Does your horse have issues with water? Especially running water? There are a few things you can do at home before you venture out on the trail that may help you when you have to cross running water.
“The first thing I would do is to walk your horse through puddles. Although puddles aren’t the same as running water, if he won’t step in a puddle, it is quite unlikely he’ll step in a creek. The tricky thing with puddles is that your horse is smart enough to know he can go around it instead of through it. Start with a large puddle that is harder to walk around. You can cross it while in the saddle where you have better control of his body, but if he is a trusting horse, you will be better off leading him on foot in the beginning. There is no way he will follow you through it unless you are ready to get your feet wet, first. Be patient and encouraging. Practice until your horse doesn’t seem to care whether he is in the water or not.
The next step is to create your own little creek by simply using a garden hose on the ground as your running water. A horse that is comfortable with a puddle may still be anxious about running water. Begin by running the water in a thin stream, and give your horse time to examine the water and satisfy his curiosity. While he is getting accustomed to the water, you can groom or massage him to make this a positive experience. When he looks relaxed, it is time to lead him over it. Go back and forth and gradually increase the size of the flow as he shows he is not worried. Finally, repeat the entire sequence while mounted. Be ready to back off at any point if your horse appears nervous. This does not need to be completed in one day. Some horses work better when increasing the difficulty of task if they can think about it overnight. Other horses progress faster. By using your observation, you will know when your horse is ready to advance. To further challenge your horse before you try a real creek or river, you can also dig a trench or run water over a tarp to make the obstacle more difficult.
If you are fortunate enough to have a stream nearby, there is a very gradual approach that you can take. This is something that works well with a very young horse that you haven’t started to ride yet, but you are looking for productive things to do. Take your horse down to the water on a long lead rope, relax and let your horse graze. Don’t try to get him in the water, just encourage him to be near it. Do this whenever you get a chance. Over a period of time, your horse will enjoy being near the water, and he may even step in it on his own. After a while, try leading your horse to the water and encourage him to drink or walk in it. When you are ready to ride or lead him across, he will be much more willing.
Without a doubt, the best advice I have found was from the well-known horse trainer John Lyons. His solution is simple and logical; I am surprised no one else mentions it. He suggests riding your horse as close as you can to the water, always pointing him to the exact spot you want to cross. Stop him when he shows signs of being fearful. Face the crossing spot, and let him stare at it for as long as it takes for him to become bored instead of scared. At that time, ask him to go closer. Keep repeating this until you get right to the water’s edge. Allow him to sniff the water and stare at it until he is really bored. At that point, keep him there an additional five minutes for good measure. (Be sure to wear a watch because time will go very slowly for you.) Finally, ask him to go into the water and praise him profusely when he does. I did this with an older Quarter Horse mare, but I still couldn’t get her to in until I went first. I got wet, but it was worth it – she finally followed and go her sugar cube reward. The next time she went in with no hesitation.
Since I like stacking the deck in the trainer’s favor as much as possible, I have added my own twist to the lessons in river crossing. Have a friend or two bring their horses to the river crossing about half an hour after you get there. This way, when your horse is ready, his friends will show him how to cross. This should work with most horses that haven’t had a previous frightening experience. The joy to this method is that it avoids any form of confrontation and prevents your horse from forming any negative attitudes towards crossing water.
Your first water crossing with a new or problem horse should be well planned, not haphazard.
Small creeks can be trickier to cross than large rivers because your horse may feel it is safer to jump over it completely to avoid stepping into the unknown. Be prepared for this to happen so that you won’t become unseated. I have found that when a horse jumps anything you don’t want him to jump, the best thing is to go back and do it a few more times. Eventually, he will step into the water. Give him lots of praise when he gets it right and then go home. ”
If you work with these tips with patience and consistency, you will have a better chance of riding a horse that willingly enters any water obstacles that you may encounter on the trail.
Judi Daly offers more advice in working with horses and water in her book, Trail Training for the Horse and Rider, which this was excerpted from.