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horse Behaviour >> water crossings

My first horse Misty wouldn’t go over the tiniest stream for me unless she was following a group of horses.  Right at the end of our lane was a ditch with about an 8 inch stream across it.  I tried riding her through it, I tried pleading with her, I tried a whip (much to my embarrassment now), I tried yelling and then after a couple hours I just sat down and cried.  Then my Dad walked up, took the rope, said in an authoritative voice, Misty git up, and she walked over the stream.  My error was in trying to force her to go over it and setting myself up for failure.  As much as this was a huge frustration for me at the time, the reward when I now am able to get a horse to cross water without harsh methods is that much better.  So, here are methods that have worked well for me!   Note, I describe at first a method with ponying the new horse.  If you don’t have a horse that is OK with this you can modify this to a ground work exercise and progress to riding.

  • First, I start out with the smallest stream I can find.
  • I ask a buddy with a calm and experienced horse to ride with me and I pony the horse off another calm, experienced, horse with a long soft rope and the problem horse wearing a well fitted, properly tied, rope halter.
  • I then, ideally, arrange to have gone on a good one to two mile ride so the horses are warmed up and the wild oat factor is a little lower.
  • I also, ideally, arrange to come to the water crossing on the way home so I’m using their natural motivation.
  • As we approach the crossing I let the horse have slack in the rope and I ask the buddy and his/her horse to ride across and wait for me about 20 feet on the other side of the stream.
  • I stand and let my horse and the horse in training have a look and assess it.  I then look forward and take a few steps forward until my horse is almost touching the water.  I let the horses explore and drink if they want. 
  • I then ask my horse to go over and most of the time the other horse steps over.
  • If the horse goes over I just carry on and then we go back and forth over it a few times.
  • If the horse refuses I make a mental note of how close they can come to the stream and try to remember some visual marker.  Then there are several different approaches you can take:
    • Try taking the horse away a little bit and get both horses trotting in a circle with the horse in training on the outside.  Do three – four circles then walk your horse to the stream and give him/her lots of rope and repeat the above process.
    • If the horse goes then repeat crossing a few times and go home.
    • If the horse doesn’t cross but goes a little closer, tell them they are good, pet them and give them a break but then go do the circling exercise again.
    • Continue the process until the horses crosses as long as you are making some headway. 
  • Try not to pull on the rope and if the horse backs go with the horse but don’t let it rest when he/she moves away.
  • Don’t turn it into a fight.  You can force a horse to do almost anything but if you teach them to trust you they’ll consistently do everything you ask of them.
  • If the horses bunches his/her feet together and takes a big leap over don’t worry but do be careful you don’t get leaped on.  Usually as the process continues they will quit jumping.  Don’t ride a horse through water until they have stopped doing this.  I’ve made that mistake before and almost got hurt!
  • Once the horse will pony through the water quite willingly then progress to riding the horse through with a good calm horse going through first.  If the horse won’t go through with you on the back use gentle encouragement, make note of where the horse stops and do the trotting exercise and repeat until the horse goes.
  • Progress to larger streams and progress to having the horse be in the lead.  Consider crossing a few streams and getting off to let the horse graze a little bit.
  • Try not to get annoyed or frustrated.  If you aren’t having success there are other methods that can be tried.  
  • Remember to focus on the other side and try to ride with a slack rein and a relaxed body.  If you set out with the thought in your mind that they aren’t going to cross they will sense it and it will become a self fulfilling prophecy.  Approach with the attitude that I hope they will cross but if they don’t I’ll look at is a teaching/learning process for us both.

So I am setting myself up to succeed by not forcing the horse and using going home and following another horse as motivation at first.  This shows the horse that it isn’t a big deal and if you don’t make a big deal about and the other horse(s) don’t make a big deal out of it then often is very easy. 

This type of desensitization can be modified for many things. Rest, food, verbal praise and pets can all be used for rewards.

Feel free to contact me through the Q & A site on the home page if you need help (http://www.drlianamawer.ca/index.html.

Thanks for your interest and happy trails!