In this exclusive training series, Kate Fenner from Kandoo Equine is taking  us deep into the essential foundation lessons for any horse.

Whether your horse is un-started or already going under saddle, but you feel these are areas that need a little work, you’re in the right place.

On this series of articles, Romeo has learned basic handling, including haltering, grooming, picking up feet, tying up and ‘give to the bit’, both at a standstill and at the walk. He also learnt shoulder control in hand and has been habituated to the girth and saddle cloth. He has worked through the long-reining lessons and has been habituated to the saddle.

This month we’re looking at preparing Romeo for safe mounting.

Romeo is now comfortable wearing the saddle (read Part 7), is soft and responsive in the bridle (read Part 2  and Part 3) and he has learned the verbal cues for walk and trot while long-reining (see Part 6).

The next step is to prepare Romeo for the mounting habituation work.

I want to mount Romeo from the mounting block or fence rather than the ground because of the damage we can do to the horse’s back when getting on from the ground. Also, as you’ve probably noticed, I think it’s important that your horse learns to ‘stand’ until being asked to move, so I don’t want anyone to have to hold Romeo while I mount.

The final objective of this lesson is to habituate Romeo to having me ‘above’ him, something that has traditionally been done by riding a horse next to your un-started horse – a process commonly referred to as ‘snubbing up’.

This is an interesting lesson because we are teaching the horse to move ‘into’ pressure. Many people initially think this might confuse their horse because we mostly teach horses to move away from pressure (but not always), however, I feel it is an excellent example of how easily your horse can learn something new when your lesson plan is clear.

Top Tip: I teach this lesson to every horse I ride and usually only require that initial whip-to-hip cue a few times before I replace the cue with a click of my fingers (and later the cue becomes stepping up on the mounting block). If you are worried that cueing from the hip might confuse your horse then I suggest you point the whip to lower down the hind leg, somewhere between the hip and the hock.

The aim of the lesson is to, while standing on the mounting block and holding the left rein in your hand, cue your horse to move its left hind towards you so that he/she positions themselves parallel to you and ready to mount.

Once in this position, the horse will stand and relax before we either mount or, in Romeo’s case today, step down and lead him away from the right rein.

Have your horse saddled for this lesson as you will have the opportunity to do some additional saddle habituation at the mounting block.

You will also need a dressage whip.

Breaking the Lesson Down:

  • The SPOT on the horse we want to move: the left hind foot
  • The DIRECTION we want that to go: to the left
  • The MOTIVATION for moving it: tapping of the dressage whip
  • The REWARD for the correct response: release of pressure, praise and a scratch
  • The Final Pattern: You step on to the mounting block, the horse moves its hips over to you, you mount and the horse stands at the mounting block until asked to step right and away.

The lesson is taught against a solid fence of some kind. An arena fence is ideal as it is relatively low. The round pen fence I am using here makes it a little difficult for the horse to move its head to the right so if you have the option, use the lower fence where possible.

The horse’s left hind, the spot we are moving, can move in six directions (up, down, back, forward, right and left). To help your horse select the correct direction we are going to make three of those possibilities more difficult. We limit his choice of back and forward by holding close to the bit and standing at the horse’s head.

We can almost eliminate the option of stepping right by placing the horse against the fence (with the fence to his/her right side) to start the lesson. This leaves up, down and step left as the remaining choices, simplifying it enormously for the horse.

Step 1:

Line your horse up against the fence, standing on his/her left side, holding the rein close to the bit.

Step 2:

Cue movement by raising the whip towards the hindquarters and tapping lightly if necessary. Now is the time to be aware of your horse’s emotional level.

Some horses will begin to move as soon as you raise the whip, others might need a few light taps. It’s important that your horse is in the engagement zone now – this means engaged enough to offer some movement in response to your tap but not so much movement as he/she runs backwards or pushes through you.

If you feel that your horse is getting agitated, you may need to move him/her forward a little, just to remind the horse that this is a ‘forward’ movement lesson.

Step 3:

Your horse will respond with some movement and you need to stop cueing and praise the horse as soon as you see that left hind move left.

The first couple of times that the horse steps left, it is unlikely to know which foot movement you were releasing on however the timelier your release, the faster your horse will connect the cue to the reward.

Step 4:

If your horse is either pushing forward or pulling back and away from you, then it is likely feeling trapped.
Try to prevent this by allowing some forward movement and, especially if your fence is high as mine is, by providing sufficient space between yourself and the fence.

You want your horse to remain as relaxed as possible during this lesson – enough engagement to look for an answer but not so much as to encouraging them to leave.

Step 5:

Be sure to reduce the pressure of your cue, the tapping or even simple the raising of the whip, as soon as you see the horse begin to connect the whip with moving the left hind to the left. Your horse will learn the pattern quickly and it shouldn’t be necessary to touch him/her with the whip.

Once you have a step or two away from the fence, walk your horse forward and ask again.

Step 6:

When your horse is responding with a couple of steps to the left, putting him/her at a 90-degree angle to the fence, you can then leave the rein over the neck, walk behind your horse, pick up the right rein and lead your horse away from the fence. Then begin again with your horse aligned at the fence.

This is important because if you carry on requesting a step left when the horse is already away from the fence, it’s very easy for the horse to step right, which is likely to cause confusion.

The added bonus of walking behind the horse at this stage is that it will demonstrate your horse’s level of relaxation and reinforce the idea that he/she ‘stand until being asked to move’.

For those of you that are starting your horses under saddle, this is especially beneficial because when you do mount you want your horse to stand still and then you will be stepping off to the right, away from the fence, as your first under saddle steps. You can see that you are already setting this pattern up for your horse now.

Step 7:

Once you feel your horse has mentally connected the whip with stepping the left hind to the left, ask for the hip movement at the same time as walking his/her shoulder forward. This will give you side-pass on the ground and also remind the horse that this is a forward moving lesson. If you simply step back and down the fence, your horse’s shoulders will follow the rein and you can cue the hindquarters to step left with the whip. This exercise also gives you a little bit of momentum needed for the following step.

Step 8:

In this step you will ask your horse to move a little faster which should result in a little more movement to the left and align the horse to the fence. If your horse is moving too much or too fast then he/she is probably too emotional and you will need to address that first.

Your horse should be very familiar with the pattern now so experiment with raising the whip and not touching or simply pointing to the hip or clicking your fingers at the hip. I use the latter as my cue.
When the horse is aligned with the fence, allow them to rest and praise them. Then, walk around the back of the horse and lead them away with the right rein.

Step 9:

If you are using a mounting block, place it by the fence in the position you have been cueing your horse to move to. If you are planning on climbing on to the fence to mount then you can climb on now. Begin as low as you can – either the bottom fence rail or lower step of the mounting block.

Cue your horse to move its hips to you from your newly elevated position. If your horse is reluctant to do so, simply step down and cue and then step up again.

Step 10:

Now you are ready to cue your horse to move its hips over to the mounting block when you are standing on the top step.

Once there, allow the horse to rest, praise and scratch the wither before stepping off the block, going around the back of the horse and leading it off to the right. Repeat this a few times, giving the horse plenty of time to relax at the block.

I like to teach this lesson as described here without doing any further saddle habituation at this stage. As most horses learn this lesson quickly it is good to end on that positive note with the horse being successful and relaxed.

Next month:

Next time we will look at what can be done once we have a relaxed horse at the mounting block.

To watch an example of this month’s lesson click here.

Pop along to the Kandoo Equine website to find video of all of Romeo’s lessons and more! And be sure to leave me a comment and tell me how you got on with your horse.

Check out Dr Kate Fenner’s podcast for more step-by-step, ethical and sustainable horse training courses.

This article was published in Horses and People October 2018 magazine or buy the whole series as a e-book.