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Overcoming Your Horse's Fear Of Water

By Jeffrey Rolo

You're enjoying a peaceful trail ride, indulging in the company of your equine companion while taking in the gentle scents and sounds of nature. Suddenly your horse comes across a puddle or small pool of water and decides it's time for your excursion to come to an end. No matter how much you beg and plead, your horse refuses to cross the water and continue the ride. Time to turn around and head back home.

If this has ever happened to you then you know how frustrating it can be. No amount of teeth grinding, beckoning, pushing or pulling seems to work – once a 1000+ animal decides he's not going through, he's not going through! This fear of water is most common among new horses that haven't become acclimated to water crossing, but adults can also develop this fear after a traumatic experience such as having taken a fall within a river or near a pool previously.

First it is important to understand that not only is this a common problem, there is actually a very good reason for horses to initially fear crossing water. Your horse's eyes are placed to the sides of his head, giving him a monocular vision that allows him to see a far broader scope of his surroundings than a human. The downside is he loses the ability to perceive the same level of detail as a human, and more importantly unlike humans the horse has little to no depth perception.

If someone asked you to leap off a 90-degree ledge without giving you the ability to peer over its corner and access its depth first, you may hesitate, right? Without first being able to see how far down the floor is from the ledge, you have no idea whether the depth of the leap is an easy foot, or a deadly 100-feet. Each time you ask your horse to cross a puddle or stream you are putting him in exactly that situation.

Before you decided to leap off a ledge on blind faith you would probably require at least one of two things:

  1. A deep trust that the requestor would not ask you to do something that could hurt you.
  2. A demonstration from the requestor or someone else that it was indeed safe to leap off the ledge. Let them do it first and prove it's safe!

If you think about it for a second, both of the above expectations are perfectly reasonable, so instead of getting hot-headed at your horse try to provide him what he requires to take that leap of faith.

Trust

Remember that when you work with your horse you must take the role of the leader or alpha mare. Your horse needs to thrive off your confidence and trust you enough to know that you would not ask him to do anything that could harm him. If you haven't given your horse any reason to trust you, why should he take a leap of faith for you? Would you do the same for someone who gave you absolutely no reason to respect or trust him?

It's a shame that there are clueless horsemen out there that resort to physical force. For example, Frederico Grisone, a man considered a father of the courtly riding and dressage movement, proposed that if a horse was afraid of water that the handler should force the horse's head under water and drown it half to death. Sure, I can see how that type of solution would remove fear from a horse and make him trust the handler who tried to drown him! Such a terribly misguided belief would almost be laughable were it not for the fact he was considered an equine expert during his time and his behavior affected many horses.

Sadly, although horsemen of today aren't quite so clueless or dramatic, there are too many that still believe in using tactics such as smacking the haunches or rear legs with a 2x4 or rod until it eventually fears the painful weapon more than the puddle. Although such a tactic may prove a one-time solution, you will only lose your horse's trust and thereby harm your future training efficiency and relationship.

Try to build a foundation of trust before asking your horse to do something as dramatic as leap off a ledge!

Lead By Example

Leading by example is a powerful tool within the horse world. If you watch a herd you will notice that most members take their cues from the alpha mare and leaders. When the leader does not fear an animal, movement or ground condition, the other horses generally follow suit, whereas if the leader detects a threat and starts running you can bet the rest of the herd will!

You will often find it advantageous to have a friend walk a trained horse through the puddle first so that your horse can see nothing disastrous occurred – chances are your horse will dutifully follow suit. Of course you don't have to rely on another horse to provide the example; you could elect to jump into the puddle yourself. But let's face it… most of us don't want the soggy shoes and socks thereafter.

Take It Slow

Rome wasn't built in a day, and chances are your horse's fears won't be alleviated in one either. Some horses will be fine after their first pass through a puddle; others will take a lot of coaxing and work before they become comfortable. If your horse is one that requires patience, make sure you do not attempt to force him too quickly.

For the more nervous horses you should turn on the hose and try to create a puddle in a sandy area, ideally in an area that the horse is already comfortable with. Initially the horse will be tempted to just leap across the puddle entirely – don't worry about it. It's not ideal, but at the same time it's a step in the right direction since he did cross it. No matter how small the victory, praise your horse each time he confronts his fear of the water.

Some trainers will use a folded tarp to pool some water and progressively make the pool larger by unfolding the tarp. By doing this, eventually the horse will learn that both small puddles and medium to large puddles are not a problem. I cannot find fault with this training technique, though personally I have never required the use of an actual tarp – relying on puddles or small pools has served me well.

In summary, before you get angry at your horse for refusing to cross a pool of water, try to see it through his eyes. Once you understand you're asking him to leap off an unknown cliff, you will probably better understand what he's going through and thereby work by trust and example, rather than anger and force.



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