Crossing Water

After a few uneventful rides, seek more challenging trips, such as crossing mud puddles or shallow streams. Because horses will always go around rather than through water, pick the spot for this lesson with care. Don't ask the horse to go through a mud puddle, for instance, when dry ground is on both sides. Instead, find a place where there’s no alternative but to cross at the spot you’ve chosen. Your horse may still not want to cross, but no other options will be available.

I remember watching, perplexed, when one of the riders on a trail ride decided she would teach her horse to go through a water puddle that the horse was avoiding. The only problem was that the puddle was in the center of the trail with firm, dry ground on both sides. The woman became exasperated and then angry when the horse refused the water route and opted for dry land.
She didn’t realize that the horse was following age-old instincts. Why should it go through water when a dry route was available? The supposed lesson ended with the horse never setting foot in the water and the woman finishing the ride still frustrated and angry.

When you approach water for the first time, you want the horse to realize that no other options exist other than going through the water. A shallow stream where the horse can see the bottom works best for a first-time crossing water.

With our method, my wife Linda leads the way on her gelding, with me right behind on the inexperienced trail horse. If the new horse is nervous and apprehensive, Linda might ride her gelding into the stream and stop him. I bring the novice horse up behind and let him look at the water and realize that Linda’s horse isn’t the least bit worried. Then, Linda will ride across the stream, and I will urge my horse to follow. Sometimes novice horses follow immediately.

The objective at this point is not only that you succeed in what you set out to do, no matter how long it takes, but also that you accomplish your goal without using undue force. Never start one of these sessions unless you have all the time in the world to complete it.

In the above case, if my horse is overly fearful, I might mount Linda's horse and lead the inexperienced animal. While aboard her gelding, I'll attempt to pressure the horse into the water, with the veteran gelding serving two purposes--providing the pressure via the lead rope and continuing to serve as a security blanket. Normally, this method works, and the horse yields to the lead-rope pressure. Sometimes Linda and I combine pressures, with me applying pressure on the halter from the saddle of the veteran and Linda, on the ground, gently tapping the youngster from the rear with a longe whip.

Again, you might not have the luxury of being accompanied by someone on a veteran horse when you come to water. If that is the case, you should carefully pick and choose the point of the water-crossing lesson. The best spot would be a broad trail, free of rocks and obstacles, crossing a clear stream with a firm bottom. As mentioned earlier, the first water-crossing lesson on the trail should be preceded by lessons at home.

When you are riding alone and encounter a water crossing, ride right up to it without hesitation, thus communicating to the horse that this is just another part of the trail. However, if the horse wants to stop and check things out, don't force him to go forward until he has satisfied his curiosity. Let him lower his head and sniff the water. Give him time to learn that no monsters lurk within and then squeeze with your legs to urge him forward, talking to him softly and reassuringly at the same time.

If the horse still refuses to enter the water, don't resort to force other than a squeeze of the legs and light pressure with spurs or a tap of the whip. However, do not let the horse turn away. Keep him facing the water, signaling that forward is the only way to go. If the horse backs up, stop him with leg pressure. If he continues to back, don't resort to force to stop him. Instead, do just the opposite; ask him to back much farther down the trail than he wanted. Your job is to make the escape tactic more uncomfortable than facing the water obstacle. When you feel you've made the point that you are in charge and that continued backing is uncomfortable, ride the horse forward again. The message you are giving him is that any option other than going through the water will create discomfort. It may take some time, but this technique works with most horses.

This also is one time that you must persevere until successful. If the horse is allowed to evade the crossing, the next time you attempt it will be much more difficult. This is the reason you should plan the crossing in advance. Make certain it and the trail are safe, and make certain that you have all the time in the world to get the job done.

As mentioned earlier, you must not allow the horse to turn away from the water. To achieve this, take a firm grip on the reins--one in each hand, with hands extended out from the neck. This hold will help to keep him looking forward and prevent his turning away.

About the Author

Les Sellnow

Les Sellnow is a free-lance writer based near Riverton, Wyo. He specializes in articles on equine research, and operates a ranch where he raises horses and livestock. He has authored several fiction and non-fiction books, including Understanding Equine Lameness and Understanding The Young Horse, published by Eclipse Press and available at or by calling 800/582-5604.

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