Crossing Water Riding A Horse

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Riding a Horse Through Water

    2006 Cherry Hill

A friend invites you to bring your horse out to her farm or ranch for a ride in the woods. This is the third time she's asked and in spite of the fact you really want to go, you're already hunting for another invented excuse of why you can't go. What's the real reason you keep declining the invitation? The dreaded creek crossing! If you use a step-by-step procedure to prepare both you and your horse for the water obstacle, it will give you the confidence you need to cross the creek. The program starts on the ground and then progresses to mounted work.

To be successful, be sure that the water crossing has safe footing, is not dangerously mucky, and is at least ten feet wide. Horses tend to jump over narrow crossings to avoid touching the water and can create a difficult habit for you to change. Your goal is to have your horse walk calmly and slowly through the water and stop in the middle if you ask. The water can be any depth but at first, look for shallow, quiet streams. After you have mastered this basic lesson, you can challenge your horse with deeper waters.

Your horse should have good basic training so you can guide him across the water. During in-hand work, he must move forward in response to your body language or an in-hand whip and he must stop relatively square and stand still when asked. When ridden, he must be responsive to your legs so that he will go forward and straight, he must not bolt on a long rein, he must stop when asked, and stand relatively still when required. If your horse has this basic training, you should be able to cross the creek with no problem if you follow this procedure. Here's how I do it.

1. To prepare a horse mentally and physically, I review in-hand work over unusual but safe surfaces such as concrete, plywood, and a tarp or plastic sheet. If necessary you can place the sheet alongside the arena rail so that the rail helps you keep your horse traveling straight. I work the horse from both sides. I often work with an in-hand whip that is about 52 inches so, if necessary, I can use it to keep her moving forward and to keep her hindquarters from swinging off the straight line. I allow and encourage a horse to look down at what he will be stepping on or in but I keep the horse from rushing or bolting. Rushing indicates fear and uncertainty and once a horse starts rushing, it adds to his fear. I take the horse slowly across the obstacle as many times as is necessary to establish a calm routine.

2. Next I ride the horse across the obstacle (tarp)laid out in an open area of a pasture. You might want to ride your horse over the tarp alongside the arena rail first. Your horse will indicates his tendencies and tell you what to expect when you cross water. Will he put on the brakes at the water's edge, veer off at the last minute to one side, jump straight up in the air, or walk across quietly. Especially for the first few steps, give enough rein so the horse can put his head down to look at the tarp. If you hold your horses' head up high with a short, tight rein he would not be able to see what is directly under his head and would likely spook when his foot hits the tarp.

3. When we get to the water, I let my body language tell my horse that there's nothing to fear and we're in no hurry. Here's one lesson where the slower you go, the faster you'll get there. I stop my horse relatively square near the water's edge and sit quietly in the saddle. I let him take in the sights and sounds and only correct if he starts moving. It may take 3-4 minutes or more for some horses to allay their fears about the area and begin relaxing. I know my horse is relaxed and ready to proceed when he mouths the bit softly, blows through his nostrils, carries his ears softly out to the side, and lowers his head.

4. Some timid horses or those that have had a bad experience with water might benefit from being led through first. If I'm going to lead one across, I make sure he has impeccable in-hand manners because I don't fancy getting tromped or drenched. I put on a pair of tall rubber boots and carry a whip just in case the horse loses the nerve to go forward at a critical time. Then we proceed across the water keeping in mind the factors important in the tarp crossing.

5. When I'm ready to ride a horse across, especially if I have not led the horse across first, I remind myself that the horse might jump or stop suddenly when the first hoof hits the water. Above all, I don't want to pull on the reins during those first few steps or it could confuse the horse and make him think I want him to stop. I give my horse ample rein and may lean forward very slightly to encourage her to stretch her neck down and look at the water. I apply leg pressure with both legs carefully but steadily as if I was squeezing toothpaste out of a tube. If I instead gave an abrupt kick, it could cause him to pop his head up and maybe jump forward.

6. As he proceeds through the creek, I continue applying light leg pressure taking care not to use too much or he might rush through the water. Once his hind legs are in the water, his head automatically comes up. I do not pull up on the reins though because I want him to continue walking through the water in a slow, relaxed manner.

7. After he has crossed the water successfully several times, I stop him in the middle of the creek in a balanced position and let him relax. Letting him leave the creek with a positive association will add to his confidence during the next water crossing.

  2004 Cherry Hill




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