Advice is one of those things that you can offer, but is rarely taken on board. Which can be frustrating and a bit demoralising (I’m learning to not take it personally) but occasionally you get asked for advice and someone listens, processes and acts on your suggestions or theories. Of which, I obviously like to hear about how they’re getting on. So that I can learn if my advice was any good in the first place, and if not how or what are they doing to overcome their problem.
A few weeks ago a friend told me how her mare had thrown a fit on mounting and bolted around the arena, bucking her off. The mare has never been great to mount – fidgety and tense – but now they were at a crux point and needed to try to overcome it. She behaved for the rest of her rides, which was what made it such a frustrating and limiting thing.
We had a bit of a chat about the mare’s history and what could possibly trigger such a violent reaction.
She’s a big horse – a Clydesdale cross – and was broken in in Ireland, hunted for a season and then came over to England and sold to her current owner. Unfortunately, since having her teeth rasped it appears that she was younger than what she was when she was sold in England. Counting backwards, we deduced that the mare was backed at two and hunted as a rising three year old.
Big horses are slow to mature, so I wondered if the fact she was backed so young meant that she wasn’t physically strong enough (muscularly or skeletally) to cope with the mounting procedure. Have you seen the slow motion videos that show the twist in the horse’s spine as you mount? There’s a lot of pressure on the horse’s back.
Given that she was backed, hunted and sold to England within a year, it’s also possible that she was rushed, and backed before she accepted each stage, and so she was unhappy with the mounting process because she hadn’t accepted it.
As a large horse, perhaps she was ridden by large riders. Who she struggled to carry with her immature body, which will have negative connotations with mounting and riding. Also, even when mounting with a block you can still end up climbing up onto a high horse. So perhaps a combination of heavier riders and cumbersome mounting procedures caused her pain.
Then of course is the whole saddle and back check route, but my friend is knowledgeable enough to monitor both areas, so it’s unlikely to be a poorly fitting saddle or a bad back that causes the issue. However, horses have excellent memories and it is possible that a badly fitting saddle was used when she was young, so bounced or moved around and caused bruising or discomfort, and it is the memory of this pain which triggers her reactions.
Unfortunately, the mare can’t tell us what upsets her about mounting, so I suggested to my friend that she started from the very beginning, and discovered at what point the mare objected.
With a well fitted saddle and clean bill of health, start by jumping up and down on the near side. Does the bouncing movement upset the horse? What about if you tap and make a fuss on the saddle? This is only of the first stages of backing a horse, and gets them used to noise and movements on their back, as well as someone jumping around.
Will the mare accept a quiet leg up and lean over the saddle? Thankfully my friend is lightweight and has a strong fiancé so this should be easily performed in a quiet manner. If this doesn’t bother the mare, then mounting could involve lying over the saddle, having the left foot put into the stirrup and then whilst keeping the body low, swing the right leg over and then sit up. Perhaps this method is needed for a couple of weeks to keep the mare calm and happy – banishing negative memories!
From this, you could evolve into the usual leg up technique, with more jump and a smooth swing over the saddle.
All of the previous steps involve mounting with no pressure put on the back, and no twisting of the saddle. If the mare is happy with all of this, then it suggests that she suffered riders hauling themselves onto her and subsequent pain in her young back.
This next stage is easier with a smaller horse, but still possible if you can get a high enough mounting block. Try mounting from a mounting block that allows you to just swing your leg over – again, no pressure on the spine. Then once she’s happy, put the left foot into the stirrup and step over. This is when pressure starts to be applied to the back, and when the mare could react. Someone holding the right stirrup will prevent the saddle moving, and the fact that such a high mounting block is being used there is no climbing motion in the mounting procedure, means that it’s only a little bit of pressure on the left side of the back.
From using a high mounting block, you could then progress to the usual mounting block, which means mounting can take place anywhere without an issue.
Hopefully by building the mounting procedure back up, step by step, my friend could find the trigger point for her mare’s upset, and then work at that stage until the mare fully accepted it and seems happy. It’s a trial and error procedure, and needs approaching calmly with plenty of reassurance for the horse so that positive associations are built around mounting. They can then find the best mounting procedure for the two of them, be it leg ups or a high mounting block which will enable them to get out and about to competitions and clinics.