Water Crossing Confidence

Q. My friend and I cross the same irrigation canal at the same place each time we go out for a ride. While our horses will eventually cross, both act really silly when faced with water, and neither is brave about taking the lead. Each time the horses finally do wade in (after much encouragement), my 10-year-old gelding violently paws and splashes in the water and my friend’s mare sniffs and blows at it. Why do they continue to act so suspicious of water, and what can we do to build their confidence?

Nicole, Bend, Ore.

A. I am not certain that anyone knows why horses behave as they do when entering water, but it definitely seems to be a natural and typical response to investigate the water, paw at the substrate when entering, and splash and sometimes roll at the water’s edge. The topic of why they do this comes up among our behavior lab group when people observe our semi-feral ponies splashing, rolling, and sometimes acting suspicious when entering water. Questions that arise include:

  • Does the splashing and pawing represent play behavior?
  • Are they testing the depth?
  • Are they checking for or clearing any potentially bothersome water creatures away before they drink or walk further into the water?
  • Is their behavior meant to stir up the substrate to add minerals to their drink?

In different situations the behavior can appear to involve any one of these different motives. Without seeing these particular horses in action at the water’s edge, it would be difficult to judge whether their behavior seems to represent play or lack of confidence.

To help evaluate the situation, it would be useful to know what you have been doing to handle it. Do you wait for them to enter the water on their own? Exactly what do you do as “encouragement”? Have you tried asking them to cross other water sites recently? It would be helpful to get an idea of whether their behavior is similar at all water crossings with different depths, lengths, substrate types, etc. Do you happen to know if any other horses are having similar “hesitations” at this site?

One confidence-building suggestion is to take them out with horses that cross water well and encourage them to follow. It might be most effective to take just one of these horses at a time out with a group of horses that all cross without hesitation. If a lack of confidence is the issue, your horses might gain confidence from the “leaders.” In fact, no matter what the cause is, their motivation to follow the leader might override whatever other motivation is at play.

About the Author

Sue McDonnell, PhD, Certified AAB

Sue M. McDonnell, PhD, is a certified applied animal behaviorist and the founding head of the equine behavior program at the University of Pennsylvania's School of Veterinary Medicine. She is also the author of numerous books and articles about horse behavior and management.

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