When to Dismount and Say Thank You.

WM mounting block
The post-ride congratulatory noodle.

“Asking your horse to hold your weight at the halt, like gossiping cowboys with their legs hooked over their saddle-horns, is much harder for a horse than moving with weight on his back. When you’re not riding, kindly get off his back.”

This quote is from last week’s blog and Cathy asked me to elaborate. I promised I’d hold it to a moderate rant.

Let’s start by having a good ride. That means a warm-up that is patient and pleasant. The horse has longer reins and is striding up with a nice rhythm. His poll is soft and the rider is breathing deeply. You turn your waist and ask him to reverse and in that movement, you feel his ribs stretch to the outside while his inside ribs soften around your leg. Dressage rhymes with massage for a reason. Repeat a few times, asking for longer steps with your seat, and then shorter. Sweet. Good boy.

Relaxed and forward, just like the training pyramid says. Now some walk-trot transitions, still a long rein and you can feel him lift and carry you. The strides are slow enough to be big and from the tip of his nose to his tail, there’s a swinging rhythm that flows under you like a river. He’s using himself well, and his back is starting to lift.

What happens next depends on riding discipline and the level of horse/rider proficiency, but whatever happens next is aided by the 15-20 minutes you just spent helping your horse slowly warm his muscles. He feels good in his body and he is ready to work. Reining, dressage, jumping; he’s warm and willing. So let’s say you do a light bit of training and when he tries, he gets a scratch.

β€œAsk often, be content with little, and reward greatly.” It’s always smart to channel Nuno Oliveira.

The horse is happy, the rider is happy, and after 15 or 20 minutes of training, there is a long cool down that feels just as good at the end of the ride as the beginning. Moving forward, swinging big lets him step under with his hind leg and he gets stronger with every stride. So the rider asks for a halt and gives her horse a pat. Then maybe there is another lesson to watch, or a friend to chat with. Now might be a good time to check messages on your smartphone. Is there anything better than sitting on a horse?

Except that you just had a generous, fluid ride, asking him go light and forward, and now you’re parked in the saddle being dead weight pushing down on his spine, which he has just politely lifted for you. Kind of squishing all that happy, round work. It’s not great for a young horse, but for a mid-life or older horse who has the beginnings of arthritis, the benefits of the ride get minimized, just when they’re needed even more.

A brief physics lesson: Carrying a stack of books while walking forward is an example of dynamic force. Similarly, a forward horse spends less effort carrying weight because of that dynamic movement. Standing still and holding a stack of books is a static load, the force is downward. Can you feel it, maybe in your back? So we shift weight from one foot to the other because it’s harder to hold static weight and maintain balance. Make any sense?

That’s when you hear her, “Drives me nuts!” It’s Kim Walnes–she’s in your arena! “Your horse is not a sofa!” Okay, she isn’t in your arena, but it would be nice. She did write this on the blog last week, just after Cathy asked for clarification. (Took you at your word, Kim. Err…actually, I took your words. Thanks.)

Physics is reason enough, but there is an even more important reason to get off, and like usual, it’s about your horse’s state of mind. Riders underestimate the importance of the last thing they do before dismounting.

Horses learn in hindsight. They always remember the thing-before-the-thing. They are smart that way, survival often depends on it. So if bad things happen every time he gets caught, or if riding in the trailer bothers his stomach, or if what happens after the mounting block feels like punishment, they are bright enough to do the math and the thing before, whatever that is, becomes a cue to resist.

But with beauty and grace, the reverse is also true. If we give a horse a happy release just as he has done good work, he remembers that just as well. Release is the best reward, it’s honest, loud and true. Giving him a long rein and a scratch makes him remember the previous thing. Parking on his back like a cinder block after good work deflates the value of the training moment, but vaulting off, loosening the girth, and letting him be done will tattoo that moment in his mind like a big red heart with your name across it on a blue ribbon. Think of dismounting as an effective training aid.

Sometimes in competitions, you’ll see a wonderful rider finish, jump down, and walk their horse out. I always think that’s what makes them a great rider; the ability to say thank you in another language.

Quitting on a high note leaves your partner positive and wanting more. Let that be enough. Don’t linger–get off and say thank you. Then maybe he’ll volunteer to noodle with you at the mounting block.

Anna Blake, Infinity Farm.

More warm-up info (here.)




Anna Blake

0 thoughts on “When to Dismount and Say Thank You.”

  1. For the past year and a half I’ve been dismounting onto the mounting block. I had a wonky hip for awhile and the long drop to the ground when dismounting from a 16.2 Keil Bay was intimidating enough to make me not ride. The thought of not riding made me so sad I came up with a solution. πŸ™‚

    Keil loves it. It’s easier on him too, I think, and we have our little ritual. We end the ride on a great note and then I let the reins all the way out and say “all done” – that’s his cue to take me to the mounting block and he lines up perfectly so I can dismount. I give him his peppermint, loosen the girth, and we head back to the the barn. (he will be 26 this year so I admit – we have sort of graduated to double and triple peppermints to honor his longevity)

    I have to tell you that yesterday we had a gusty day with a cold front blowing in and Keil was very “up.” I was contemplating ending the ride much sooner than usual and, just as I formed that thought, Rafer Johnson, miniature donkey extraordinaire, came in the arena, went to the mounting block and knocked it off its blocks and onto its side so that dismounting there was not an option. I had to laugh. Sometimes they just know when we need the nudge to keep on going. πŸ™‚

  2. This is extremely interesting, and something that regrettably has never crossed my mind! I’ll definitely be more conscious of this because you’re so right- that release and relaxation is the best way to reward the horse for a job well done.

  3. Yes, I have used my horse like a sofa. I’ve even done it bareback. No, I will never do it again. I hadn’t really considered the mechanics, or the release. I thank you. My horse REALLY thanks you.

  4. The little things matter so much to our horse! I avoid putting weight in one stirrup to mount or dismount at all costs, having seen demonstrated the uncomfortable/painful torque the saddle tree puts on a horse’s back when a rider does that. I train my horse to stand next to something – anything – so I can gently slip onto the saddle. But recently I realized that when dismounting, I was digging my left elbow into his shoulder on the far side of his withers to ease myself down (which my 52-year-old knees appreciate) – the way I used to do as an adolescent when mounting my barebacked horse. I realized that could not be comfortable for my dancing partner, so I’ve altered my dismount.

  5. Guilty. Thanks for bringing it to the forefront, so I can knock it off. (Go, Anna!) Another interesting idea: trainer I help has a rule. She uses snap-end reins unless in the show ring. Reins are only attached to the bit immediately before she gets on and during the ride. Off the second she dismounts, and then they are clipped to cavesson buckle for leading to and from destinations. Granted this is a trainer who often works with young or remedial horses. Her point? Never ever risk injuring a horse’s mouth or trust via preventable accident or rider ignorance (students yanking from ground). I’ve seen the lesson horses breathe a sigh of relief when the reins get moved. Cool reward. Wouldn’t have thought of that either!

    • I agree, pulling reins on the ground hurts! It is a cool reward. Dale Myler (yes, that Myler) taught me to lift reins to behind the ears, hold them in the throatlatch area, and lead that way, no bit pressure, and just the reins over the poll.

      What I love about all these comments is the idea that everyone is paying attention to their horse’s comfort. Yay, us. And thanks for the tip!

  6. What you say makes perfect sense, and I never thought of it that way either. I only trail ride, and try to always have a loose rein. I will try to get off more when we are all standing in a line, waiting for someone to make an adjustment or potty or something. I had started doing that anyway, but for myself, not so much for my horse. I always think of them as being so strong, that carrying me doesn’t seem to be that hard for them. When you ride in the mountains and see what they can do, standing still while I sit up there, never seemed like it would be that hard for them. Your physics lesson was very helpful.
    I always let them eat when we are stopped. Many trail riders won’t because they think it’s a bad habit. But when we ride for hours at a time, it seems kind to let them put their heads down for a bite if they can. Endurance riders let them eat when they are resting. I have a cue and if I throw the rein forward, it means feel free to graze. Then I usually sit up there while they move around and graze. So many different ideas about what is the right thing to do. I guess that’s why horses are so awesome. They are all different and our relationship with each one is also different.
    Sorry I’m so long winded. You make me think. Stretch my mind. I like that.

  7. Interesting read. When I got my riding instructor certification, the assessors asked that we get off our horses and stand by them at the end of every riding session or mock lesson rather than sit on them while they did their critiquing. I had honestly never thought that much about it prior to that!

  8. Great reminder! For years now I have made it a practise to walk back to the barn with my horse. I may vary where i get off, and i will always walk part of the way back with them. I think it is nice for both the horse, who can relax their back even more when i am off and also for myself. Sometimes i also start walking next to the horse and if i have horses who find something particularly difficult in their training i also from time to time will walk next to them on a ride to let them relax. I learned walking parts of the way next to the horse when i did some endurance ride training years ago and i found that particularly horses who sometimes struggle with enjoying the riding really seemed to get much more positive when i mixed riding and walking.

  9. I didn’t mind that article, other than the fact that never sitting on a horse while it rests can make the horse resent riding as well, because if when you ride them you’re constantly working them and asking them to work work work, they can get nervous and resentful of being ridden because they associate a rider with hard work, and they’ll always be anticipating movement so if they ever do need to stand patiently, good luck getting them to. Another thing that bothers me is the second last paragraph.
    “Sometimes in competitions, you’ll see a wonderful rider finish, jump down, and walk their horse out. I always think that’s what makes them a great rider; the ability to say thank you in another language.”
    I think that’s actually a bad thing to do. It might be fine for some disciplines, such as dressage or a more laid back event which isn’t exciting and energetic. I ride both English and Western, I do mainly barrel racing, dressage, hunters and jumpers (Sometimes the occasional equitation show).
    My point is, always leading a horse out of gates and jumping off them inside the arena can make them gate sour. Some western riders can be the extreme ‘starfish’ kicking type, but if you see a true ranch horse with a good horseman on him, you’ll see the importance of not just riding your horse and constantly drilling him, training him to show. A ranch horse is the best horse, they have a job, constant change of scenery, and they love to work. I think the most important thing that any horse can learn (Not just ranch horses) is to allow the rider to open a gate from it’s back. When I start a horse, they learn that when they’re still green. It’s one of the basics.
    My reason for that is because in the barrel arena you see so many gate sour horses. (You can find them in all disciplines, really.) For instance, I was on a barrel circuit this year and someone else on the same circuit had their 8 year old daughter riding a horse that was gate sour. This horse was so gate sour it would go in, run the pattern perfectly, then when it finished it would CHARGE at the gate. Because of this the young girl would always jump off and her mom would grab the horse right before it reached the gate. One time it kicked the girl in the head because the gate was jammed and it took a minute to open, but the horse just wanted to get through the gate and became fidgety and began kicking, rearing, and bucking, the little girl broke her jaw and needed surgery. Some horses either see a gate and run right through it because they associate the gate with “You’re done now”, others refuse to go through the gate, others will constantly stop at gates when being ridden because again they think the gate means they can rest.
    Basically, sorry for the rant, great article, but I don’t think it should be taken TOO literally as in “If your horse is standing still jump off” Because that would lead to either a fidgety horse who won’t stand still under saddle, or a horse who refuses to move under saddle because they think if they stand still you’ll get off.

  10. I always thank them for packing my butt around and my lousy dismount. I am not big on treats. I used to be, but have changed my thinking on that. If they get one it’s a special occasion or they’ve done something very well.

  11. I spend the last half mile of any ride…walking. And by that, I mean getting off, loosening the girth, taking the bridle off (I ride with a rope collar underneath) and wandering along the lanes, allowing him to pick up some grass, and cooling off. (He’s a hot, headstrong horse)
    To me it is very important to do this. It lets him chill out, and we have a great bond because of it.
    He hates standing anyway, so we rarely do. πŸ™‚

    • It’s a great way to negotiate a challenging part of the ride, and we underestimate how important the ‘stopping’ point is for horses. Having the last bit be such a positive thing wins you more than you know… This bond you talk about is the most important thing. Good for you, and really, good for your horse.

      • I have a new horse who unfortunately has kissing spine and arthritic hocks and a few other issues. He is having all the relevant treatment and care and he is just started to be ridden. This article is so beneficial and important and especially to a horse that has back issues. I know he will thank me for considering him.


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