According to experts on equine health and saddle mechanics, the habit of mounting from the ground is one we’d be wise to break, for the sake of our horses’ backs and our saddles.
A cavalryman fighting in a war in the mid-1800s mounted his horse from the left side, so that his sword, hanging in a scabbard from his left hip, posed no impediment. He’d mount with a good, strong bounce from the ground, and a healthy grip on his horse’s withers and saddle. Today, none of us needs to mount our horse, battle-ready, with a weapon attached to our hip, but out of tradition many of us, even experienced riders, continue to act as if we do. Unfortunately, this habit is not harmless.
The horse’s spinal anatomy is not suited to a quickly executed mount from the ground. A horse’s long, graceful spine is strong and can generally carry up to 20 percent of his own weight. The spine, however, does not well withstand the pull of a rider’s weight from the side during an awkward mount. And many awkward mounts begin from the ground.
Casey Brechtel, an equine veterinarian and chiropractor in Galveston, Texas, describes how a horse reacts during a typical ground mount, in which the rider places her foot in the stirrup, grabs the front of the saddle (whether pommel or horn) and, with a bounce or two, mounts the horse. “During this type of mount,” he says, “all of the rider’s weight is placed in the left stirrup, torquing the saddle to the left.” Unfortunately, as the saddle torques, so do the horse’s withers.
The horse’s withers are comprised of approximately eight dorsal vertebrae. Each of these includes a projection of bone that points upward, the spinous process, which can be up to eight inches long. Says Brechtel, “Each projection serves as an excellent lever arm, accentuating any torque placed on the withers during mounting. Imagine the torque generated on a vertebra with an 8-inch long lever arm.”
Repeated torquing of the withers can do a number on a horse’s spine. The potential damage, Brechtel says, can include “thoracic subluxations (restricted movement in the back), scapular asymmetry, and thoracic paraspinal muscle pain.” Furthermore, Brechtel explains, when a horse is mounted from the ground he will typically compensate by bracing his body and widening his stance. “This compensation can cause problems in other regions of the horse’s spine.” In a nutshell, says Brechtel, “Ground mounting is good for the animal chiropractic business, but bad for the horse.”
Another great reason to break the ground-mounting habit: Saddle longevity.
According to the saddle-fitting community, habitually mounting from the ground can compromise the condition of your saddle. Karen Clark, a Master Saddle Fitter certified by the Master Saddlers Association (MSA), says when you mount from the ground “the saddle is pulled against the right side of the horse’s withers and the wool in the panels gets compressed on that side.” Clark does not believe that foam panels are damaged during ground mounting.
Stirrup leathers can suffer too. Clark describes how “older stirrup leathers or lower quality ones are very likely to stretch and may weaken, although many of the better brands are fairly resistant to stretching.” Clark notes many of her clients like to “move their leathers from one side of the saddle to the other frequently when the leathers are new, thinking they will stretch evenly as a result.”
The worst type of saddle damage that may result from chronic mounting from the ground is a twisted tree. The saddle tree, typically made from laminated beech wood, is your saddle’s frame and foundation. Twist the tree and you’ve ruined your saddle. Julie Kaye, an MSA-certified Master Saddle Fitter based in Wisconsin, says she has “seen saddles in which the tree has actually been twisted to the mounting [left] side and that sit unevenly on the horse’s back.” Says Kaye, “It can be painful for a horse if things aren’t sitting evenly and level.”
MAKE FRIENDS WITH YOUR MOUNTING BLOCK
A mounting block, by elevating you even just a few feet from the ground, can reduce torque placed on your horse’s spine, and pressure on your saddle as you mount. A good block is not cheap, but an excellent investment in your horse’s health and your saddle’s longevity.
Do some comparison shopping, and choose a heavier block. You can find a 10-15 lb, two-step block, or a 20-lb, three-step block for about $30-$40, but these will be too light to offer much stability. A two-step block that weighs about 30 lbs, or a three-step block that weighs about 70 lbs will be more reliable, one with comparatively wider steps, and a non-skid surface even more so. Nancy Dotti, an MSA-certified Master Saddle Fitter in California reminds that “even experienced riders can get seriously hurt from unstable mounting blocks.” Be prepared to pay around $100 for a high-quality, 2-step block, and about $120 for a three-step of the same type. Some professionals insist on the three-step, believing the torque placed on the horse’s withers can occur as easily from a two-step block as it can from the ground. Says Angela Brock, an MSA-certified Master Saddle Fitter based in Kentucky, “it is certainly not good for the horse [for a rider] to mount from anything less than a three-step unless the rider is very light.”
The occasional mount from the ground won’t seriously damage your horse’s back or your saddle. It’s the daily habit of mounting from the ground that will cause trouble. Julie Kaye succinctly sums up the opinion of most equine veterinarians, chiropractors, and saddle fitters on the value of mounting blocks:
“The everyday stress to the horse and saddle is such an easy thing to avoid; why not save your saddle and your horse’s spine and withers and just use a mounting block? It’s such an easy habit to get into, and a very humane thing to do for your horse.”
Leith Emrich is a recreational rider and an Information Specialist who works for a nonprofit publisher in Falls Church, VA.