We’ve all been there. Our riding group is on the other side of the water waiting for us to cross and continue the ride. The more pressure we feel, the worse the situation can become.
Safely crossing water is a subject not commonly addressed in traditional riding lessons, so many people are left with one of the following:
• Hoping they bought a horse that’s already confident crossing water
• Developing various strategies such as following another horse across the water or dismounting and leading the horse through it (very dangerous)
• Getting really good at hanging on as the horse makes a giant leap into or over the water
• Avoiding rides that require crossing water!
None of these are ideal options, but most folks don’t know what else to do. Fortunately, there’s an approach I’ve found to be both highly effective and lasting, with notable improvement in a relatively short period, depending on the skill level of the person and patterned behavior of the horse. The first thing to consider is how we view the frustrating behavior of a horse who refuses to cross water.
Through your horse’s eyes
Horses are living, breathing, thinking, feeling creatures, and their behavior reflects their viewpoint in any given situation. Being prey animals, they are designed by nature to be wary of environments and situations that may pose a threat to their survival. Because flight is their primary survival mechanism, solid footing is crucial to them. In the wild, watering holes are the ideal hunting location for predators for two reasons. First, every animal is drawn there for water, especially in arid climates; and second, hungry predators gain a slight advantage around slick footing.
By knowing that survival is at the root of this behavior, we can shape new behavior using natural herd dynamics.
Developing your horse’s trust
In a natural herd environment, horses follow the movement of the herd. But they don’t just follow any individual – they follow those considered to be “alpha” among the group. This is why following another horse through water might work one time and not another, because the horse evaluates who they are going to trust in any given situation. The real answer to this dilemma is to become the type of leader that a horse would confidently follow as their “alpha” in situations that might trigger their survival instinct.
This is a big statement, but it can be broken down into achievable steps with astounding results. I’ve seen entire groups of people establish this kind of leadership over a clinic weekend, and it improved everything they did with their horses. When a horse views you as that highly-valued “alpha” individual, he instinctively looks to you for direction when he becomes uncertain or confused. This means he’ll be confident with you wherever you go!
Prepare for success
In any endeavor, success is all about preparation. Before you even go out on your next trail ride, spend some time developing a higher level of confident communication by simulating various challenges back at the barn.
I like to use plastic as one of the early simulations because it is similar to water in movement, noise and touch, and is readily available and inexpensive.
Begin with a grocery bag wadded small in your hand. You can’t start too small, but you can start too big and trigger a fearful reaction, which takes more time to overcome than gradually introducing small objects. Begin by making the plastic as small as possible, and see if you can get a slight rub along your horse’s shoulder, enough that when he smells the plastic he picks up his own scent. If the horse moves backwards or sideways, just “drift” with him and take the item away when he stops moving his feet. Remember that every horse has different responses, but if we understand that even the most sensitive horse can gain confidence from a patient approach, most people are genuinely surprised how quickly the horse progresses when they learn to avoid triggering a fear response.
Use your judgment to assess the response from the horse as you both relax, and allow the plastic to open up and get bigger. Expand your touch to various areas of the horse’s body. Use plastic tied to the end of a long stick to touch around the legs and under the belly, as I’ve seen even gentle horses kick at plastic in those areas if they’ve never experienced it before.
Creating a positive experience
If everything’s going well, continue approaching new areas of the body with larger areas of plastic, allowing the horse to drift and relax, stopping long enough to reward his efforts, and even waiting to observe him drop his head, lick his lips, blink his eyes, and waggle his ears. You might want to take a nice, big relaxing breath too. We often don’t realize we’re holding our breath while concentrating on doing something new, and this can cause the horse to be wary too.
Remember that your goal is to create a positive experience for the horse to build confidence, but without boring him. Don’t worry that you might go too far too fast; if your horse gets worried, just go back to a level he can handle and begin again. Most people are very surprised at how rapidly their horses can develop a new pattern of relaxation, so also remember to keep advancing the level of challenge so he doesn’t have time to get bored.
End the session when you feel you’ve reached a new level of success for that day. It’s going to be different for everyone, so use your judgment as to how much the horse (and you) can handle, and come back another time to continue.
As you continue to see progress in ongoing sessions, use your imagination to expand the level of challenge in the simulations. Graduate to tarps on the ground and ride the horse over them. Use hula-hoops, old tires, pool floaties, blown up inner tube tires – anything you can find that won’t cause injury but will stretch the level of challenge for your horse. Eventually, you can use a garden hose to create mud and small puddles to go through, and then graduate to finding a small pond with a gradual slope where the horse can build confidence and even become playful in the water.
You may be wondering how long this is all going to take, and my short answer is – it depends! Horses are highly adaptable when they recognize, respect and willingly respond to what’s being asked of them. The time it takes lies in your ability to develop new habits of communication with a confused horse, using patience and understanding.
As you progress, you’ll see a distinct change in your horse. He will show more relaxation, greater respect for personal space, and you’ll experience a sense of stronger mutual trust between you. With continued use of this approach, you’ll one day be riding along with your group of friends and realize that dread has shifted to enthusiasm as you approach a water crossing and your horse steps in without hesitation. You might even be the one to turn back and help someone having trouble with their own horse!