Horse Afraid of Mounting Block

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What To Do With a Horse Afraid of His Rider

Question: Hello Julie, I have a 4 year old registered paint gelding, Zippo Pine Bar bred, tall and gorgeous that I have had for just over a year! But, he is terrified when I step near or into the saddle. I bought him knowing he had a troubled past, but I can’t seem to make any new progress with mounting. I have done a ton of groundwork and desensitizing which he does great with.

The problem comes in when I am on the mounting block. His body gets very tense, his lower lip will quiver with concern and his eyes look terrified. I usually stand on the mounting block doing stretching exercises and touching/patting him all over until he relaxes, which sometimes doesn’t happen! If I get on without using my stirrup he is OK, still nervous but stands fine. However, if I even start to put weight in my stirrup he will bolt away from me, and once that has happened I will not be able to mount that day (he gets way too freaked out).

Strangely enough though, once I am on you would never know he is such a challenge to get on. He rides like a dream, still green, but a wonderful 4 yr old! I have all the time and patience in the world for this horse, he truly is an amazing animal that was damaged by an uncaring human by no fault of his own. I just want some direction on where to go with him!

Thank you so much!
Nichole

Answer: Nichole, Sounds like your horse was lucky to find you! It is not hard to make drastic mistakes in the process of starting a horse under saddle. There are many steps at which things can go very wrong and there are many stupid mistakes to be made by people in the complicated process of training a young horse to be ridden.

Who knows what happened with your horse in the past, but chances are it was entirely preventable. That’s why I always encourage people to hire a professional to put a good foundation on your young horse—it is a time that can make or break a horse’s riding career. In your case, it seems like his previous training left him broken, but not broke.

During the process of introducing a horse to the saddle, to mounting, to balancing the weight of the rider, to taking cues from the rider, there are many crucial steps that, done wrong, can turn into a very negative training experience for the horse which may cause problems for the rest of his life. Something went wrong with your horse—either something hurt him physically like an ill-fitted saddle or something scared him so badly that his reaction caused him to get hurt (a self-fulfilling prophecy to the horse).

So now you are left to undo the damage that was caused when the horse was “broke.” Good training and many, many repetitions (until the good experience far outweighs the bad) will fix this horse. The good news is that he is young and still impressionable. It’s really good news that he is working well under-saddle—it tells me if you find the right technique, he will be entirely fixable.

It’s critical to make sure your saddle and/or poor mounting technique is not causing the problem. If it is digging into his wither or shoulder when you mount, he has good reason to react poorly. Unfortunately, the fear of pain may have originated from his previous training so even if your saddle is not currently causing a problem, in his mind, he may think mounting will always hurt him.

After you’ve ruled out a physical problem, only time and patience will reprogram your horse. You need to retrain the mounting process as if you were starting from the beginning, only it will take much longer. It always takes much longer to undo training mistakes than it does to train a horse right to begin with. Wouldn’t it be nice to know about all the potential mistakes you could make in training a horse before you actually do it?

We have four new episodes of Horse Master coming out in February 2012 about starting a young horse under-saddle—each step you take, how to do it right and what mistakes to avoid. This same info is also available in my full-length training DVD, Ready to Ride. One whole section is on mounting and I would use the same process on your horse. It is my hope that this information will help people avoid making the mistakes that were made with your horse.

Based on the info stated in your question, the first thing I would do is get rid of the mounting block. It is possible that it is contributing to his fear and I would want to see what his reaction to mounting was without it. I’ve seen a lot of training problems that involve a mounting block.

Of course, this means you have to be very good at mounting from the ground and getting your weight centered over the horse’s back as soon as possible, so as not to hurt his back. I have also seen many mounting issues caused by poor mounting technique on the part of the rider.
Next, you’ll break down the mounting process into tiny steps and then use a process known as pattern conditioning, where you repeat a certain pattern over and over until the horse has a conditioned response that is relaxed and accepting. Your horse already has a conditioned response to being mounted, but it is not a good one. Breaking it into small steps, releasing the pressure on the horse when he responds correctly and repeating this pattern again and again, will fix your horse.

There are a lot of articles in my Training Library, http://juliegoodnight.com/q&a.php, on desensitization and dealing with fearful behavior. You may want to read some of them—even if the articles are not exactly the same as your horse, you will likely find some info that helps. It is important that you fully understand the process of advance and retreat desensitizing and when you give the release.

Also, be sure to tune in to Horse Master on RFD-TV in February to see the episode on first mounting. If you don’t get RFD, you may want to order the DVD, Ready to Ride. It is the fourth DVD in my “From the Ground Up” series and covers the very critical stage in a young horse’s training when you first begin riding him. BTW- the previous three videos in the series are pre-requisite to this stage and cover round pen work, lead line work and training the horse to respond properly to bit pressure.

Take your time, have lots of patience and you will get past this problem with your horse. He sounds like a good egg—he just needs some reprogramming.

Enjoy the ride!
Julie

Find more free articles to read and refer to in Julie’s Training Library: http://juliegoodnight.com/q&a.php and watch Horse Master on RFD-TV every Monday at 12:30 and 10:30p EST —Direct TV channel 345, Dish Network channel 231 and on many cable outlets. Then visit http://www.horsemaster.tv and http://www.juliegoodnight.com/clinics for the clinic schedule, articles related to each episode, the gear used in each show, and for training DVDs and publications. Plus, see clips from each show at: http://www.horsemaster.juliegoodnight.com and check out specials and even more clips on Goodnight’s Facebook Fan Page: http://www.facebook.com/horsemaster.tv. Sign up for his free monthly newsletter at: http://juliegoodnight.com/emailsignup.php. Goodnight is proud to recommend Myler Bits, Nutramax Laboratories, Circle Y Saddles, Redmond Equine, and Bucas Blankets. Goodnight is the spokesperson for the Certified Horsemanship Association.

Horse Standing Still While Tied And In The Saddle

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Common Complaints
My horse fusses and fidgets when tied or when I ask him to stand still

Julie Goodnight helps you calm your fidgety horse—helping him to be the rock-solid, trustworthy, still-standing horse you deserve. You’ll tie your horse and trust that he’ll be patient as you groom and tack—just as Goodnight and husband Rich demand of their favorite mounts.

Does your horse paw relentlessly when tied, like he’s digging a hole to China? If asked to stand and wait–under saddle or in-hand–does your horse fidget and fuss, causing you to constantly correct him? Are you playing a game of cat and mouse, where he fusses and you try to fix him, in a constant game of tit for tat?

If you’ve answered yes to any of the above questions, it’s time to make a change. Here, we’ll discuss why your horse may act out this annoying behavior then give you steps to take to train your horse to stand quietly and patiently anytime you ask. With the right training, your horse will stand still like a statue.

The Reason
Horses that fuss and fidget, refusing to stand still have either never been taught to stand or have been “anti-trained” by a handler. Let’s look at three different origins for this obnoxious and destructive behavior. Then I’ll suggest three different solutions for its cure.

While one cause comes from the horse’s lack of good experience, the remaining two causes are human induced. Any horse’s behavior is a sum total of his instinct and what he has learned (or not learned) from his experience. A fussy fidgety horse must learn to be patient and must also have some structured rules of behavior–dictated by you, his leader.

First, it’s possible your horse hasn’t learned patience at the hitching post. If this is the case, the cure is fairly simple. He’ll need to spend hours on end standing at the patience post–until he learns to wait quietly.

I prefer to teach my horses to stand quietly when they’re young (yearlings or two year olds). The older a horse gets without learning to stand quietly when tied, the more hours he’ll need to spend at the post. He’ll be tied minimally for a couple hours every day for a couple of weeks and will only be put away when he’s standing quietly. For older or spoiled horses, the standing-still lesson may take all day—even for days on end. I tie young horses while I am working with older horses. That way, I can supervise the youngsters while making sure they have other horses in sight. They’ll have company and lots to look at while standing.

When you’re teaching your horse to stand tied, make sure you have a safe and comfortable place for him to stand. Your locale should be shaded, have good footing, be bug-free, and the post should be safe and unbreakable. Make sure your horse is never left unattended. Overhead ties work well for horses that are learning. Please don’t use crossties for lesson time–the horse will think of them as a gymnastic apparatus and may easily get tangled and twist the multiple ropes. Make sure your horse is securely tied with equipment that will not break. I prefer to use a rope halter so that my horse will never learn to lean or pull on the halter—the pressure and knots will stop him from pulling back and apply pressure, asking him to move toward the tie post. If your horse is a digger, put heavy rubber mats down to prevent him from digging a hole. Eventually your horse will learn that his fussy antics serve no purpose, so he may as well be patient.

The second cause of fussiness originates with the human responsible for his training. It’s quite easy to anti-train a horse. In just one or two instances you can teach a horse to do the opposite of what you want. If you’re not consistent and aware of your cues and timing, you may inadvertently give your horse a reward–releasing him when he’s doing the wrong thing and not releasing/rewarding when he’s doing the right thing.

Every time you release your horse from being tied while he is fussy, allow him to move on his own accord, let him lean or step into you (or the farrier and the vet), or give him attention while he’s pawing, you are training your horse not to stand still at the patience post. With good timing and meaningful pressure and release, your horse can be taught to stand like a statue in one session–although he’ll need plenty of practice to make it a habit.

You’ll have to invest some time when teaching your horse that you control his feet (and the rest of his body) and that you want his feet to be still when appropriate. You’ll teach him while you’re on the ground and he’s outfitted in a rope and long training lead (I prefer 12-15 feet of heavy marine rope, without a metal buckle at the chin–available at www.juliegoodnight.com)

In an open area, ask your horse to stand still by turning and facing him, saying “whoa” firmly and snapping the lead if he doesn’t respond to your body and voice cues. It’s important to face him–standing 6 feet or more away from him–with your toes pointed toward his shoulders and your feet firmly planted. This position is his cue not to move. As long as he obeys, keep the rope slack. Anytime he makes an unauthorized movement of any foot, pop the rope, so that the chin knot bumps him in the chin and causes him to back up. You must use just the right amount of pressure to make sure he’s motivated to change his behavior without causing him to move too much or seem startled.

With consistent and timely corrections, your horse will learn to stand perfectly still on a slack lead, knowing that you control his feet. With just a little more work, you can train him to ground tie, which is a very handy trick for your horse to know. These techniques and many others are explained in detail on my DVD called Lead Line Leadership.

Finally, let’s consider the horse that doesn’t stand still under saddle. Again, this is human-induced behavior–based either on a failure to enforce rules or failure to release the horse when you should. From day one in a horse’s under-saddle training, he should be taught to stand perfectly still when mounted and to only walk off when given a cue. Every time your horse walks off without a cue, you are training him to be disobedient. Your horse should stand still while you’re mounting and even when another horse walks off in front of him.

Every time you have allowed him to move on his own accord, you’ve reinforced that he’s allowed to do whatever he wants, whenever he wants. Never allow him to walk off right after mounting; always make him stand patiently and await your cue. Be aware of your horse and what he’s doing; he should only take orders from you, not the horses around you. Allowing him to get away with an unauthorized movement because you were getting ready to ask him to do it anyway is a lame excuse.

I often see riders teach their horses to fidget when asked to stand under-saddle—they think they’re holding the reins tight to control and stop the horse, but the opposite lesson takes place. Believe it or not, horses learn that we’ll pick up and engage the reins before asking them to do anything (stop, go, turn). When horses feel that the reins are slack, they know you’re not asking anything of them.

When you’re riding your horse, you may be teaching him to fidget when you think you’re holding the reins tight to control and stop him. If you’re used to riding a fidgety horse, you may hold the reins tight all the time, eager to correct your horse when he moves on his own. As a result, the reins are never released when your horse does stand (rewarding him for his behavior), so he’s confused and thinks you’re asking for movement. The horse becomes impatient, looking for a release by doing something else (moving).

When you ask the horse to stand, cue him to stop with your voice, seat and reins, and then release the reins to total slack, laying your hands down on his neck to reward him once he’s stopped. If he moves, pick up the reins quickly and harshly, enforcing the stop. Instantly release when he stops, even if only for a second. Make the release dramatic and meaningful by laying your hands down on his neck and giving him lots of slack.

So which came first, the chicken or the egg? Are you fixing the fidgety horse, or is he fidgety because of you? Most seasoned horsemen know that nine times out of ten, horse problems are human induced. If your horse needs education and experience, or if you need to change your ways, the problem is fixable with time and consistency.