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Groundwork Exercises

Western Lesson: Introduce Your Horse to a Baby Pool

Photo by Heidi Nyland Melocco

Baby pool water obstacles are common in trail classes. Plus, splashing in a baby pool is a great way to introduce your horse to water crossings if you’re surrounded by dry land. (Plastic pools should only be used with barefoot horses. If your horse wears shoes, opt for a low wooden box with an industrial-grade canvas tarp liner. Either way, always put water in the pool so it doesn’t shift.)

Here, trainer Jessica Dabkowski of Pony Peak Stangmanship in Laporte, Colo., guides her student Hannah through the water obstacle for the first time. Jessica focuses on natural horsemanship techniques while training Mustangs and all breeds of horses. In just 10 minutes, Junior walked through water—stepping in with all four hooves.

“This is a tough obstacle because the pool is round,” Jessica says. “It invites horses to go around instead of through the water. It’s important to approach with straightness.”

To master this obstacle, make sure your horse will first move forward on your command. Make sure you can “send” him straight over a log or tarp before you add the complexity of water.

Water Time

To start, outfit your horse in a rope halter and long lead and work in an enclosed environment where you’ve set up your baby pool and filled it with water.

You’ll ask your horse to move forward with as little pressure as possible, then escalate your cues, if needed. First, walk your horse close to the pool, but don’t ask him to walk through quite yet. Stand at your horse’s left side and face him. Holding the lead line with two hands, raise your “directing” hand (left hand)—the hand closest to your horse’s nose—and point him toward the pool.

If your horse doesn’t look or move forward, raise your “driving” hand (right hand) to apply mental pressure. Your driving hand holds the leadline portion that’s closest to your horse’s tail. You can simply raise your driving hand or choose to gently swing the rope to apply more pressure. Start with as little pressure as possible, and only escalate your body language and cues if your horse needs extra motivation.

Eventually your horse should be comfortable stepping right through the pool. Photo by Heidi Nyland Melocco

Soaking Time

Allow your horse to stop and investigate the pool. If your horse mentally or physically approaches the obstacle, relax and allow him to take time. He may just look interested (mental approach) or step forward (physical approach).

Encourage your horse to put his nose on the pool or start to play with the water. Allow that investigation! Take a breath, slow down and allow him plenty of time to think through every stage. If he is allowed to pause and investigate, he won’t feel rushed or fearful.

If your horse stops, moves away or looks disinterested, raise your directing hand and ask him to move forward again. If he moves close to you, do your best not to step backward (unless he spooks and it’s a safety issue—in that case move out of the way fast). If your horse moves slowly into your space, he could learn that he can control your movements. Don’t allow that!

If your horse moves to the side or steps away, move him back into position and ask him to move forward again. Be careful not to circle him. Instead, switch sides and switch hands and direct his feet back to the middle of the pool.

If your horse stops and licks and chews, he’s releasing tension and taking time to think. Allow him to do this. Once he places one foot in, pause, relax and allow him to feel the water. Then ask him to move forward again.

Let your horse splash in the water while he’s getting used to it. Photo by Heidi Nyland Melocco

Move on Through

When introducing your horse to a baby pool, he may rush through the water the first time he moves through. He may also step on the side of the pool and make a big noise with the plastic. Don’t let his rushing or worry make you rush! Slow down, reset and try again. If he does tense, make sure not to pull him toward you. Send him straight through—safely out of your space.

Once your horse reaches the other side, move with him. Then switch hands and ask him to move back through the pool. Keep working until he has placed all four feet into the pool.

If your horse is relaxed and willing to move through slowly and places all (or most of) his hooves in the water, go practice something else. You may want to revisit the training after a short break or just stop your training day on a good note.

Special thanks to our models, Hannah Eddy and Junior.

This article about how to introduce your horse to a baby pool appeared in the Spring 2020 issue of Young Rider magazine. Click here to subscribe!

Heidi Melocco

Heidi Nyland Melocco holds a Bachelor's degree in English from Ohio Wesleyan University and a Master's degree in journalism from the E.W. Scripps School of Journalism at Ohio University with a concentration in magazine and photo editing. At the latter, she was named Master's Student of the Year. Her stories and photographs are seen regularly in many equine publications, including Horse Illustrated and Young Rider. Melocco is an author of Western Horseman's Understanding Lameness, Western Horseman’s Legends 6 and 9, and Goodnight’s Guide to Great Horsemanship, and she’s a contributing photographer for the Certified Horsemanship Association's Instructor Manual, Hitch Up & Go, The Revolution in Horsemanship by Rick Lamb and Robert Miller, DVM; and Breed for Success by Rene Riley and Honi Roberts. She and her daughter are currently writing a new children's book called Pony Powers—all about what it's like to keep a pony at home. Melocco's photos have won awards from the Equine Photographer's Network and an AIM Award. Melocco holds first-prize awards from American Horse Publications (AHP) for training stories and equine photography. She has had more than 35 magazine cover photos. Melocco continues to write about and photograph horses and also works in video broadcasting. She directed and produced a popular RFD-TV show for more than 10 years. Melocco stays up to speed with social media and has grown accounts to reach and engage with hundreds of thousands of fans. She served on the Board of Directors for the Colorado Horse Council and has presented social media seminars at the PATHi and CHA International Conferences.She started riding Ponies of the Americas at age 5 at Smiley R Ranch in Hilliard, Ohio, with Janet Hedman and the W. E. Richardson family. In college, she was president and later assistant coach of the Ohio Wesleyan University Equestrian Team, coached by world-champion-earning trainer Terry Myers. Keeping active as a rider and riding instructor, Melocco began studying Brain Gym—an international program based on whole-brain and active learning. As a 4-H advisor, she used the simple movements to help horseback riding students relax and achieve their goals in the saddle. Melocco became a registered instructor with Path International, helping to combine horse knowledge and therapeutic experience with horsemanship training. Melocco has presented demos at Equine Affaire and at the Path International and National Youth Horse Council Annual Conferences. She taught at the Colorado Therapeutic Riding Center in Longmont, Colo. Melocco resides on her small-acreage horse property with her husband, Jared; daughter Savannah; AQHA gelding, Golden H Mister T; pony, Romeo; dogs Lucy and Rosie, and three orange barn kitties known as the "Porch Patrol."

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