What is good welfare? Discuss. This was the opening line…
Despite their size and power, horses can be fragile animals that are prone to injury. A contributory factor to this is that they are not very well designed for domestication, the way we manage and ride them can so easily cause them problems. Most people know the pain and discomfort that can be caused by an ill fitting saddle but even just the way we get on can contribute to the health of the horse’s back. Furthermore, good mounting technique can help to prevent the common problem of the horse not standing still to be mounted.
Due to their anatomy horses are laterally unstable, as they have a long body with feet that are close together. When the rider pulls sideways on the saddle, the horse can easily lose balance and their natural reaction is to move their feet to counteract this. They may also need to move their head and neck to help themselves balance but if they are restricted from doing so by the rider’s hold on the reins, they may begin to snatch or shake the head. Added to this the odd dig in the ribs from the rider’s toe and if you consider that the horse can balance more easily when moving, it is easy to see how a fidgety horse can be created!
Although pressure on the spine is brief, the stress created on the horse’s back when mounting can be strong and certainly enough to cause back pain or exacerbate an existing problem. Pressure is highest when mounting from the ground unaided, this can be reduced by more than half by someone holding the other stirrup. Placing the hands on the pommel and cantle increases the pressure much more than putting the left hand on the wither and the right hand on the far side of the saddle behind the flap. Both lengthening the left stirrup and bouncing on the right leg are also bad ideas, as they too increase pressure on the spine. The best practice, unsurprisingly, is mounting from a higher block and preferably without using the stirrup at all. Having a leg up produces lower pressures on the back too.
Unwanted behaviours when mounting include swinging the hindquarters away, stepping forward and walking off. At the extreme, some horses will trot off or even bolt and buck. Once any pain and discomfort has been removed, the tack has been checked for good fit and the rider’s mounting technique has been addressed, training can begin to teach the horse to stand still. An excellent method for sustainable results is to break the mounting procedure down into small steps and utilise clicker training to mark and reward the desired behaviour. This has been shown many times to produce a horse that will not only stand still but who will also willingly approach and line up to the mounting block when asked.