Q: My 19-year-old Thoroughbred is very quiet and well trained, except when it comes to water. It is nearly impossible to get him to cross it, mounted or from the ground. I have tried practicing over small puddles, but he just backs up and refuses to go across. I need some help before entering any cross-country shows.
A: Some horses take to water easily while others have a deep-seated fear of crossing even the smallest puddles. In nature, a strong suspicion of bogs and rivers is a good survival trait.
The good news is that with proper training and repetition, most horses can learn to cross water confidently and even enjoy it. However, it can take a significant amount of time and inconvenience to school them repeatedly in the right circumstances.
The first thing to do is to find or create a suitable water crossing to school your horse through. It needs to be shallow with good, solid footing because a deep or mucky bottom is scarier to most horses. Never ask your horse to enter any water unless you have thoroughly checked out the bottom. You also want the water to be wide enough to encourage your horse to walk through rather than jump over it. Smaller puddles are not ideal unless they are very wide because a horse can avoid them too easily by going sideways. Also, small puddles seem to be inherently spooky. I have known many a brave, advanced-level event horse who would jump huge fences into water on a cross-country course but who balked at walking through a puddle!
Next, you need a companion horse who will march confidently through water. Stand back and watch while a friend rides the other horse through and then, while mounted, follow with your horse. If he is still unwilling to go in, ask your friend to ride back and forth slowly through the water and let your horse take his time and watch. With patience and persistence, he should develop the courage to follow.
Once your horse decides to enter the water, follow the other horse back and forth through it, dozens of times, until he becomes more confident. Ideally, you'd do this on a warm day so that when he finally gets wet, it feels good. If he will relax enough to paw and splash, let him enjoy it. Watch that he doesn't roll, though!
You need to repeat this lesson almost daily, always with a leader, until your horse will enter the water without hesitation. Only then can you graduate to taking him in alone. The next step is to get him to try as many different water crossings as possible, first with a lead horse then eventually on his own. Once he can do that, you ought to be able to negotiate water that he has not seen before.
As I stated above, this training process can be time consuming, especially if you do not have suitable water crossings to practice with close to home. But the results are worth it because with this system most horses will gradually become confident enough to cross water willingly.
You mentioned attempting to hand walk your horse through the water. Although this approach will sometimes work, it is risky and requires great caution. Often, once a horse decides to enter the water he will leap, and it is very easy for him to inadvertently jump on you. When you are encouraging a nervous horse to enter water, you are generally safer on his back than in front of him on the ground.
Eventing trainer and rider
This article first appeared in EQUUS issue #426.
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