Monday, May 2, 2016

Teaching the Horse To Cross Water

Recently I got an inquiry concerning how to teach a horse to go through water. There are many ways that this can be done. Different techniques work with different horses, but the same teaching principles apply to every horse.

Too often our quest for "how" causes us to forget the essential "why's." My first exposure to natural horsemanship confused me because I wanted a list of directions instead of being told to learn to see things as the horse sees them. My answer might frustrate the person who asked how to teach horses to cross water but it is the best answer that I can give.

1. Turn the noise down. If frustration causes you to view the experience as failure on the part of either you or your horse you will send out body language signals that teach the horse that water is a place of stress and tension. Let your body relax as you approach not only the water but the entire training session.Shoulders down, no eye contact---breath in synchronicity with the horse. When the horse fails to go in the water remain absolutely calm.

2. Apply pressure and release with 100% consistency. A horse that is lead to water, pulled towards it with a rope halter who then balks or rears, only to find that the pressure is released when he does so is quickly being taught that when one approaches water one is to balk and rear. Start out away from the water. Lead the horse with gentle pressure and release the pressure the millisecond the horse begins to consider thinking about the possibility of going forward. Escalate pressure until he does so. The amount of pressure used is not nearly as important as how quickly that pressure is released when compliance begins.
     Reward the horse with instant affection for his effort to comply. Give him five or six black oil sunflower seeds along with that affection. In short, teach the horse which behavior is sought. Sounds simple but this is where most people fail in training. When pressure is released for bad behavior one teaches bad behavior. When pressure is not released for desired behavior one teaches the horse that he is helpless to control the pressure put on him and compliance is irrelevant because regardless of his actions the pressure remains.

3.  Set aside an entire day to teach without any interruptions. I would lead the horse to the water and encourage him to follow me into it using only a rope halter and some sunflower seeds. Pressure and release. Approach the water as closely as possible. Encourage him to go 2 inches closer than he did on the last try--release and reward when he does.

4. We often use the horse's desire to be part of the herd to teach him to be comfortable in water by riding the balking horse in a line with ten or fifteen horses who enter the water without pause.

5.  We have one huge advantage over others with water issues. We have a section of trail about .3 miles that is submerged most of the year. Water depth ranges from less than an inch to about 30 inches.  When a horse begins to cross water, albeit reluctantly we ride through that trail with several other calm horses.

No gimmicks or tricks--simple 100% consistency with pressure and release and an understanding of herd dynamics, joined with absolute self control of emotions and a willingness to stand in a swamp for hours if that is what it takes to make your horse relax.

As I read over this I strongly suspect that others will think that this is too hard and that if one tried this technique or that technique the horse would hop right in. Maybe most horses would. That is not how we teach. I am not critical of others who have found success using other methods but if a technique does not lead me to better understand the mind of the horse than I have no use for it.

Here is the most difficult thing for most people to accept. When I teach a horse having the horse achieve the goal is only half of the mission. If the experience has not made me a better person--more kind, more gentle, more of a leader,  more patient and more in control of my emotions than I have little use for the technique.


Anonymous said...

Thanks for this one... I am attempting this right now,, crossing puddles that appear to be lakes to my pony... Patience and the instant release of pressure.. this is so subtle ... I am working on it,,,

Toni Philemon said...

Thank you so much for answering this. I need patience myself and to not get so fustrated. It will come.

Dianne W said...

The 'why' is really important. Asking your horse to do something stupid and unnecessary will lead to failure, especially if the horse is as smart as these horses.

When I was young I decided to prepare my pony for crossing rivers on an upcoming trail ride by having her walk through water puddles. By the time we were done she would courbette on request when there were no puddles around. She would not walk through water puddles.

On the trail ride, when there were rivers to be crossed, she followed the other horses across without hesitation.