It is traditional to mount horses from the left side but this causes undesirable asymmetries in both horse and rider – and in equipment! To combat this we should get into a habit of mounting from both sides!
If you have come from a fairly traditional riding background you will have been taught that a horse has a near side and an off side. The near side is the left and almost everything you do that involves approaching the horse on the ground will be done from this side. You will tack up from this side, put a headcollar on from this side and mount from this side. In fact, most of your equipment – headcollars, bridles, rugs etc – are designed with this tradition in mind. To try to use them from the other side would be an arm gymnastics challenge!
But is this a good idea and a tradition we should adhere to? At first glance it doesn’t seem that always doing things on the left would have much impact. However, think about this: If you also learned about stable management, you will probably have been taught at some point that something you should do before every ride is swap your left and right stirrups over. The reason you do this is because you want to keep your stirrups of equal lengths. If you don’t swap them over, the left stirrup leather gradually stretches and becomes longer than the right. This happens because you always mount from the left and that instant of putting more weight in the left stirrup stretches the leather on that side. By swapping them over, both stirrup leathers get stretched equally so that over time both become longer and you don’t end up with unequal stirrups…
While stirrups will stretch less if you mount from a mounting block, it will still happen. If you don’t swap them over, you will find that one ends up longer than the other and eventually you’ll need to replace your stirrup leathers. If you were never taught this trick and have had the good fortune to have your own horse, you might have noticed at some point that your stirrups were no longer equal – now you know why!
Now instead of swapping your stirrup leathers around every ride, you could just swap which side you get on from! In fact, the idea that you’d swap the leathers around instead of getting on from the other side is a bit ridiculous! It takes much more time and effort to swap the leathers! By swapping which side you mount from but keeping the leathers the same, you ensure that each time you mount you stretch the stirrup on that side a little bit but not the other. That way, over time, both stirrups stretch an equal amount.
However, this article isn’t really about stirrup leather lengths! While having to buy new leathers might be a bit of an inconvenience, it’s not a ‘serious’ problem. The real reason you might want to consider mounting from both sides is the effect it has on you and your horse!
We all know that by repeating the same movement over and over again, we can change how our bodies are built and what we can do with them. If you struggle to touch your toes, for instance, a simple way to gain the ability to do so is to do some daily stretches reaching for your toes. Over time, you will find that you are able to reach your toes. The same is true for building muscle. If you want to be able to lift a certain weight easily, doing so repeatedly will gradually build the muscles you need to be able to do so. Interestingly, you don’t have to do this for very long to feel the effect – a short stretching or weight-lifting session daily will do the trick over time.
So just as the stirrup leathers stretch over time, so your body and the horse’s body are gradually influenced by mounting only from one side. Even if you use a mounting block to reduce the effort on your part and the impact on your horse, you are still creating asymmetries in the both of you by only mounting from one side. Your bodies don’t stop exercising just because you aren’t thinking of it as an ‘exercise session’!
We all have it drilled into us that we must work the horse equally on both sides when riding because we don’t want to cultivate asymmetries. And yet we only ever do things on one side on the ground, encouraging the horse to bend and flex consistently only in one direction and building muscle from bracing only on one side! We spend so much time with our horses on the ground – this is bound to show up in our riding!
Your horse will not only show some physical asymmetries due to always bracing and bending in the same direction but also some psychological ones. For instance you might find that your horse will spook if you try to mount or dismount from the other side as they are not used to it. Right now you might find it difficult to imagine under what circumstances you might need to mount or dismount from the right side but if you are caught in a tight spot it’ll be too late to work on the issue! You might even find that mounting on the other side actually solves (at least temporarily) some unwanted habits such as fidgeting at the mounting block. This is because the horse hasn’t learned to evade being mounted if you approach from the right instead of the left. Just as with ridden work, a horse should be accustomed to us doing everything from both sides on the ground as well.
To test how much you have been affected by only mounting from one side, a simple experiment is just to try and mount from the other! Most people find this quite difficult at first. The reason it is difficult is all the little asymmetries that have built up in your body over time from always doing it from the left. That feeling that you’re “not used to it” is exactly those effects coming together and making it harder for you! If you start to mount from both sides regularly, you’ll gradually find that mounting from the right becomes just as easy as mounting from the left. You’ll feel like your body “got used to it”. What’s really happening is that you are slowly stretching and working the parts of your body that you need to be able to mount the other way as well.
For some people who experience pain in certain parts of their body while riding, beginning to mount from the ‘off’ side regularly can actually be a revelation. Pain in hips, knees and ankles can disappear overnight because it was actually caused by the repeated strain of mounting from the left. You can imagine that your horse might experience the same relief!
So if there are many benefits to mounting from both sides, why is it so unusual? Tradition is a powerful thing! Instead of thinking about the logic of the traditional activity (which probably dates back to sword-bearing days!), it is easy to just come up with ways to combat the problems it creates – swapping our stirrup leathers before every ride or doing carrot stretches with our horse for instance. It takes a bit more mental effort to think it through and realise the effect we are having on our horses’ bodies and minds – and our own. Neither human or horse asymmetries can be completely alleviated simply by mounting from both sides. But it doesn’t take much effort to make this small change in your routine and will only do you both – and your tack – some good!