One of my favorite horse activities is playing in the water. There's just something very soothing and natural about horses and water. That is if your horse is accustom to it. Unfortunately, where we live there's not a whole lot of water in the summer so I don't get frequent opportunities to get my horses accustomed to it.
Horses actually love water. Given the opportunity they will walk through it easily, play in it and even lie down in it. For the most part horses are not afraid of water. So then why do so many of us have such a hard time getting our horses to walk in or across water? The answer is time.
Give Your Horse time
Horses that live with water have the time to explore it. They get to sniff, touch, and paw at it all on their own time frame. This is where we run into big trouble. As humans we always seem to be in a rush not really taking the time to explore new situations. Oh sure, if we are asked to cross a creek we look for the easiest place to cross and then hop right over probably losing a boot in the mud and hoping our rear end stays connected to the saddle. But we don't sit back and take the situation in.
On the other hand, when given the opportunity, a horse will walk up to the water, lower his head and eat the grass next to it. You may think this is just about munching but actually while his head is down he's getting a better look at the water. Having eyes set on the sides of his head he doesn't have great depth perception. Lowering his head and moving it around gives him a better idea of what it looks like and just how deep that pit may be.
Let Him Trust His Own Instinct
This process also allows him to sniff out the area. While doing this he's checking for predators lurking in the water or surrounding area. Think of a zebra. They never know when the crocodile is waiting just below the surface. Mustangs are going to look for lion scent or maybe snakes. Remember, horses may be domesticated but they are still a prey animal and very instinctual.
After checking out the shoreline they may put a foot in and take it right back out. Whew! They realized they survived. The next foot will go in easier and more quickly. They repeat this until they have put two feet in. At this point it depends on how wide the crossing is. If it is narrow enough to jump from where they are they may try. If it's wider they will keep working with the approach and retreat method until they are comfortable to cross. When they do cross they will do so quickly so be prepared.
Each time they cross water they become more confident. They will carefully pick and choose where their feet will go, maybe even stopping to snack from the side of the bank before exiting the water. The point I want to make is that every horse will eventually cross water calmly all on their own. It's when we try to rush things that they become frightened. Being associative animals they relate water to fear and then the fight is on.
Keep Him Confident and Overcome Fear
The most important key in training horses to cross water is this: Take all the time in the world. If you rush it the horse will sense this and it makes him nervous. Let the horse explore the crossing point you have chosen. Let him lower his head and look around. When he gets nervous allow him to back up a few steps until the pressure subsides. Then approach the water again. Keep your eyes up and look to where you want to be instead of where you are. This will transmit to the horse that you are confident in where you are going and it will help him with his fear.
Resist the urge to kick them or force them across the water. They will end up associating water to punishment and it will be harder to cross the next time. I think of it this way: If they are already afraid of the water then it surely won't be helpful to have them afraid of me.
Now, just because I've said to give the horse his time it doesn't mean you don't keep your training objective first and foremost. If your horse is balking it's crucial that you keep him facing the water. Never allow him to turn away from it. He can back up but not away. Having them walk up to it and then back away is using the method of approach and retreat.
You can do all this in the saddle but I like doing it from the ground first. It keeps me safer and actually gives the horse more guidance. Treat it as if you were training a horse to load into a trailer.
Giving the horse the opportunity to learn on their own time frame will make for a more confident and trusting horse. It will eliminate the potential for a fight between you and your horse a fight that you will not win. They will learn to associate water with fun instead of fear or pain. Look for the joy in the session and soon you and your horse will be relaxing at the water's edge and beyond.
Raye Lochert is teaching and training full-time out of his California farm. Visit his website for more information. rayelochert.com