Thoroughbred Logic: The Mounting Block

This week trainer and Anthropologist Aubrey Graham discusses getting her horses accustomed to the mounting block. Find out how she teaches them to be good citizens. 

Welcome to the next installment of Thoroughbred Logic. In this weekly series, Anthropologist and trainer Aubrey Graham, of Kivu Sport Horses, will offer insight and training experience when it comes to working with Thoroughbreds (although much will apply to all breeds). Come along for the ride as she discusses her logic on teaching her horses to be good citizens at the mounting block.

I knew what I was writing on this week when a few days ago, I cut my losses at the mounting block and tested my seriously-limited flexibility by swinging up on a hot-to-trot redhead from the ground. “Stand” wasn’t part of Seeker’s vocabulary that day, so I hopped along on one foot until steady enough to jump and pull myself up into the saddle. Successful? Yes. Graceful? Definitely not. For some horses, the whole “getting on” thing certainly can be a process.

Seeker (JC: Hot To Seek Her) learning to stand at the mounting block. Photo by Audrey Mecklenburg.

When I was 20, in my second summer of working student land, I was handed the responsibility of backing two Warmblood x Thoroughbred fillies. While my career currently revolves around eventing and mostly full-blood Thoroughbreds, the experience I gained while working with top hunter futurity horses was priceless.

I learned the value of lunging and long-lining for respect and control. I came to appreciate the importance (and discomfort) of laying like a sack of potatoes over spines. I also gained an understanding of the worth of an upturned bucket — standing on said bucket in a stall helped acclimate total green-beans to the change in height and perceived dominance that comes with both mounting and riding.

Teaching Rhodie (JC Western Ridge) to lunge before hopping on him for the first time in Jan. 2021. Photo courtesy of author.

That summer, one filly was like “cool, you’re my new best friend” and we quickly progressed through all the training steps and into the saddle. The other made it her personal goal to take me out of commission as soon as I hopped on the bucket. She would rear, slam sideways, try to kick the bucket out from under me, all with pinned ears and a clear “oh hell no” attitude. Believe me, I stood quietly on that bucket in a stall each day for many days before making that walk out to the arena.

With off-track Thoroughbreds, I don’t often have to break out the slow process of simply standing on the stall bucket, but I fully respect the potential challenge of mounting. And for that, especially when hopping on for the first time, I like to have help. I do a lot on my own with green Thoroughbreds around the farm, but mounting a fresh off-tracker for the first-time is rarely one of them.

Alanah Giltmier grabbed a picture of me readying Gracie (who had a number of months off between rides) at the mounting block, before sliding over to assist at her head. Photo by Alanah Giltmier.

No matter whether the person helping is a skilled working student, an owner, or a friend of mine, I will give my usual monologue of, “mounting is one of the most dangerous moments of riding,” and if this is their first time, they ready themselves for fireworks. My commentary might sound hyperbolic, but for most riding, mounting (and dismounting) is the only time that your weight is entirely on one side of the horse and the rider is leaning, reliant on the momentum that carries your leg over and into position. Thankfully, my on-ground handlers are usually happily surprised with the utter lack of spark and blast.

Most seasoned horses help us to take mounting (and oh so many other things) for granted. They walk up to the block unfazed and barely blink when we are suddenly taller than they are. Then on a loose (or no rein) they let us swing up, only moving to accommodate our weight shifting on to their back.

Restarting off-tracks can be a little different. While their overall training and breezing may have included a mounting block, at the track, jockeys are generally tossed up onto their backs while they walk or trot off. With the rider in the saddle, they are already heading forward.

Mountain Holiday standing at the mounting block. Mountain has (mostly) gotten the hang of waiting around until I’m ready to go forward…mostly. Photo by author.

So when hopping on for the first time (or the 5th, 17th, or 83rd time), every part of mounting is a moment to train. I prefer horses learn to stand quietly next to the mounting block (or well, in general, too) without being forcibly steadied in place. Sometimes this is easy. Sometimes this is a negotiated process. Sometimes getting a horse to pause for two full seconds requires outright bribery (you stand still and I’ll eventually dig that peppermint out of my pocket…). That said, I reserve bribery for extreme “for no situation or human do I stand still” cases only.

Having assistance on the ground doesn’t lock the horse in place (that is usually a not super idea anyway), it just gives them added confidence and provides a clear lead that they’re used to – someone at their head. Just look at any track or training footage and you’ll usually find a human or horse near the head of every runner during and in between most activities (okay, maybe racing and hot-walking aside). In this case, our ground-assistant fills that expected role – “I stand still, you stand still.” Overtime, the horse will learn to look to the person on their back for confidence, but it doesn’t often start that way.

So, while making such a big deal out of mounting, for many horses, it goes off without a hitch. Some somewhat recent first rides on Regazze Cat, Mountain Holiday, Reflection, Vanderboom Ridge, and Arctic Ridge started with steady, quiet, loose-reined mounting and my job felt (at least temporarily) easy.

In fact, so far, Regazze Cat has made everything easy (except loading in the trailer, of course). Here he is during is his first ride post track. Photo by Shane Drake.

But of course, about as often, it doesn’t always go that way … ahem, Pulpituity (“Juice”), RW’s Retirement (“Cheeze Whiz”) and Hot to Seek Her (“Seeker”). Those three lovable goobers were moving away and off to the races as soon as my weight was close to in the saddle. So… more training, more time, more exposure – laugh at them (and probably curse a bit, too), and then do it again the next day. Then get creative – hop on from a trailer, a stump, a cross-country jump, the truck bumper, occasionally, yes, even the ground (because who knows when you might have to heave yourself up on a trail ride with no easy tree or mounting block in sight).

Good thing Cheeze Whiz’s (JC RW’s Retirement) raw talent makes up for his goofy, occasional mounting block antics. Photo by Kelly Robison.

Returning to where we started though, Seeker is in for quite a bit more mounting block training. He’s certainly not as opinionated as that red filly from back in the day, but he is happy to make his thoughts about my standing on the three-step block known. For this warhorse (50 or more races), who oozes upper-level potential, each of his opinions starts with a head shake – his version of a strongly articulated “ugh.” I just think he’s cute.

Seeker settling under saddle. Photo by Audrey Mecklenburg.

So while I contemplate breaking out a bucket and hanging out with him in his stall (perhaps with peppermint in tow), I also will keep mixing it up and take each attempt at mounting — as everything else — as a training moment, a flash of potential comedy and a chance to spend time building connections with some amazing creatures.