Question: I've owned my 13-year-old Arabian gelding for about a year. He's generally responsive and willing, but he has a problem crossing narrow waterways. He's fine crossing water that's six feet wide or more. How can I teach him to comfortably cross narrow waterways?
-R.D. Fletcher, Applegate, Oregon
Answer: Most horses are naturally afraid to step into water, possibly because they have poor depth perception and fear stepping into the unknown. Also, in the wild, predators lurk at water sources, so a horse's instinct tells him to drink and run. Since your gelding is afraid only of narrow waterways, perhaps he had a negative experience crossing one before you owned him. In any case, your job is to overcome your gelding's natural instinct-or the after-effects of a negative experience-through patient training.
First, build a strong foundation on the ground and under saddle. Establish a leadership position with your gelding so that he'll respect and trust you. On the ground, teach him to lead, stop, and back up on cue. Teach him lateral flexion (rounding his neck to each side) and to longe in both directions. Teach him to perform each gait on the longe using longe-line pressure and verbal cues.
Under saddle, be sure your gelding will stop, back up, and perform the sidepass and leg yield on cue. He should also work off of the forehand, work off of the hindquarters, and go through his gait changes on cue. He should flex laterally and vertically (that is, bend his poll) on cue. He should also know the half halt (the subtle use of seat, legs, and hands to regain a horse's attention and balance.)
If you don' know how to teach your gelding these important ground and under-saddle maneuvers, find a qualified trainer or certified riding instructor to help you.
Once you've built a solid training foundation, you can help your gelding overcome his fear of narrow waterways. You'll start by longeing him through a narrow, water-filled trench at a walk. You'll do this at home, where he's most comfortable. To re-create a narrow waterway, find a level piece of ground, and dig a trench about three inches deep, 14 inches wide (or more), and 10 feet long, then run water into it with a hose.
Outfit your gelding in a halter and a 15-foot longe line. Stand next to the trench, so that your gelding is positioned a comfortable distance away from it as you start to longe him. This will help him to relax. Gradually back away from the trench. As you do, apply smooth, even pressure on the longe line to slowly bring your gelding closer to it. Reinforce your longe-line pressure with consistent verbal cues. Your goal will be to teach your gelding to walk through narrow water without fear. Go slowly. Don't jerk the longe line to try to force him through the water.
The first several sessions, your gelding may only want to come in toward the water a short distance. Even if he gets only a few inches closer to the water each session, that's progress. Reward him, and end the session on a positive note.
You can also use a blue tarp to simulate water. Longe your gelding over the tarp just as you did through the water. Then create a small mud puddle, and longe your horse through. The more you desensitize your gelding, the more comfortable he'll be crossing water on the trail.
After your gelding willingly crosses the trench on the ground, mount up, and repeat the exercise, using the same verbal cues that you used on the ground. Ride a large circle around the trench, then gradually make the circle smaller until you ride right through the water. Take your time, and be patient.
Next, ride your gelding directly up to the water, and see how close you can get without upsetting him. As soon as he gets upset, stop him, and let him calm down and relax. Give him a gentle stroke down his neck with the palm of your hand, and softly tell him that he's okay.
After your gelding is relaxed, ask him to approach the water again. And again, as soon as he acts nervous, stop him, and let him calm down-don't force him.
End the exercise on a positive note, and repeat the exercise another day. Once he'll approach water in a relaxed manner, stop him, and allow him to look at the water.
If he wants to drop his nose down, let him. If he wants to paw the water, let him. If he wants to splash, let him. Make it a fun experience.
You may need to repeat the approach-and-stand exercise over several sessions before your gelding remains relaxed. When he's reached that point, ask him to walk through the water. To do so, squeeze his sides with your calves while using your go-forward verbal cue.
After your gelding has accepted going through narrow water in his home area, it should be easier for him to cross narrow waterways on the trail. Keep in mind, however, that on the trail, your gelding may balk a little at first. Just be patient, and work with him the same way that you did at home.