Learn to Cross Water on Your Trail Horse

Learn how to safely introduce your horse to water crossings on the trail.

Learn from top clinician/trainer Julie Goodnight as she demonstrates the safe and proper way to introduce your horse to a water crossing, then cross it slowly and safely. She’ll first help you identify the best place to cross. Then she’ll show you how to move calmly through the ripples and currents.

Exercise Prep
~ What you’ll need: Find a riding buddy with a trusty, stream-savvy trail horse who can act as your horse’s mentor and stay with you throughout your training session.

You’ll also need to do some scouting. Find out which water crossings are appropriate for first-time training sessions. As a general guideline, look for a water crossing that’s flat and well-traveled by horses.

The stream shouldn’t be too deep or too fast. Look for a water crossing you could walk across without the water reaching above your knees or without a current that would prompt you to lose your balance. Look for clear water that allows you too see the footing on the bottom. Avoid muddy and boggy crossings or ones with too much slick rock.

Don’t apply a tie-down or any tack that might prevent your horse from using his head and neck for balance if the water is unexpectedly deep and he needs to swim. Tie-downs can be lethal if your horse needs to raise his head above water to breathe.

~ Skills your horse will need: Your horse should be responsive to your cues to move forward, stop, back, and side to side. You’ll need good steering and speed control at the walk and trot while riding in open spaces. If your horse is familiar with easy trail obstacles (such as crossing poles or logs), you can better trust that he’ll go where you ask.

Step #1. Approach With Care
Outfit your horse in his usual riding gear, and ride to your preplanned flat water crossing. Ask your riding buddy to ride ahead, then follow her to the water’s edge.

When your horse reaches the shoreline, ask him to move forward. Encourage his investigative behavior by reaching your hands forward and applying gentle leg pressure. If he seems curious, allow him to sniff and feel the water then encourage him to move forward and step in.

As he investigates, don’t allow your horse to stand and paw at the water ? pawing behavior isn’t cute and playful, it’s a precursor signaling that he’s about to lie down to roll.

Let your horse sniff and sip the water if he wants and even play in it with his nose, just be vigilant. If you feel that he’s shifting his weight or playing too much, tell him “whoa,” and pull up and back on the reins.

Also, don’t allow your horse to put his head down and rock back to jump the creek; jumping water isn’t a good trait in a trail horse. If you feel him stretch his neck forward then rock back, sharply correct him with a “whoa” command.

Take all the time you need before you walk your horse into the water. Be patient with him during his investigation as long as he keeps looking at the water and doesn’t threaten to turn his nose away or back up.

At this point, you’ve pointed your horse to the water and expect him to pay attention to the new experience. Insist that his focus stay ahead in the direction you’re asking him to go.

It’s okay to let your horse stand still, look forward, drink, or sniff, but don’t let him turn away or back up. If you do, you’ll be training him that water is something to avoid. You’ll also be allowing him to choose where he goes, which erodes your control.

Step #2. Wade and Wait
When your horse seems calm and willing to pay attention to the water’s sights and sounds, it’s time to move in. Your riding buddy should already be ahead of you and in the stream. Ask her to stand in the middle of the stream and face upstream with her horse’s head in the direction of the water’s source so that her horse isn’t knocked off balance.

Cue your horse to walk on. Provide ample rein, and apply gentle, pulsating leg pressure to encourage him to move on.

When you reach the middle of the stream, ask your horse to stop and relax your body and reins. Your calm position will show him that the water is a safe and comfortable place to be.

“Hang out” for a few minutes until your horse stands quietly. Be patient! This literal “soaking time” will teach him that it’s not okay to rush across the water.

Even a seasoned trail horse may need to work on this training step. It’s important to cross water slowly and precisely so that you can choose the best and least slippery path. And it’s important that your horse doesn’t rush and plunge across.

Step #3. Downstream Detour
Now, instead of continuing across the stream to dry land, change direction, and ask your horse to calmly walk up and down the waterway. Spending some time in the water will help him get used to the feel of cold water on his legs and barrel. You’ll also reinforce the lesson that you started in

Step #2 Don’t rush. 
Spend 5 to 10 minutes walking up and down the stream. Pause every few moments and allow your horse to stand still. When he seems quiet and confident, it’s okay to ride him across and out of the stream at a place you designate.

Make sure the exit from the water is safe and reasonably easy for your inexperienced horse. Steep, slick embankments are scary for a horse and can make him concerned about future water crossings. They also put him at risk for an injury.

Julie Goodnight (www.juliegoodnight.com) is a top horse trainer, clinician, and riding coach. She shares her easy-to-understand lessons on her weekly RFD-TV show,Horse Master (www.horsemaster.juliegoodnight.com), and through appearances at clinics and horse expos held throughout the United States. In 2008 she was named Equine Affaire’s Exceptional Equestrian Educator. She resides near Salida, Colorado, at her private horse ranch with her husband, Rich Moorhead an avid National Versatility Ranch Horse competitor and the CEO of Monarch Mountain ski resort.

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