Why Novice Riders Get Hurt, and What We Can Do About It
In Part 5 we discussed starting to teach mounting and dismounting safely. Now we’re approaching the final steps in the mount/dismount exercise. It’s best to demonstrate this process before the student tries it.
Supporting the student with my hand under her bent right knee, I help her to lift herself up so that she can hook her right forearm over the withers. Now we have her use the leverage of her arm —and our assistance–to pull her body up just so that the bottom of her rib cage is hooked over the withers. (NOT over the low point of the horse’s back; she’d end up sitting on his loins!) Her body should be pretty well centered over the withers. Her impulse may be to let go of the mane with her right hand at some point, looking for something easier to hold on to on the horse’s right shoulder, but don’t let her do it, because it creates insecurity. I always tell them that the horse doesn’t have a handle over there!
Next she’s ready to swing her right leg over and sit up. Using her arms and our help, she turns her upper body towards the horse’s head and brings her right knee up and across the horse’s back so it supports her. (Again she may try to let go of the mane.) And finally, she rotates still more forward so that her right leg can fall down as she sits upright. Hurray!
The assistant and I immediately put one hand on her knee and the other on her ankle on both sides. If she is too far back on the horse, we help her to wiggle forward. If she is leaning forward we help her to roll her pelvis back until she is sitting on her seat bones. We use the hand on her ankle to gently shake any grippy tension out of the leg. And we ask her to breathe and use her soft eyes (see the Seven Steps) to find her comfort zone.
After she sits there for a few seconds, we start the dismount—which is what this is all about, after all. First we make sure she is holding the mane with the fingers of both hands on the off side, and the thumbs pointing upward, not sideways. If the hands are not positioned correctly it’s very easy to wrench a thumb or wrist, especially as the dismounts become more advanced.
She now leans forward, and my assistant helps her to bring her right leg up and back by bending her knee and rotating her shoulders to the right so she stays centered as she turns. It is very important that her center stay over the horse’s center (not slip off to the left!) until her right leg is hanging down on the left side and she is ready to slide down. It is the lack of centering, combined with losing the grip on the mane, that causes dangerous falls, because the legs will instinctively grab, and the rider will go off head first.
Once she is lying over the horse’s back and centered, she slides slowly down with our assistance. I tell her to wiggle her toes, which will help her legs to relax and make the contact with the ground softer. She should also try to push her feet away from the horse so she doesn’t slide under him, especially if he has a big barrel. I steady her with my hands all the way down so that she lands safely on her feet—it’s very important to get it right the first time.
After I have congratulated her I have her go through the mount/dismount again, leaving out the baby steps and starting with giving her a leg up to the point where she hooks her forearm over. As soon as she is sitting upright and centered correctly, she dismounts carefully and smoothly one more time to finish the lesson.
The only addition to this will come in the next lesson, when I teach her to roll over onto her right hip as she slides down, so that she lands facing forward. Then if she is doing a true emergency dismount from a moving horse she can land running. If she doesn’t do this, and lands facing the horse she risks a sprained ankle or worse.
She will also discover that virtually every horse will instinctively stop as she comes off, as the result of her throwing her center forward. Over the course of several months she should reach a point where she can dismount quickly and safely from a horse wearing a bareback pad, first at the standstill, then the walk and finally a jog.
Last of all, (several if not many months later, if she has no previous riding experience) she learns to dismount from a saddled horse. This is more difficult because she must get her right leg clear of the cantle.
The student should practice the beginning moves slowly at the stand still, with ground help as necessary, going through each step several times until she is doing it freely and correctly. In step one, she kicks both feet out of the stirrups, and simultaneously grasps the mane with both hands as described above. For step two she swings her right leg forward to loosen it up and give it some momentum. In step three she brings her right leg vigorously back and up, while throwing her upper body forward onto her hands, which are pushing up to lift her off the saddle. She finishes by rotating her upper body to the right until she is centered across the saddle, while bringing her right leg across the cantle and keeping a firm grip on the mane. She can then slide down, rolling onto her right side so she lands facing forward. *
When she has the moves pretty well down, she is ready to try it on a moving horse, who for learning purposes should not be any taller than necessary. The dismount is best done at a slow trot, with a hand leader at first in case her right leg gets caught on the cantle. If she has done her homework as described above, the student will be surprised at how easy it is with the horse moving, because the bounce of the gait will lift her up and help her to clear the cantle.
If a student has practiced regularly at the trot, I have found that she will have no trouble dismounting safely from the faster gaits if the need arises, although I recommend dismounting as soon as one realizes that the horse is really losing control of himself, rather than trying to stay on and making matters worse for both of you. Better to walk home on your own two feet than have to be carried on a stretcher! Dismounting doesn’t mean the horse has ‘won.’ Rather it means that you are making it easier for him to solve his problem, so that you can continue your ride in safety and harmony.
I remember my surprise when one of my students, a short, middle-aged woman who had had bad experiences and had very little confidence, using this method to dismount safely off her sixteen-hand horse when he panicked suddenly at a backfiring truck. My immediate reaction, to myself, was ‘If she can do that, anyone can!’
In Part 7 we’ll talk about using the succeeding lessons to teach the student how to stay centered over the horse using the same reflexes that her body uses to stay centered over her feet. This reduces astronomically the chances of falling at all. And is one of the selling points of this approach to riding.
*Note: Many instructors teach this method as a ‘safe’ dismount to use at the end of each lesson, because both feet are out of the stirrups. I disagree because it is hard to do correctly without getting the right leg caught, which can be dangerous. It is also hard on the horse if he is standing still, because she has to throw her weight strongly forward. Some horses will even buck if you try this, in an effort to rebalance. You can find a description of a safe dismount from a standing horse in all my books.