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Trouble Mounting Horse


Since spring of this year, my daughter's 7 year old mare steps away from her when she tries to mount her and just recently started pinning my daughter against the horse trailer when she tries to tighten the girth. We took her to a horse chiropractor in July and he treated her and said the base of her neck was sore. My daughter has grown very impatient with the mare because of the struggle to saddle and mount her and has been shanking the mare and yelling at her. I think she may still have pain somewhere or she may be afraid of my daughter because she's so frustrated with the mare. Do you have any suggestions on how to break this bad habit? We have had this mare about 2 1/2 years and she was very sweet and would do anything my daughter asked of her up until this point.


Hello Vickie,

This is a very common problem actually and usually not too difficult to remedy. It first has to do with changing the agenda to connection, relationship and leadership. Stop focusing on the task (getting on and riding) and begin to focus on the relationship first. There is so much more to appropriate relationship with a horse than grooming, feeding, petting and riding. Horses get 'sour' and frustrated without real connection through appropriate leadership on the ground first. Ground games and exercises should always be done prior to riding and with the intention of connection and bonding (as opposed to simple warming the horse up to be ridden). Horses need this to keep a healthy mental attitude towards the humans interacting with it. They need to be appropriately and consciously guided and led through simple ground maneuvers (conscious leading forward, stopping, turning, backing, lunging, etc.) in order to keep tuned into the human and bonded. Without this sort of interaction along with the riding, humans and horses suffer. Plus, we humans tend to objectify horses and think they are doing something to us by being stubborn and willful. We really do need to understand it is so much more about us than it is about the horse. Taking responsibility is a big step for humans. I can tell by your email that there is not too much else going on with the relationship with the horse other than your perception this is a sweet horse that has now become cranky and disobedient. Thank you for your effort to see if the horse is in pain. Personally I think the horse is suffering from lack of appropriate and conscious connection with the humans interacting with it. More than we give them credit for, horses are a relationship-based animal. You are all part of the horse's herd. Additionally, it is always looking for the leader.

The horse does not need discipline; it needs leadership and skillful leadership at that. "Shanking" the horse and yelling at do nothing but make the situation worse. First off, get connected. Do some simple ground exercises with the intention of establishing connection, trust and appropriate leadership by the human before anything else happens.

If, when your daughter rides the horse and the horse is uncomfortable (ill-fitting saddle causing pain, foot problems, mouth problems, etc.) eventually the horse will not want to be saddled or ridden. These things should all be looked at. So, over time, the horse becomes less and less wanting to be ridden. Your exploration of the possibility of pain in the horse is very good. Make certain you have covered all the bases.

For the 'girthy' behavior, first of all is to evaluate the saddle fit. Most saddles do not fit the horses they are used on. You need someone trained to evaluate the fit of the saddle to do this. If you were wearing an article of clothing that didn't fit, over time or even right away you would not want to wear it as moving in it would cause you discomfort. The horse has to carry the weight of the rider and the proper fitting of the saddle is a must. It may have taken this long for the horse to have 'hit the wall' with the saddle as horses are noble and will do their job when in pain quite a bit. To re-acclimate the horse to the saddle, it needs to be re-introduced. Take a girth or even a terrycloth towel, have a person on the opposite side of the horse and bring up the girth gently by hand. Do a sea-saw motion with it. Also, just rubbing the girth area with the hand in a gentle fashion can help a horse get acclimated to feeling the girth and being handled in that area. Next, gently and thoughtfully re-introduce the saddle. Do not tighten the girth much, but rather, just enough to keep the saddle from slipping. Then walk the horse around a bit (even lunge the horse with the saddle on for 10 minutes). Only after the horse has shown it is comfortable and compliant should riding be attempted. This horse does not trust it will not be in pain when ridden and that is the problem. Also, there just does not seem to be much leadership or real conscious connection going on. There is so much more to good horsemanship than riding. It really happens on the ground.

As far as the moving off when trying to be mounted by a rider, this stems from the same problem of anticipating pain (anxiety, unsure, nervous, etc.). Something to try is to not attempt to restrain the horse. It is too big and strong to restrain. Do not attempt to discipline the animal either. It is not a discipline problem. Rather when it moves, direct it to keep moving around in a very tight circle (4-5 times). Then ask for a stop

"HO!" and attempt to get on board. If the horse keeps moving off, direct its movement around in tight circles again and keep repeating the process until it is happy to just stand and be quiet while the rider gets in the saddle. Movement is work and horses are naturally lazy for their own survival. If they run or move too much they are too tired to run any more and will be picked off by a predator. They want to conserve energy whenever possible. So, putting a horse to 'work' is a good way to modify behavior you do not want. It is not punishment or discipline. It gives the horse a choice, which is far superior to trying to make it do something.

Does your daughter have any real ground skills to establish 'compassionate, skillful leadership' of the horse? If not, she needs to develop them. It is a good thing if she really cares about the horse and not just her riding of the horse. Then she will have the desire for the horse to be feeling good, that the horse trusts her and for a more mutually satisfying relationship. As it seems now from the email, other than that one visit to the chiropractor, I don't see anything else in the way of pain diagnosis, establishment of trust, appropriate leadership, real mutual respect established or sought. Riding should be the icing on the cake of the relationship with a horse. The true beginning is the trust, respect and great relationship that are formed before any riding takes place.

From your email I see you are highly educated, professional and are working with the development of the human potential within an organizational environment. Bring your skills to this relationship with the horse. Support your daughter and her horse in a more than linear way. Go for TRUST, development of MUTUAL RESPECT, appropriate CONNECTION, excellent LEADERSHIP, COMPASSION, KINDNESS and, above all, FORGIVENESS.

Sincerely yours, Franklin

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