First Lessons Mounted
First Lessons Mounted

Gregorio Billikopf
A Passion for Dressage

After the horse is strong from lunge work, a rider can mount. While I enjoy the process of getting to a goal as much as achieving the goal itself, it is an exciting thing to actually get to mount. To protect the head, the rider should wear a riding helmet. I know of a young woman who died for not wearing a helmet, and I saved one of my student’s life by insisting that all my students wear one. The rider should also be comfortable, and for me that means wearing a comfortable pair of riding pants and riding boots.

A helper can give the rider a leg up onto a saddled horse, with the stirrups removed. If done correctly, the rider will not upset the horse when he mounts. Certainly it is hard for the rider not to be a little nervous or excited at this point. A rider can take a few preliminary steps, such as putting some weight with his hands on the top of the saddle, or leaning over the saddle thus putting on more weight, before mounting all the way. The moment the rider sits on the saddle he will feel much joy! The confidence between horse and rider pays off. An assistant on the ground should lead the horse at the walk right away. This is done to reduce the chances of pent up energy building up and exploding in terms of bucking or rearing.

The horse should be completely lunged as a preliminary part of the session. A couple of minutes on the horse during the first day, should be sufficient. Over a week’s time, the rider can slowly build up the amount of time on the horse, and as this takes place, the preliminary lunging time is reduced. It is still a good idea to warm up the horse with a lunge line after the horse is fully accustomed to the rider, and even with the well trained horse. This probably does much to reduce injury to the horse.

The rider is lunged with the full support of one assistant. Little by little the rider will take over the aids of the lunging helper. The way the horse learns to understand the aids from the rider, is that the rider gently asks the horse to move forward, and this is followed by the aids from the assistant on the ground. The horse quickly learns to act when first touched by the rider, rather than waiting for the assistant. At first the trainer mounts with loose reins and the assistant in the center is responsible for working the horse (see Figure 3-1). Similarly, the rider will gently ask the horse for downward transitions followed by the assistant asking for the same from the ground.

Figure 3-1. When the horse is first mounted, the rider allows the assistant to lunge the horse

The rider has no reason to get bored during this period of lunging: he can practice his seat. A "fifth rein" or pommel strap may be used with much benefit. Doing seat exercises (pommel straps and exercises are covered more completely in a later chapter on seat development) will do much more than prevent boredom, however. The exercises are so constructed as to help the rider become one with the horse, learning to feel the muscles of the horse as if they were his own; muscles that hopefully one day he will control as if they were his own (see Figure 3-2). It is a thrill to be on the horse and stretch with the horse, becoming more and more one. Lunging will include mostly walk and trot, and will later incorporate canter. If the horse falls into a canter, he should not be punished, but after a 20 seconds or so, be gently helped back to the trot.

Figure 3-2. Seat exercises help the rider become one with the horse

After the horse allows the rider to substitute his legs for the whip for forward impulsion, then the seat begins to be added, and the reins, until all the natural aids take over and are substituted for the well known (to the horse) lunging aids (see Figure 3-3). There is no need to rush this period, which could easily last a couple of weeks or more.

Figure 3-3. Little by little the horse learns to look to the rider rather than to the assistant for the aids

After a while, the rider will add stirrups so he can begin to alternate sitting (Figure 3-4) and posting trot (Figure 3-5). Most of the work with the green horse will now be done posting the trot. The rider sits the posting trot when the inside hindquarter is on the ground, and rises off the stirrups when the inside hind leg is off the ground. This is done so that the horse can support the weight of the rider when he is in the best position to do so, when the inside hindquarter is well forward towards his center of gravity. Riders can feel for the diagonals. But they can also look, and since they are not going to look back toward the inside hindquarter, they can look at the equivalent leg, the right fore shoulder, which will move together with it, as a diagonal pair. That means that the rider raises up on the stirrups when the outside shoulder is forward, and sits when the outside shoulder is back.

After the rider can quietly bring the horse up to the canter and back to the halt (through the intermediate steps) without the help on the lunging assistant, the time has come to take the lunge line off. The assistant may still be of use for a time, as he holds the lunging whip in the center of the arena.

It should be noted that the rider should never apply a see-saw action to the reins for any purpose: not softly, not roughly, not ever! The dressage horse will learn to listen to the rider’s hands, and this will only serve to desensitize the horse. We shall say much more about the feeling of the reins and putting the horse on the bit at a later chapter, but this important warning cannot be overly underscored.

The side reins need to remain on the green horse during this time. When the side reins are finally removed, the rider must remember not to sit the trot on a green horse, but always post. The is done as not to put weight on a horse whose head and back are not in the proper position to receive the weight.

Figure 3-4. When the rider sits the trot on a green horse, side reins should be used

Figure 3-5. The posting trot is easier on a green horse’s back.


At first the rider is lunged on the horse without stirrups and with side reins. This is a good time for the rider to do seat exercises and become one with the horse. The rider needs to wear a helmet and clothes that make him comfortable. Over a period, the amount of time the horse is lunged without a rider is reduced and the time on is increased. Little by little the rider will take over the aids, until the lunging assistant is no longer needed.

The rider should never apply a see-saw action to the reins. Side reins are needed when the rider sits on the saddle, as not to put weight on a horse whose head and back are not in the proper position to receive the weight. When the side reins are finally removed, at this stage the rider must remember not to sit the trot.

© 1999-2010 Gregorio Billikopf

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A Passion for Dressage
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19 May 2010