Ease Mounting Pressures on Your Horse

The way you mount up from ground to saddle at the start of a ride has important implications for your horse's body and mind.
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The way you mount up from ground to saddle at the start of a ride has important implications for your horse's body and mind.

Norman, your 17-hand gelding, comes out of his stall as usual--full of beans. Refusing to stand still, he dances around you while you try to get on. In exasperation, you finally grab the saddle flap and heave yourself up with one foot in the stirrup just as he begins to trot away. But at least you're up there, soon to get settled for your ride, and that's all that counts. Or is it?

mounting left side

While many riders subject their time in the saddle to microscopic examination, poring over every aspect of position and performance, one area of riding gets hardly a second thought: mounting. Riders rarely examine the technique they use to get from ground to saddle and their horses' responses to having to stand for it. But is the way we make the journey up onto our horses' backs really that significant? Or does mounting, as reflexive as it may become with experience, have deeper implications than we realize?

The Physics of Mounting
To really look at the science of mounting, we have to travel back in time to 1669 when a fresh-out-of-college kid named Isaac Newton formulated the basic laws of motion that still stand today. The Newtonian law regarding acceleration helps explain the difficulties associated with mounting: When a rider mounts a horse from the ground, he's accelerating upwards against gravity, and the entire body weight has to be lifted by energy. The heavier the person is or the greater the distance he is below the horse's back, the more energy is required to lift him and the more effort the horse must invest to withstand it. Jeff Thomason, PhD, associate professor of biomechanical science at the Ontario Veterinary College in Guelph, Canada, estimates that a person mounting a horse from the ground could actually exert up to double his own weight on the stirrup. The resulting force pushes down the stirrup, pulling the saddle both down and toward the rider. This leads to another aspect of acceleration, torque, or twisting, wherein a linear force (pressure in the stirrup) tends to rotate a body (the horse's body) rather than just pull on it. The farther the rider's center of mass is from the horse's side, the greater will be the unbalancing twist applied to the horse's body.

The design of the equine body--fairly long, with the feet close together--makes horses longitudinally stable but laterally precarious. In other words, it's easier to pull a horse over sideways than to roll him end to end. And like a bicyclist, the horse balances best when he is in motion. Thomason explains that mounting from the side inevitably throws the horse off balance to some degree. A light pull on the saddle causes the horse's weight to shift to his left legs, lightening his right side. To counteract the pull, he must raise his back on the left side. If the rider's toe digs into the horse's ribs, the resultant cringing to the right may complicate the horse's reactive mechanics still further. If enough weight is behind the torquing action, the horse could be forced to step toward the rider or to the right as the rider's weight pivots atop the saddle. The horse is reacting to the feeling he's toppling over and adjusting his base of support to compensate. Additionally, by gathering up the reins, the mounting rider restricts the horse's natural rebalancing maneuvers: stepping forward and/or extending his head and neck or swinging them to the opposing side as a counterweight.

How We Hurt Each Other
During mounting, then, the saddle, as it torques toward the rider, presses against the spine (especially the withers) on the off side and digs into the muscles on the near side. The horse twists to the right, his right-side muscles sink to avoid the pressure from the panels, while those on the left of the spine hump up as the horse attempts to support the weight of the mounting rider. In the last few years, some riders, veterinarians and therapist have wondered if this daily pull against the muscles and spine could have some damaging effect on the horse's back. Joyce Harman, DVM, a Flint Hill, Va., veterinarian, certainly thinks that it could.

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Harman, who practices equine acupuncture and chiropractic in addition to conventional veterinary medicine, has gathered data about pressures of mounting, using a high-tech sensor pad connected with a computer. The instrument registers in pounds per square inch (psi) the amount of pressure exerted on a horse's back by various configurations of saddles, pads and riders. Unmounted saddle pressure ranges from 0 to .5 psi depending on the weight and fit of the saddle and tightness of the girth. Normal riding pressures range from 2.5 to 4.5 psi. Using her short self (five feet, three inches tall), her tall horse (17? hands) and her English saddle with the stirrups set at her regular riding length, Harman tested the consequences of different mounting techniques. Her findings:

  • The highest back-pressure scores--around 4.5 psi--occurred when she mounted from the ground.
  • Mounting from a mounting block created about 3.5 psi of pressure on the horse's back.
  • The leg up produced the least pressure, registering only 2.5 psi even when performed at its clumsiest.
  • The areas receiving the most pressure were the right side of the withers and the portion of the left trapezius muscle underlying the point of the saddle tree. The trapezius is involved in shoulder movement.
  • Another high-pressure point was the right rear of the saddle when the cantle was gripped during ground mounting.

Harman theorizes that the cumulative effect of these brief but strong stresses on the horse's back and spine during ground mounting can cause or worsen chronic back pain. Also, certain characteristics and behaviors of the mounter and the mounted increase the chance of injury to the horse. Riders who are short, heavy and/or uncoordinated exert increased pressures on the horse's back. Tall people who start to mount facing the saddle exert more torque. Tall horses and those with high withers or pronounced spines experience more pressures, as do round-barreled horses whose saddles slip forward onto their withers or to the side. A loosely girthed saddle puts high pressure against the whole length of the spine, Harman's tests disclosed. Even high-density saddle pads do not dampen the pressures measured during mounting.

Still, the horse is not the only one who's off-balance and liable to injury during mounting. As the rider takes one foot off the ground and inserts it into the stirrup, then swings the right leg over the horse's back, he's in a position of increased vulnerability. If the horse suddenly moves during this phase, the rider is left hopping or dragging. According to Doris Bixby Hammett, MD, of the American Medical Equestrian Association, the first 15 minutes of a ride, including mounting time, is when the rider faces the greatest risk of injury. The injuries range from muscle and tendon strains to concussions and fractures resulting from being dragged or tossed off by a shying or bolting horse.

The Roots of Misbehavior
Bad mounting manners range from the merely irritating--sly maneuvering away from the rider--to the outright dangerous--falling down, running backwards, bolting, bucking, kicking out. You can help identify the roots of a horse's behavior by considering its history and the biomechanical challenges identified above.

Temperament and Training: If your horse has always acted impatient, fidgety, bullheaded or whatever when you're mounting him, the likely cause is inadequate education and/or an expression of his innate temperament. With young horses who have not been worked under saddle very long, problems upon mounting are to be expected; after all, standing still while experiencing the instinctively terrifying sensation of live weight on his back is a major educational demand for a prey animal. Not yet "toughened" to the saddle, the rookie also experiences a degree of discomfort--tender withers, irritated skin, a little girth rub--that's aggravated by the act of mounting. Slow, patient, reward-filled schooling will overcome the beginner's objections. A recently retired racehorse knows no mounting method other than having someone thrown up on his back while he's moving. "If the horse has been raced, he has never been taught to stand while being mounted," comments Katherine Houpt, VMD, PhD, "and he might even need to be turned out for several months for a letdown period so that he can get in touch with just being a horse again."

Overeager or excited horses make mounting difficult, but not because they're trying to avoid being ridden. Rather, they're "full of themselves," especially on windy or otherwise stimulating days. Is your horse a grain-fed, stall-kept animal bursting with energy when you bring him out for a ride? You can make this sort more mannerly at mounting by turning him out in a paddock or arena or longeing him for 20 minutes or so before you ride.

"There is also plain ordinary lack of self-control," says Houpt. "Some horses have trouble inhibiting themselves from moving out because they enjoy their work, they are excited and want to get on with it." If you have one of those hyper horses, you can blunt his anticipation by first insisting that he stand while being mounted, then walk him on a loose rein to relax before starting any faster-paced work.

Environmental Causes: If your horse has taken a turn in his behavior during mounting, there's probably an environmental component, including human beings. "There can be many reasons for a horse to develop an aversion to being mounted," explains Houpt. "A mare who doesn't want to be separated from her foal or herd is a prime example. But there can be other psychological reasons that a horse may not feel comfortable--a fear, for some reason, of leaving the barn area, perhaps a bad experience out on the trail or depression or anxiety. Has anything changed?"

Burnout may cause horses to develop an aversion to being ridden, starting with the mounting part. When a horse is confused, overtrained, worked to exhaustion, insufficiently warmed up or cooled down or chronically muscle sore, his first line of protest is to refuse to let a rider on his back.

What seems like mounting aversion may be driven purely by pain, so a medical checkup is definitely called for to look for a source, which can be a lameness originating in a hock or injuries inflicted by heedless mounting practices. Rare medical conditions also can cause bizarre mounting misbehavior, Houpt notes: "A horse who consistently falls down when being mounted could have narcolepsy," she explains. "Pressure on his back actually triggers the horse's collapse into REM [rapid eye movement] sleep. Some drugs can help this condition." In addition, incoordination at mounting can be one of the first signs of developing equine protozoal myelitis or neurological conditions commonly termed "wobbles."

Mounting Made Easier
The Mounting Block: For the rider, a mounting block eliminates the stress of having to stretch for the stirrup and strain to pull up on a tall horse. For the horse, being mounted from a block, rock or rise of ground considerably reduces the amount of saddle torquing his back has to endure. If you have a quiet, reliable mount, you can slip your right leg across the saddle from the block and avoid the near stirrup altogether. Any movement on the horse's part, however, could leave you sitting on the ground, so it's safer to use the near stirrup even when mounting from a block. The mounting block needs to be sturdy, set on level ground and located in a roomy, uncluttered area. For those who generally ride alone and don't have the advantage of an assistant, it's certainly worth the effort to build or buy a block, as it can be a big improvement in ease and convenience over ground mounting.

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Assisted Mounting: According to Harman's pressure tests, a well-executed "leg up" is the least stressful technique for the horse. In it, the rider descends straight down and lands lightly with his weight evenly distributed, and the saddle is not wrenched against the spine and musculature. Coordinating the actions of the rider and person giving the assistance takes practice, but with the timing mastered, it's a quick, simple procedure. An assistant can reduce saddle torque by grasping the stirrup leather on the off side with his left hand while gripping the bridle cheekpiece with his right hand to steady and still the horse as the rider mounts.

Solo Ground Mounting: Putting physics to work for you rather than against you will take a lot of the torment out of ground mounting. Standing close to your horse facing his rear puts you in the most advantageous position to spring, pivot and land lightly. When mounting a tall horse, lengthen the stirrup leather until your foot can reach the stirrup without straining and swing into the saddle from there; once on board, return the stirrup to its regular length. Out on the trail, a fence or fallen log can elevate your center of gravity and lower the energy cost of mounting. And even placing your horse in a slight depression can give you enough of a lift to make your ground mount graceful. And speaking of graceful, if you're very athletic and coordinated and you get your horse used to it, you can just vault into the saddle with a flawless spring and gentle landing, bypassing the torquing stirrup pressure altogether.

As the prelude to your ride, mounting lasts but a second or two, yet it sets the tone of your ensuing interactions with your horse. When mounting problems do occur, take them as a signal to search for the root causes in your own technique or in the horse's condition. It's worth the effort to guard your horse's comfort and your own safety during the brief mounting process. After all, a ride that begins in harmony is off to the best possible start.

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This article originally appeared in the August 1995 issue of EQUUS magazine.