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Riders: Before you get on

There's so much more to riding than just sitting atop a horse. Your pre-ride preparation and care of the horse can make all the difference to your ride, and it demonstrates your compassion for your horsey partner.

Keep in mind that our horses spend the great majority of their day standing in a stall. Most of them are definitely NOT spring chickens -- some are even older than you are! It's just downright rude to walk in the horse's stall, slap a saddle on his back, crank the girth tight, and climb on. Spending some time before mounting to relax the horse will prevent "girthy-ness" or "cold backs" (gentler terms for "the horse takes off bucking as soon as you put your foot in the stirrup!").

We want our dressage horses' backs to be relaxed and supple, and because of that, there are some procedures that you'll follow before you even climb up the mounting block. (And yes, we always use a mounting block!)

Saddle fitThere's a chart in the tackroom that lists each horse and the saddles that are known to fit him. There may be other saddles that work, too, but start with the ones on the chart.

A properly fitting saddle sits on the horse's back with the cantle slightly higher than the pommel. If the pommel sits higher than the cantle, the rider will be forced into a "chair seat." This is bad.

For daily work, we use the big fluffy saddle pads (they're actually barrel racing pads) to protect the horse's back as much as possible. Keep the pads free of hay, sawdust, dirt and other things that might irritate the horse's back. The pads are shaped for wither relief, but make sure the pad is centered in the middle of the horse. There's a manufacturer's tag near the withers of most of the pads -- that faces up, not against the horse's skin.

It's very important to tighten your girth very slowly in preparation for mounting. You do not want your girth "mounting tight" when you lead your horse out of the barn.

When you're ready to saddle your horse, fasten the girth just tight enough that he can't put a foot through it. Then, maybe, put on his protective equipment. Then tighten the girth a notch. Then, maybe, apply fly spray, if it's that time of year. Then tighten the girth another hole. Then bridle him. Then tighten the girth a hole.

Get the idea? Slow, gradual girth tightening. When your horse leaves the barn, his girth should only be tight enough to keep the saddle on his back should he shake or jump. Once you get to the arena, you'll continue to tighten the girth while leading him a lap or two around the ring. This gives the saddle a chance to settle on his back.

You never need to get the girth so tight that the elastic has lost all its stretch.

 The following video demonstrates the proper way to lead a WWU horse.

Approximating the correct
                        stirrup lengthOne of the things you can be doing, while you're leading your horse around and slowly tightening the girth, is to adjust your stirrups to approximately the correct length.

This will take some experimentation on your part, to know exactly how long your stirrups should be, but the idea is to have the stirrups at a safe length when you first mount. If you need to make slight adjustments once you're mounted, you can do that.

The standard procedure is to put your hand on the stirrup bar, and pull the stirrup up into your armpit. The stirrup leather just be just taut. If the stirrup doesn't reach your armpit, lengthen the leather. If it reaches with slack in the leather, shorten it.

It would be wonderful if every school horse stood perfectly still while every rider vaulted light-as-a-feather into the saddle. As is so often the case, however, reality intrudes. Riders crash down onto the saddle, and the horses learn to anticipate discomfort at the mounting block. Can you blame them if they want to leave?

It's particularly difficult for dressage horses to stand still while mounting, because dressage saddles concentrate all the weight of the rider in a relatively small area.

Spending time walking the horse before mounting, and tightening the girth slowly, will help the horse withstand the pressures of mounting. But some horses will walk off. As long as it's a quiet walk step, and not a gallop, we tolerate this. If a horse needs to move to adjust to the weight of the rider mounting, it's much better for him to go forward than backward (or up!).

Oh, and we ALWAYS use a mounting block!

What goes up, must come down. There are two good ways, demonstrated in the video, to dismount from a dressage saddle. Choose the one that works best for you.

Once you're off, run up your stirrups and loosen your girth a few holes -- tight enough to keep the saddle in place should your horse shake or jump, but loose enough to let the circulation return gradually to your horse's back. Note the section below regarding keeping one arm looped through the reins while you do your stirrups and girth.

You can also loosen your horse's flash cavesson, if he wears one.

Never let go of your horse

Never let go of your horse!

You may be working with the most trustworthy horse ever, but you don't know when something might frighten him. Even the most bomb-proof horses will startle sometimes.

When leading your horse, keep two hands on the reins whenever possible. When working with your horse's girth, saddle or stirrups, keep one arm looped through the reins. You'll still have use of both hands, but you'll remain attached to the horse.

Remember, our wonderful WWU school horses don't deserve careless handling!

Thanks to Ciera Cordero, Amanda Cunningham, Jacki Moore and Ashley Sundin for being my models for this project. And thanks to Ellie, Tigger, Paul and Ripley!

Dressage rider info

MW mounting list

TR mounting list

Free ride schedule/rules

Dressage tests

Karen's schedule and office hours