Learning The Flying Dismount

Thank you for your interest in my blog.

The information in this post

has been updated to reflect my series on horse training.

Click here to see what other books are available.

  • A survey from Victoria, Australia, noted that for children,
  • riding was the third-highest recreational activity requiring hospital admission.
  • For adults, it was the fourth-highest activity.
  • Another Australian study placed riding as fifth in its injury rate,
  • with 718 injuries to every million participant hours.
  • (Cycle touring was most dangerous, with bungee jumping 10th.)
  • Falls account for about 80% of injuries.
  • On a horse, your head is eight to 10 feet off the ground.
  • If you fall, the force of deceleration upon impact can result in trauma.
  • from TheHorse.com

There is a delusion out there that riding with a helmet is safe, so I am going to repeat the above information:

  • Falls account for about 80% of injuries.
  • On a horse, your head is eight to 10 feet off the ground.
  • If you fall, the force of deceleration upon impact can result in trauma

A helmet may lessen the trauma, but the best way to avoid a head injury is not to fall on your head. A recent survey of the latest high tech football helmets showed that even the best of them absorbed no more than 20% of the force of impact and none of them prevented the most damaging part of head trauma, the brain bouncing back and forth inside the skull. So while a well-designed helmet may prevent your skull from being broken open, which is  inarguably an altogether good thing, your brain is still better off f you can avoid bouncing it around in a fall.

Losing a rider is actually as traumatic for the horse as it is for the human, so make every effort to minimize the chances of that happening.  Prevention and preparation are my bywords when it comes to teaching both horses and humans. Not only are both species comprised of  individuals with their own peculiar quirks and ways of interpreting even the most simple and direct of instructions, something unexpected is bound to happen sometime somewhere around you.  Horses respond to being startled by moving more or less rapidly, us humans need to be sure we have trained ourselves to respond appropriately, especially when working with green horses and novice riders.

Since I had learned the flying dismount at the Mexican Cavalry’s riding school in San Miguel de Allende, it was an obvious thing for me to teach my brothers when they arrived on my doorstep.  There was no small amount of adolescent arrogance to redirect, so I gave them a definite and challenging goal before I let them off the longe line.  I informed them all that once they could take the horse through all three gaits and halt without just their seat, and they could hop off and land on their feet at all three gaits, I would consider letting them use reins and ride out.  I was also teaching my longe horse how to respond when their rider shifts their balance and/or started to come off.  I wanted the horse to be calm, relaxed and looking forward to a reward, not panicking or gleefully dumping their inexperienced rider and taking off.

I was all the more impelled to teach the humans how to get off regardless of their circumstances because my horse training facilities were minimal.  There were barb wire fences everywhere and I had to consider every possibility from a random dust devil full of plastic bags whisking through to dirt bikes and ATV’s skidding past, barking dogs, and rumbling earth moving machinery to the occasional hot air balloon drifting over head.  So I made them all, human and horse, repeat the flying dismount ending with an unequivocal “whoa’ with both horse and human freezing, until it was easy and automatic.  Once human and horse were successful at the walk, I moved them up to the trot, and eventually to the gallop.

This came in handy the day we were chased by a helicopter.  My Spanish Colonial horses were so thoroughly accustomed to stopping and freezing when I said ‘Whoa’ that all five green horses with even less experienced riders on them all stopped as their riders hopped off when a helicopter pilot decided to haze us.  They stood still even when the pilot persisted flying directly overhead, repeatedly came down so low as to catch us in the backwash from his rotors, and then hovered a few feet away, just over the Agua Fria Community Park baseball diamond, raising an enormous cloud dust while we all stood and stared.

When I complained the FAA about this pilot’s behavior, they told me he claimed to have been practicing his searches for downed aircraft and lost hikers in remote areas.  I could not contain my skepticism, as the Agua Fria Community Park could hardly be considered remote, and he started after us as we were crossing between two major roads.  I never had another encounter with that pilot, but once I began to vent, many other riders in the area admitted that their horses had been spooked and that they had been chased by a helicopter while riding.  Since there is no predicting what other people will be doing while you are on horseback, make ‘whoa’ an absolute and sacrosanct frozen stance for both of you.  Someday you and your horse’s life may depend on it.

If you find yourself on a horse that does not know ‘Whoa’, the flying dismount can be a life-saver.  Years ago I was asked to teach a couple of novices who wanted to ride their recently purchased championship saddle seat horses out on the New Mexico trails.  I was not able to get them to understand my concern at inexperienced riders taking horses who had only been taught to speed around a show ring with maximum flash and expecting them to instantly adapt to meandering pleasantly across unfamiliar country, so I insisted that they both learn to dismount at all three gaits.

After only a few lessons, the woman decided that she could take her horse out by herself.  They had not gotten far when the horse bolted, taking off at a dead run straight towards a barb-wire fence and a busy road.  Unable to persuade the horse to stop or turn, the woman hopped off, landed on her feet holding the reins, and snapped the horse’s head around 180o degrees.  The horse stopped dead, she caught her breath, and then they walked home.  The couple did sell their saddle seat horses and take up reining in a safely enclosed arena after that, but I was impressed the woman lived to tell the tale.

Be sure to practice mounting and dismounting on both sides as it makes both you and your horse more balanced and flexible mentally as well as physically.  The convention that horses should be mounted only from the left is a hangover from the days of right-handed sword-carrying cavalry.  The long sword hung down on the rider’s left side, leaving only their right leg free to swing over the horse’s back.  Left-handers were discouraged, as they tended to bump elbows with the right-handed when riding or fighting in formation.  This is bad enough at the dinner table, but is truly disastrous in combat.  As most riders nowadays would not know what to do with a sword if they had one, focusing on versatility makes more sense.

Being alert, aware, thoughtful, proactive and above all, prepared, will save you and the horse considerable grief.  Once you can get off and on smoothly and easily, it is time to take all the skills and awareness you have painstakingly acquired and apply them while actually up on your horse.  At this point, all the philosophical principles and fine theories must become instinctive pragmatic practical actions.  Once you are on your horse’s back, there is no time to contemplate the distinction between knowing and doing.  Knowledge of what is the right action has to become an instinctive automatic kinesthetic bodily response, not an intellectual idea.

A horse that skitters about refusing to stand still in order to evade being mounted is a bad enough nuisance in the barn or arena where you can ask for a helping hand, but out on the trail they can make for some long hikes home.  One that heads for the barn when you are in the process of dismounting is a real hazard.  While falls that injure the rider’s head and neck are the most publicized and feared equestrian accidents, the moments I consider the most troublesome are when the rider is getting on and off the horse.  Being dragged around by a panicked horse because a foot got stuck in the stirrup is nothing I ever want to experience.

 If it is the first time the horse will have a rider on their back, be sure that is a quiet time of day and that none of you will be startled by activity outside the ring.  Check the saddle fit and make sure the horse is moving easily and freely with stirrups flapping.  The first time I mounted one of my more nervous Spanish Colonial mares, I had just put my weight in the stirrup and started to raise myself up when the neighbors came around their house carrying a full sized mattress.  From my mare’s point of view, a huge square white wobbly four legged alien thing that was walking and talking like a human suddenly appeared out of nowhere.  She shot straight up in the air and spun around to face it in alarm.

I went considerably higher, did a complete flip and landed on my knees beside her.  This caused the mattress porters to indulge in considerable and loud levity at our expense.  We watched the mattress until it disappeared inside before making any attempt to continue.  The mare stood frozen instead of bolting because we had worked endlessly on ‘Whoa’ means ‘Whoa’; stand absolutely still until I give the signal to relax no matter what is happening around you.

As for me, I ended up on the position I did in no small part because my father insisted that we learn how to fall when I was small.  His instructions were to curl up, tuck your chin in, land on your shoulder and ROLL.  He explained that curling up and allowing the force of the fall to be dissipated into movement would save us from breaking important parts of our bodies as well as get us out of the way of the horse.

Officially we practiced falling on the trampoline, but since my mother had taken to reading us Moby Dick as our bedtime story, unofficially we practiced by leaping from the our whale hunting boat  otherwise known as a swing set, to the great white whale of the trampoline.  Adults may need a bit more structure and instruction and as martial arts studios do teach their students to fall, it would be worthwhile to take a few classes and learn to do it right.

Make sure that the horse is calm and cooperative.  If they are feeling frisky and wanting to leap about shaking their heads and sticking their tails up in the air, put off mounting for a day when they are able to focus on what you want.  Of course, that means you have to stay focused.  While you want your rider to be confident and pleased to be taking this step, your connection to the horse is your priority.  The rider should also follow your lead, on the ground and in the saddle, especially if it is their first time mounting a horse.  If you get distracted, your horse will read it in your body language and their attention will wander as well.

If you want your horse to stand still to be mounted, you need to make sure that they learn from the get go that their job when a rider is getting on is to stand still.  If it is the first time a rider is getting on, they need to know that they can get off as well as on whenever they wish.  When you are ready to mount your horse, first check the stirrup length.

You may have to readjust once you get on, but for mounting the stirrup should hang where the rider can just slip their toe into it when they fold their leg and lift their knee up.  If it is too high, it will more difficult for the rider to spring into the saddle.  They will be also be more likely to hang on the saddle pulling the horse off balance and poking them in the ribs with their toe.  If the stirrup is too low, the rider will be struggling to get their leg over the horse’s back.  Kicking them in the croup just about guarantees the horse will hop about.

If all you do is get off and on the horse successfully this first time, you have had a great session.  Horses are single trial negative learners, which means if they get startled or the rider gets frightened they will be ready to react with fear and aversion every single time they are mounted. Take your time, ask for one step at a time, and make sure that both horse and rider are confident before you ask for more.

To start, position yourself on the same side as the rider with the longe line slack in your relaxed following hand. If you tighten up your arm you will radiate tension down that line, and your horse will take that as an indication they too should tense up and be alert.

When you and the horse are in good relations, have the rider stand beside the saddle facing forward.  Have them grip the pommel of the saddle with the nearest you hand and lay their other forearm across the seat of the saddle.  They can pat the saddle seat and croon to the horse, and then move back if the horse seems nervous.

Once the horse will stand with the rider grasping the saddle pommel and cantle, have them pick up the leg nearest you, point the toe forward and slip it into the stirrup.  Make absolutely sure the toe will swing forward along the horse’s side, not dig the horse in the ribs. A poke in the ribs a boot will make the most phlegmatic horse react.

If the horse moves, the rider should take their foot out of the stirrup, step back and insist on ‘Whoa’.  When the horse stands quietly, let them know you are going to do something new and different by asking them ‘Are You Ready?’  Then straighten your bent knee and spring upward so you are leaning with whole body straight and your belly button, or center of gravity, directly over the horses back.  Balance yourself with your hands.

Keep the longe line or reins SLACK, and ask the horse to ‘Wait’ if they are restless.  Hop up and drop down a few times until the horse is used to your movements.  Then you can swing your other leg over the horse’s back and settle yourself GENTLY into the saddle.  Have the rider slip their toe into the off side stirrup as much to keep it from swinging and banging into the horse’s side as to stabilize their seat.

Insist that the horse ‘Stand’ and ‘Wait’.  Then have the rider lean forward and offer them a treat.  A carrot long enough that they can snag it without getting any fingers is my favorite.  Remember that the treat means it is ok to relax and socialize to the horse.  It also lets the horse know where the rider disappeared too. I have had a few horses become quite perturbed and whinny loudly when they heard my voice coming from their back, but they could not see me as they usually did.  Once they figured out that I was on top, they were greatly relieved to be able to nuzzle my boot and chomp a carrot or two.

Once the horse knows where you are, ask them to ‘Wait’ while you adjust the stirrup leathers, check the girth and/or the rider’s helmet.  I make sure the rider gives the horse another treat as a thank you to the horse once they are all set. Since I insist on ‘Whoa’ when mounting and dismounting, and do give the horse an incentive by offering a treat, especially with school horses, I have had a few horses who in turn insist on their treat before moving off.  Occasionally I have to apologize and demonstrate I have no goodies on me, but in general, I much prefer a horse who insists on standing still until properly acknowledged and rewarded than one who takes off when I have one foot in the stirrup.


2 thoughts on “Learning The Flying Dismount

    • Nope. I learned at the military cavalry school in San Miguel de Allende as a kid and it has been a life-saver. One of these days if I get myself a proper camera set up I’ll do a video.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.