Does your horse act as if he’ll go down like the Titanic if he has to cross a water puddle? Would he rather scale a cliff than cross a creek? If so, here’s your ticket for a safe passage to the other side.
What was it about water that made my trusty trail mount so fearful? I thought about this one day as I retreated for home, defeated by my horse and a 4-foot-wide creek. I realized that, while I was meticulous about training my horse to have impeccable manners on the ground and under saddle, I never took the time to teach him to cross water. Rather than dealing with the situation, I would just hang on and hope for the best. I had an “I’ll cross that bridge when I get to it” attitude. The problem was that there was never a bridge. I decided it was time to build a lesson plan for crossing all types of water obstacles obediently and—more importantly—safely.
On Dry Land
It can be unnerving to ride a horse that opts to scramble through or over just about anything (usually without paying attention) to avoid getting his feet wet. Worse than that is a horse that gets right up to a water crossing, bunches up and then leaps wildly over it. This is a recipe for a wreck because the horse is so intent on clearing the water that he’s not at all focused on his landing spot. Even if you manage to stay seated through the launch, there’s still the chance of getting jarred out of the saddle upon landing. None of this makes the next water crossing any easier.
The first step is to go back to school (the arena) and brush up on some basic skills. These skills are must-haves for all trail horses, as there is nothing potentially more dangerous than a horse that doesn’t listen to his rider when encountering a scary obstacle. If that obstacle is a downed tree or a rocky section of trail, it’s not such a big deal; however, a washed-out cliff or a rattlesnake might be.
A trail horse must listen to his rider’s leg, rein and voice cues at all times. He should willingly yield and sidepass in both directions. He should back up easily and calmly, turn on the haunches to change direction and stand quietly. If he is resistant in the arena, he will be resistant out on the trail, so practice these skills at home.
Remind your horse (if he forgot) or teach him (if you haven’t already done so) that he must not jump over obstacles unless asked. He should willingly step over or through any obstacle. This is best accomplished by teaching your horse to step-whoa. Ask your horse to take one step, then stop, and then take another step and stop. When asking your horse to take a step, squeeze lightly with your legs (don’t kick), lean forward slightly, give the reins and say “step.” As soon as you feel him pick up a front foot, sit up, pick up your reins and say “whoa.” Make your cues subtle yet precise. Your horse should put that foot down and stop. Practice this exercise until your horse consistently responds to your commands by taking one step at a time.
When trail riding, practice these exercises exactly as you did in the arena. Sidepass around a rock, leg-yield from one side of the trail to the other and execute a turn on the haunches to reverse direction on a narrow trail. Practice the step-whoa as you encounter changes in the terrain. This will prepare your horse for water-cross training.
Get Your Feet Wet
When you are ready to conduct your first water crossing field test, be prepared to get your feet wet. Wear rubber boots if you don’t want to get your riding shoes and socks wet. If you’re not willing to walk into the water, your horse won’t be, either. Select a suitable location: A large puddle or shallow creek with a solid bottom is ideal. Don’t use a pond, puddle or creek that is muddy, mucky or too deep. You want to convince your horse that putting his feet in the water isn’t going to result in him being sucked into a giant black hole. Having that actually happen won’t do much for your success. Whatever location you choose, make sure that it’s wide enough that jumping over it isn’t an option.
Begin the lesson mounted. Ask your horse to approach the water. If he tries to go to one side or the other, use your legs to cue him back to the center. Don’t worry about asking him to go forward until you get him back to that spot and can hold him there. You must be firm in letting him know that he needs to listen to your leg. Next, ask him to take one step, then stop, then take another step and stop again. As soon as he gets to the water’s edge, stop and let him stand there and think about it. If he wants to smell the water, let him. If he wants to drink it, even better!
A horse that really dislikes water and equally dislikes having to do something he doesn’t want to do will usually become agitated and perhaps even throw a tantrum. It is important that you don’t do the same. In situations like this, it can become less about the water and more about who is going to get their way—you or your horse. Be patient, consistent and reassuring to your horse. Your firm cues should let him know that he has no other option but to do what you ask.
Because your horse is strongly motivated by self-preservation, make sure that your actions do not increase his fear. If your horse resists your cues when you are 3 feet from the water’s edge, then make getting 2 feet from the water’s edge your goal. When you get to 2 feet, make getting 1 foot from the edge your goal. With each goal met, convey reassurance and confidence to your horse.
If you make it to the edge of the water and your horse will stand there quietly, then dismount. Put the reins over his head and snap them to the halter (assuming you use a halter/bridle combination headstall). Stand beside him and walk forward into the water, cueing him to do the same. Many horses that won’t cross water on their own will willingly follow their rider through. If this goes well, stop when your horse has all four feet in the water and let him get used to it. Continue through the water to the opposite bank. If your horse gets anxious, slow down. Don’t allow him to rush out of the water.
Repeat this exercise, walking back and forth across the water until your horse follows you willingly without hesitation. Then mount up and repeat the exercise under saddle. Once your horse calmly crosses this particular puddle or creek, go in search of another and repeat the lesson or ride around for a while and then return to the same water crossing. Finally, accept that you will need to repeat this exercise every time you encounter a water crossing until your horse accepts that all water crossings are more or less the same.
Monkey See, Monkey Do
If your horse fails this exercise miserably and the only progress you make is getting him to stand still for a few minutes 6 feet from the water’s edge, then you must resort to conning him into crossing the water. The best way to con a horse is by bringing along another horse. If you follow my monthly Trail Guide column, you know I am a big proponent of the “buddy system.” A green trail horse will quickly bond with another, more experienced horse and follow him wherever he goes, including through water.
Put the veteran horse in the lead. Have him walk to the edge of the water and then into it. Cue your horse to follow. Ideally, you’d like for him to step into the water, sniff it and taste it. If he won’t, then have the veteran horse move farther into the water and out to the opposite bank. Your horse will be torn between not wanting to step into the water and not wanting to be left behind. As soon as you get him into the water, stop him or at least slow down his forward movement. Remember, you don’t want him rushing out of the water. Make him walk out calmly.
Turn around and do it again. You will likely find that it will take just as long as it did the first time. In your horse’s mind, the same water crossing from the opposite direction isn’t the same water crossing. Repeat the exercise until your horse willingly enters the water without hesitation and leaves it calmly.
Next, go for a short ride and then return to the water crossing or go to another one. You want to expose your horse to the obstacle repeatedly in the same day,
and then go back as regularly as possible.
Once your horse is comfortable walking through puddles and creeks, the next exercise is to cross a narrow water obstacle. The goal of this lesson is to walk through or over something that he could easily jump. Utilize the step-whoa command to achieve this. Practice by going back and forth across the obstacle until your horse is electing to walk over or through it on his own.
Jennifer Nice is an award-winning writer based in Napa, Calif. She has been competing in endurance riding since 1989 and has logged more than 7,000 miles in competition. Her notable accomplishments include three Tevis Cup finishes and two Virginia City 100 wins.
This article originally appeared in the July 2010 issue of Horse Illustrated. Click here to subscribe.