Thursday, October 14, 2010

Crossing Water, Building Confidence

Danger: Water Crossing!

My horse, Cowboy, isn’t one of those horses who loves to play in water. To the contrary, he’ll avoid it, if he can. He’s always been okay about doing what I ask, wading out in the river, crossing streams, tramping through every knee-high-water-hole we find on the trail, but in tight situations, his heart rate accelerates and he almost always balks, especially when he feels penned in.

My friend has a horse whose water anxiety is five times or ten times what Cowboy’s is despite the fact that she grew up on a farm swimming her horses into ponds and through every river and creek she could find.

Yesterday, we were on a trail ride together, with these two horses, with the goal of getting hers over the water crossing. We’ve worked with her horse through water holes on the trail this summer, and he’s done great walking and trotting into them behind Cowboy.

I was nervous about this one though because I couldn’t remember what it looked like down there and, in my mind, I remembered it being really steep on both sides with little room on the bank should one decide to jump, rather than walk across. Luckily, my memory was bad, and this water crossing was absolutely perfect for our work. Whew!

So, we walk on down the trail: it’s dense and narrow, gently inclined, and you can hear the stream tumbling over rocks and through brush below us. It gives the horses plenty of time to think—WATER CROSSING!

But, good boys that they are (on dry land) they traipse on down at a good pace, turn the corner and VOILA—there it is—the scary water!

Now, from a horse’s perspective, water really is scary. After all, it is where predators go to drink, too. A wild prey animal would certainly be smart to be alert whenever it approaches a stream and, needless to say, our horses were very smart.

Cowboy balked and took one step back. Great, I thought, He’s supposed to be the lead horse? Ay yi yi--this might be a big mess. But as I was thinking that I was also prodding him forward with my spurs, which he immediately respected, walked in and through, and off we went up the trail on the other side. Most observers would think it was pretty uneventful.

There was a time I used to let Cowboy stop and look at everything, but last year I realized that doesn’t work with him! If you stop and look at something with Cowboy, it’s like telling him—Hey Cowboy, this is something to REALLY be scared of, okay? And you’re pretty much guaranteed not to get over the thing you showed him. So this year on the trail, my motto was forward, forward, forward. Remember how last winter I took those jumping classes? This is why. In order to go forward, forward, you have to be ready for what may, at times, result in a jump, and I wanted to always be able to keep a solid seat. My goal was to stay entirely off his face this year. The old system was to make him walk across everything which took some pulling back, which caused him to back up and become nervous. Interestingly enough, since I started giving him his head this year, he hasn't jumped once and his confidence is higher than it's ever been.

So, over and through and up the trail, and Cowboy was completely happy and relaxed. Perfect.

(Here's Cowboy on the other side, looking up the trail and waiting.)

We stopped and waited for my friend, whose horse, as I said, is younger and more frightened of water than Cowboy. (Phobic, as GunDiva put it, is more to the point because, we've been told, he was in a flooded barn as a baby.) He wouldn’t follow across. We thought, that’s okay we’ll take what we can get. He’s so scared of water crossings the goal has to be smaller than “getting across”. It has to be relaxation—a sense that we can be near water and everything is alright. So, she went back up the way we’d come down, and I continued on, and we met back up and went back down to the water again.

This time, Cowboy didn’t balk, but walked in and stood and started drinking, and drinking, and drinking....he drank a lot. My friend and her horse stood next to us and we just chatted and let the horses relax for about five minutes. Good enough. We didn’t ask him to cross—instead, we turned around, ascended the same trail, and continued on our ride for about another 2 hours, ending on a positive note.

Water crossings can be, with some horses, a traumatic training event, yet, in order to have a really solid trail mount, they have to get over this obstacle. Our thinking is to take him back as many times as we can to this spot and get him to relax, eventually drink, and one day, cross this stream. The day he can do that, we’ll cross this stream a million times until he’s so confident and happy traipsing through it that he feels like a million bucks! But one thing I think we should NOT do is get into a fight with him over it, thus, increasing his stress and associating this place, even more so, with danger. I should add, this is not "trying to get out of work", as is sometimes the case--this horse is truly frightened of water—and I think (and so does his owner) that real fear should be taken seriously and worked through gently. He is the perfect trail horse in every other way--walks out fast and rides all day--confident, eager to please, and ready to go.

This proves, yet again, there is not one answer for all horses. And this is what also makes it fun and, eventually, rewarding for my friend. When she and her horse can work through his fear together, (and they will--she is an excellent horsewoman and rides all the time) their bond will progress deeper than it is now, and with every obstacle they overcome, deeper yet. This is how they become our soul horses—facing our fears together, accomplishing great feats of courage on the trail. And, I purposely wrote "our fears" because we all have our own, don't we? And if we don't have them now, we might have them later, as we age and our bodies are more fragile or life's circumstances change. If we respect and help them with theirs, they will respect and help us with ours--what a great relationship. (After all, don't we all want to be 101 and still on horseback?)

Happy fall Trails, everyone.

(The forest yesterday. You never know what you're going to encounter on a new trail, that's what makes it exciting!)


  1. It's all about the release and knowing when to give it. I think you both are being smart about the way you're approaching the water phobia. If you can get him relaxed, then it's the perfect time to release the pressure of being near it :)

    I love your scenery. Wish ours was still green and lush. I'm planning on going out to the pond this weekend and getting spring/fall comparison pictures. The difference is amazing :)

  2. I think that's a good way to put it, GunDiva. It's really no different than humans. When we're scared of something (there's usually a reason) we have to gain confidence by degrees---practice and exposure--slowly building up as we gain understanding and ability.

    So, your place is dry? Some areas around here are, too, but we tend to stick to the green areas. Plus, it's rained a lot this fall and there's standing water everywhere. I'm looking forward to seeing your comparison pictures.

  3. Taking things very slowly is a great way to go with a horse like that - I wish more people would work with horses that way instead of just forcing them. He'll get there, one step at a time. Keeping the focus on relaxation is also so key. Nice post - and pretty scenery!

  4. How fascinating that this fear can be so deeply ingrained, feeling their predator might be at the watering hole even though the horses are domestic. So my question is, what animal is their natural predator ... a mountain lion, maybe?

  5. Thanks, Kate!

    Joanne--that's the first thing you realize when you're out with horse--a trail is a good place to see it at work--that their brains are so very different than ours. (domestic or wild) They are designed to protect them against carnivores. We could be one of their predators, oddly enough. The amount of trust any horse gives to a human--to allow them on their back (a vulnerable kill position), to take them away from the herd, to ride them into areas where there are cougar and bear, so little about trail riding is natural to the horse. They usually walk a little while and graze--and graze all day. We're constantly moving and asking them to "trust" us. It's also why horseback riding is so dangerous--a lot can spook them on the trail. I'm sure, though, that's why most of us love horses so much--they give so much to us that is really not natural to them--the prey/predator friendship borders on miraculous. (In my mind anyway.)

  6. kudos to you linda! blue is a baby too, just had a dressage lesson with him a couple of hours ago...he doesn't even want to walk in a puddle but for some reason is ok with water for the most part. i totally agree that different methods work for different horses...some instructors have the same answer for each issue which means to me that they have limited knowledge...

  7. One of my Mustang/crosses had a real phobia about water after a truly bad experience before I bought him, as an 18 mo. old colt. Once we started him under saddle at 3, it took another 2 summers of riding to get him really good with water crossings (now he loves the water). One thing I found helpful was riding him next to running water, such as a stream. We are lucky to have several trails that have water within 2-3 feet of them for long stretches. They run fast but are shallow enough to not be tragic if you slipped in. By riding next to one of these streams every time we went out, it became old hat pretty fast; he got used to the sound of the water - a big step in losing the fear. One day as we were crossing, he stopped and started pawing at the water; suddenly the light-bulb had come on. From then on, he looked for puddles to go through, instead of avoiding them at all costs! A word of caution: he still has to stop and think it over at the exact location of the initial incident, especially if there is a new rider on his back. Mustangs NEVER forget, but they can be retrained.

  8. Wish I could take the credit for the "release" comment, but I've heard it over and over again from Julie Goodnight. It's all about releasing the pressure at the right time. I think I've heard that phrase close to a hundred times now :)

    I agree that it's amazing that horses ever let humans on their back, as we're obviously predators in a Mustang's brain.


Please feel welcome to join our discussion by telling us about your own thoughts and experiences.