When Little Viking Horse recently announced on Facebook how pleased I was with myself for successfully mounting from the ground, I received a lot of requests for more details of the ‘programme” I had undertaken to achieve this, and I am quite happy to share what I did and what I have learned.
There is good psychology around the suggestion that announcing your goals to the world, or at least your nearest and dearest is a good motivator to help you achieve them, but for some reason I kept my newly found determination to be able to mount my horse from the ground to myself. Maybe I didn’t really know that this was what I was aiming for when I stared ‘the programme’ a couple of months ago, or perhaps I wasn’t sure I could really do it.
After all, in every house I have lived in for the past twenty years or more I have fitted an extra handrail on the stairs because of the tendency for my right knee to give way without warning.
Added to this I have a weakness in my lower back, perhaps as a result of the whiplash I sustained in a car accident many years ago, and a left hip that hurts if fully flexed, remnants of a serious cycling accident, or just over tight hip flexors? Who knows, but I had a whole list of reasons why I couldn’t mount my 14 hand (142 cm) Icelandic horse without using mounting block, and I was very grumpy about it if any of our imaginative Icelandic Horse events in the UK required ‘mounting from the ground’ as part of a class or test.
Once I had gone through the list of my physical restrictions, and pointed out that my Icelandic horse is taller that most, I then went on to explain that in any case it is better for your horse if you mount from a block, because there is less strain on them. I do actually think this is the case, and I also believe it is important to vary the side you mount from. After all in strength and flexibility exercises great emphasis is put on working both sides of the body equally, so to my mind this should be applied to mounting your horse too.
However I do also think that being able to mount from the ground is an important skill to have, if you can. You never know when it might be necessary, and I am sure I am not the only one to have had walk a while to find something to stand on while out hacking, or to have used a rock that turned out to be less stable than it appeared!
There were three main elements to what I have grandly called ‘the programme’
In the summer I started attending a weekly yoga class, and a weekly Pilates class. I have done both in the dim distant past, but this time I have approached it with more determination. As I am getting older I can feel my flexibility and mobility deteriorating and I don’t like it! I pay careful attention to getting the exercises right. If you don’t perform them correctly you do not work the correct muscles and some of the benefit of the exercise is lost. I quickly felt an improvement in my riding and in Svipur’s tolt, which I put down to my improved core strength, and this spurred me on. I increased my sessions to two of each a week. I am not a pilates or yoga instructor and have no qualifications in teaching physical exercises, and more importantly I don’t know what physical issues you may have. If you want to try this approach I recommend finding a good local instructor and working out what you need. Because of my specific physical problems mentioned above I believe the following exercises have been particularly beneficial for me:
Stretches that open the hip joints for example Lunges and Pigeon stretch.
Strengthening my quad muscles and glutes – for example Pilates Squats (lots of them!) and Bridge.
And finally balance postures, because when you mount you have to stand on one leg!
Getting greater flexibility in my hips, strengthening the muscles that support my back, stronger legs and core to help me up, and improving my balance were all factors in my success. Though I should point out this is still work in progress, in part because of the other two elements, which I am about to come on to.
To be able to mount safely my horse needs to stand still, and this is even more important when I am mounting from the ground. with one foot up in the stirrup and hopping on one foot, I don’t need my horse to move as well. Horses can learn to stand still, but it takes consistency in handling and clear boundaries. I know this, because I fail at it often. Svipur (aka Blondie) is more easily distracted than the other two who will stand absolutely still. He has a tendency to fidget when I am getting him ready. He is actually quite good at standing still for mounting, but not 100% and that makes me nervous. Within a few days of me resolving, again, to be more consistent in my expectations of him he was standing perfectly still, tied to the gate in the field while being brushed tacked up. All I did was set the bar higher than before. He can shift his weight and reposition his foot to be more comfortable or balanced, but he can not take a step. If he takes a step I simply and quietly move him back. No big deal, no ‘telling him off’, just light pressure until he steps back. He knows the rules and relaxes. I don’t try to mount until he is standing still and looks like he is going to stay there. If he moves while I am getting on, I get off and do it again. If he moves a lot, I turn him in a circle back the way he came and ask him to stand again. I never ever ride off until he is standing still. If you like riding race horses and enjoy the thrill of hoping on a spinning horse and gathering your reins and balance as you head off, then I guess this blog post is not for you! Personally I don’t want to fall off before I start.
Svipur learns this really well, it is me that needs to stick with the programme!
There is no physical reason why I can not mount my horse from the ground. I know that now, because I have done it. Actually I have done it once or twice before at horse clinics. I did find a slope in the ground and placed Svipur downhill to make it easier, and then asked someone to hold Svipur and the opposite stirrup. I was very insistent that I was rubbish at mounting and that they would have to ‘lean hard into the stirrup’ as a hauled myself up. Invariably they told me that they didn’t have to use much pressure at all, but this piece of information got lost in the ‘I can’t do this’ mindset. However, I did on most of those occasions pay with a sharp pain in my hip or a twinge in my back, so ‘I can’t do it’ still won.
Last week a friend came to stay. She happens to also teach Pilates and has some experience with horses. We were talking about the pilates I had been doing and I let slip that my (far off, distant, some time in the future) goal was to mount my horse from the ground. “How high is your stirrup?” she asked, and then looking at the height of my hand scouted my furniture for something of the height indicated. “Put your foot on the arm of the sofa” she said. I have a very large sofa! That was easy, “Now on that table” That was harder, but I did it. “Looks like you are ready to try” she said, “Come on where’s your saddle?”
So that’s how it came about. Of course I insisted she held the stirrup, and that she would have to lean really hard on it, but I got on. I hopped off. “Do it again” she said. Okay, and this time she said she hardly held the stirrup at all. “And again” she said. What? Oh, ok. This time she put her hands on the front and back of the saddle and even I could see she wasn’t pulling on it. On my own I would not have tried that day. On my own I would not have done it again, twice, to prove to myself that I could. In the end sharing my goal with someone else gave me the final push to achieve it.
As I said, it’s work in progress. I went riding two days later and struggled to mount to begin with. It felt physical but I am sure it was all in my mind. I have to really commit and believe that I can do it, and I have to trust my horse. With my increased strength and flexibility I do not need to worry about hurting myself, just as long as I keep up the exercises. Now I find myself doing Pilates squats while waiting for my eggs to boil in the morning, five and half minutes – every little helps!
A few of us in the Icelandic Horse community are planning to have a workshop on mounting from the ground, which I have agreed to organise. That should keep me focussed on practicing what I preach!