a similar method when working with a horse called Satts, which I wrote about in previous articles.


The second horse was a foal only a few months old. I was teaching it to follow the feel of a lead rope. When a feel was applied to the rope the foal would instantly rear up and fall to the side. It didn’t need to be a strong feel; just a slight taking out of the slack was enough to trigger the response. The first couple of times caught me by surprise and scared me because the foal banged its head on the ground really hard. I feared the foal was going to kill itself. I was surprised how calmly the foal went about it. But again I was able to cure the problem by slapping my leg and stomping my feet really hard just as it was about to rear. By interrupting the thought I was able to solve the problem and the foal eventually learned to lead nicely


I expect you find those stories quite interesting. But what really interests me is how calm and calculating the horses appeared to be in their behaviours. The way they responded with their extreme exhibitions of defiance was like other horses might swish their tail. It was like their reaction was thought out ahead of time.


Most horses have a “go to” behaviour in certain situations such a pulling back when tied up or jumping forward when being asked to lift a foot or diving to the side as they are being asked to load into a trailer. But is rare that these behaviours are life threatening to a horse. They develop because when performed they give a horse a relief or reward from the thing that we are trying to get them to do. In a sense, we inadvertently teach these behaviours to a horse.


But how does a horse learn a “go to” response that clearly causes injury and threatens safety? Horses are comfort and safety seekers, so what causes a horse to deliberately repeat a behaviour that will cause injury (such as running into fences or rearing up and breaking its wither)?


I’ve been thinking about this for a while.


Clearly, such extreme behaviours are not a normal reaction to normal stresses in a horse’s life. For example, if a more dominant horse applies pressure to another horse to move out of the way, it would be a very rare incident for the subordinate to bolt in a panic and run over a cliff or head first into a tree. So I think it is fair to say that extreme behaviours stem from extreme emotions.


But for the horses I have been talking about in this article, extreme behaviours appear to exist in the absence of extreme emotions. My hypothesis on this is that some horses carry a high level of worry. Their cup of worry is almost constantly full. In time, they become used to having a cup of worry with anxiety levels close to the brim. This results in a form of emotional desensitization. By that I mean their emotions are highly charged, but the constant high level of worry they carry has dulled them to act like they are not carrying such huge amounts of worry. It’s like a person may not be aware of what a bad and unhappy job they are in until they experience a good and happy workplace.


So I am proposing that the mechanism for the extreme and calculated behaviours I have been describing is that it is not that the horses don’t actually experience extreme emotional turmoil, it’s just that their constant high level of anxiety has dulled the way they express it. When something that seems innocuous tips them over the edge into an extreme response, we are surprised because their outside appearance indicated little anxiety. But their cup of worry was always close to overflowing and it only takes a little bit more to trigger the extreme behaviour. The trigger is often very specific for some reason I don’t quite understand. By that I mean an extreme behaviour is triggered by one specific stressor (eg tight reins or touch of the whip), but not by other stressors.


Thank goodness these types of horses are rare and I am sure it takes a certain type of genetic makeup to combine with a specific life experience to create these horses. I don’t know if my theory is even close to being correct and perhaps who have some better ideas, but it is fascinating to contemplate what how life-threatening extreme behaviours evolve into default behaviours for some horses.


But I will add one last thought that may be relevant to this topic. I believe there are a small number of horses that should never be asked to be riding horses. Their minds make them unsuitable and few if any people could make them safe or happy. It would seem unfair to train them for a job they are not fit to perform.