Q&A: Refusal to Mount

I got an interesting question from a reader I’d like to open up to everyone…

Refusal to Mount

Do you have any articles or references related to getting a highly anxious ASD rider to mount the horse?  We have a 15 year old who refuses to mount but stays close to the horse and appears to want to ride and in fact has ridden before.  We have tried many tactics but can not get him on the horse.  Any references would be greatly appreciated.  

My Response

I have not had a situation exactly like this, but I have had a few experiences I can share about the few riders we’ve had trouble mounting.

The first one was very anxious and scared but wanted to do it so badly that with MUCH patience and help she finally got on. Her parents helped encourage her and talk her through it. We tried several different heights of the block until we found one she felt the most comfortable with, and went real slow at her own pace, while her parents knew when to push her to push herself to get on. It probably took 15 minutes, but she did it, and within a few lessons was mounting with less anxiety.

The second one did not like the gap between the block and the horse, she felt like she was going to fall through. We took it slow and rearranged the horse until she felt safe to mount. Her mom was a trained volunteer and was the off side sidewalker and helped encourage her and knew when to push her. When she got too upset we took the horse away to give her space to calm down, then tried again. The next week her mom psyched her up in the car ride over to get her ready to mount right away, and she was much better and faster about mounting.

And the third one is nonverbal, tactile sensitive, and very anxious. We do not do a normal mount with him, since he does not want to put his hands on the pommel and is too sensitive for us to hold his hands there, and too anxious to get his leg over the horse himself (I know because I tried to do this with him and it did not go well). We have his dad help, get up high on the lift, I support his upper body by putting my hand under his arm and over his shoulder, while his dad picks his foot up and puts it over the horse (I mount him this way because it’s how his instructor before me mounted him and it worked). The faster the better. As soon as we are on we get going because walking on the horse relaxes him, and spend several laps just walking until he relaxes. After that he’s fine.

In all these situations I see a pattern that helped:

  • use their parent to help – they know their kid and know when to push them and how much help to give (make sure they have a signed liability release and have been trained)
  • ask the parent to prepare their kid before arriving, get them psyched up to mount
  • don’t require the typical mount (at first), experiment with safe adaptations that make them feel comfortable (like changing the height of the block, or giving physical assistance)
  • try to find out what would make them feel safer (such as the height of the block, or using a smaller horse, or having the saddle pad a certain color, or having less or more people helping, etc.)
  • find out what calms them down (such as walking off right away, or listening to music, or having their parent there)
  • determine how fast to go (ask their parent) – it’s a fine line: for some people the longer you wait the more anxious they get, for others the longer you wait the calmer they get – it depends on the individual
  • practice on a fake horse first, or on a barrel – perhaps it is the action of balancing on one leg that they are nervous about, or they are nervous about something else you can practice on the ground first in a place they feel safer

What do you think, readers? I haven’t had as many years of experience as many of you, and would love your thoughts on this. Please feel free to agree or disagree and add your own ideas in the comments section below!


Note: This is not professional advice, this is a blog. I am not liable for what you do with or how you use this information. The activities explained in this blog may not be fit for every rider, riding instructor, or riding center depending on their current condition and resources. Use your best personal judgment!

18 thoughts on “Q&A: Refusal to Mount

  1. It just takes time and LOTS of patience. I had a 7 year old rider with autism (non verbal) who was a long time rider but fell off a horse at home and didn’t want to get back on. We spent 6 weeks, 20-30 minutes at a time just having her stand on the mounting ramp getting closer and closer to the horse, leaning over the horse, then finally after weeks of waiting, being patient and letting the rider take her time, she slid on and off we went. Not everyone has this kind of time or desire to ride. The parents really wanted the child to ride again, so we were dedicated to helping her. She didn’t have trouble getting on again and it was a huge feeling of accomplishment for all of us when she finally was riding again! Hang in there, Jeri

  2. We had two situations where the student wanted to ride and was too scared to mount. Both instances the parents helped mount the child and we just walked the arena. After several lessons, the students were able to mount with some assistance.
    We had one student who had a friend riding and she came. We had her mount the horse and she was shaking so bad we just sit there for the first lesson. We have a mechanical horse that TTU built for us and we had her sit on this for the next lesson. It helped calm her so that the next lesson she mounted and rode for about 5 minutes. We don’t push them…parents are amazing to give insight to their child. We also have a form the parents with the child’s help fill out “get to know me” (got from Saddle Up!)that helps the volunteers know what works best for the child.

  3. I have a rider who experiences a lot of transitional anxiety and difficulties in new situations. We use a visual schedule for him, and it has worked wonders. The schedule is printed out on a piece of paper and outlines the tasks and expectations for the lesson. There is a picture of the task as well as a word or phrase that describes the task. One of our tasks is ‘ride horse’. For this particular rider, we have a yes or no option. He loves the horses, so he’ll choose yes. I always keep the schedule on hand during the lesson and will cross off tasks as they are completed. We stick to the same schedule each week, and it helps to provide the security and consistency that this rider needs. I hope this helps. Good luck!

  4. I have had a 22 year old with autism that had been hurt as a child from falling off a horse. I put no pressure on him to wear a helmet or touch the horse. The first class he participated in non-riding activities. The second class he arrived with his dad’s bicycle helmet on and I let him be the first one of (four participants) to paint the horse. Later he did lead the horse with two people in between, and gradually he led on his own. He didn’t want to ride so he lifted the red and green cones for red light green light while the others rode. Next week before class he came out with his mom and we had him sit in the saddle (on the rack to adjust stirrups). Then in the arena he did not want to try to lead his mom on the horse, but posed for a picture. The next week he led like a pro and we practiced walking the mounting block petting the horse and then down (several times). The next week he agreed to mount the horse and we had sufficient support and a quiet horse that was used to him by now. When he got on he was angry and I just said lets walk-on and count to 10 and whoa. Then we did it for 3/4 of the arena, but I told him when he wanted off to tell s us and a bit later he yelled STOP and I said, “Thank you for letting me know,” and took him off immediately. Now he grooms, tacks, leads to the arena, mounts independently from block to the ground and even rides off-lead a bit.

  5. I was glad to see this post. We have one rider who suffered a massive stroke at age 7 and has no cerebellum. He also O.D.D. He has been with us for 3+ years and loves to ride. It’s his special time with his Dad – his Dad side walks on the trails with him and they have a ball together. This is their quality time and activity (his 2 siblings are very athletic and active – so for Alex to have this time as an athlete is special to him). He talks about riding all week … but when he gets to the barn lately, he’s been melting down. He’s ridden once since February and been there every week to ride. He is happy to get out of the car and run to the barn (on his walker) then this ‘something’ comes over him and he starts saying ‘no ride’. We’ve taken his horse right to the car for him, met him at the trail .. tried several different ways and different locations of mounting. The anxiety of mounting becomes overwhelming.

    His parents say it’s like he looks forward to it all week, then get there and doesn’t want to do it any more. None of us can understand or know how to help. With the O.D.D., we used to kinda ignore the ‘no ride’ request, put him on and go .. then he’d settle and be happy. But nothing seems to make him happy any more.

    When I give him 3-counts and he still says ‘no’, then he missed his chance for the week and I tell he cannot ride this week. Then he gets mad and goes to the car, like he won the battle … then he jumps back out screaming that he’s going to ride! What the heck?

    thank you –

    oops – not a massive stroke at age 7 – her was a preemie and 7 days when the massive stroke happened.

    • This is another interesting situation, thank you for posting it. Hopefully the comments others have left will help with some ideas for your rider. It sound to me like he thinks about it all week causing a lot of pressure and anxiety, then with everyone making a big deal out of mounting his ODD comes up. Each need to be addressed. I wonder if giving him alternate activities to riding might help, for example, if he’s not ready to ride when he arrives, offer grooming or leading or horse care, without pressure or preference for what he does. This might help the anxiety in that he can do another activity with the horse until he is ready to mount, and it might help the ODD in that it would give him options so he can choose what he wants to do instead of everyone focusing so much on the mount and riding. Those are just my initial thoughts. Does anyone else have any ideas?

      • close but still not quite the situation in reality. we know not to make a big deal of mounting – that only adds to the anxiety. we literally bring the horse out to nibble grass while he approaches – we don’t talk except to say ‘good morning’ and dad just puts him up. this has worked for the longest time – waiting makes him furious – he has NO desire to brush or speak to his horse or anyone else. if you ask a question, the answer is always NO. and he is not afraid at all – instead the opposite. this is not fear, it’s the ODD …
        we have tried behavioral mod techniques like – you can brush Rosie or ride Rosie. we’ve tried to sit him for time out. we’ve offered options like ‘you can put the brushes in the buckets or ride Rosie’. we give another option of lesser ‘fun’ for him but he honestly just won’t ‘do’ anything.
        there is no reward or enticement that he responds to. doesn’t like praise or stickers or his photo taken or sweet treats.
        EVERYTHING is NO NO NO NO until he gets back into the car – then when dad get there, he wants to get back out and ride – then the cycle begins again.
        we need something new to try for him. he is miserable until he begins the ride … then it’s moments of joy and relaxation
        thank YOU all for your time and patience and support. this one really breaks my heart.

        • That is really hard, it sounds like you have tried everything. I’m sorry it’s such a tough situation. I am not sure what to suggest, but maybe some other readers will have some ideas…everyone please feel free to respond!

        • I’m doing my student teaching and have a rider who is currently having difficulty with making the transition to mounting, and gets oppositional. (once we get her on she is happy) This week when she said “no” her mom said “Okay then were going to school” and walked to the car. I’m not sure if they drove off or not (I was working with the other student in my class) But they came back and my supervising instructor told the barn brightly that “So-and-so is here and she’s going to ride!” and we just pretended that she had just gotten there. I wonder if in your case Dad could drive around the block and come back it would help reset him?

          • Thanks for your suggestion! That’s a good idea, and interesting that this is what helps your rider in such a similar situation.

  6. We have a lot of ASD riders in our group in the Uk. Sometimes it helps if the horse is a bit smaller – we use 13.2hh a lot. We also find having not too many people on the mounting block fussing the rider helps. The carers are great and sometimes we just, in our British way, say “Up you get, Patrick, well done. Off we go now” Definitely keep the horse walking as ours tend to dismount themselves if the horse stops.

    • thank you Pippa, this is how we do it, too. anxiety increased as we approached the mounting block (at the opposite end of the barn) so we meet them outside and his dad puts him right up on his horse. we found this works better in the past, but not working now. it’s a heartbreaking situation, really…

  7. What wonderful ideas….I especially like the suggestion to ask the child what would make them feel more safe…Kids have great ideas! Also, it is okay to accept the reality (if it is) that not everyone will ride a horse…Thank you for always sending out such great teaching ideas and tools!

  8. Individuals differ in their level of expressive communication , sensory response, cognition and tolerance. Somethings that have helped riders to mount are : Social stories, actual photographs or video clips of sequential steps for mounting and dismounting. Make these available to rider and family throughout the week for priming. Other strategies for physical mounting area include: Taping off actual area to stand on mounting block or platform, putting numbers on steps to facilitate “1 2 3 ” giving rider some control over readying the horse (stirrups down, girth tight, reins over horse’s head, horse standing square ?) having one person give directions so as not to overwhelm rider or horse. Sometimes spending too much time anticipating process overwhelms rider so keeping it consistent , predictable and safe supports the entire team. Of course it is important also to respect the wishes and choices of the individual.

  9. I’m currently doing an internship. Every Monday afternoon, we have a group of people with the syndrome of Down (our neighbors) come in for riding lessons. The request is to put them on the horses as much as possible. However, one of them is scared of heights (what I’ve been told), but is too heavy for the horses she does want to mount.

    Any advice for me?

    • Hello! That’s a good question. First, I’d say explore the things mentioned in this post, in particular the size and arrangement of the mounting area – make the mounting platformbigger so it appears less high, have a person on the off side of the horse so the far-away-ground is less visible, have the horse as close to the mounting block as possible, practice mounting a “practice horse” or barrel, etc. Also, if the group is brought by someone who consistently works with this person, talk to them about ideas and what has helped in the past in other situations. It might help to have someone the participant likes to focus on or help them feel safe, like carrying a stuffed animal or having it on the pommel so the rider has something to focus on (make sure to desensitize the horse first). You might just work on the heights part first, like getting comfortable on the block/ramp, going up it a little and feeding a treat from it, over several weeks trying to progress to getting higher up. However, it might not be something the participant can ever desensitize to, in which case I would think the type of block/ramp you are using would be the think to work on. Hope that helps!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *