Crossing Water With Your Horse Without a Big Splash

You may be surprised when your perfect trail horse doesn't want to cross a creek, but it dosen't have to be a crisis.
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You may be surprised when your perfect trail horse doesn't want to cross a creek, but it dosen't have to be a crisis.
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We've all heard horror stories of people trying to ride across a creek for the first time. First, there's the big fight with their horse, followed by a "launch" from one side of the creek, a few excited leaps in the water, and then a lurch up the creek bank. Hopefully the rider is still on board. Invariably the rider thinks, "There has to be a better way."

And they're right.

If you're facing a creek crossing, the first thing to remember is that just getting to the other side isn't your goal. If it were, there are lots of ways to achieve that, including loading your horse into a trailer and driving him around to the other side. The goal is to cross the creek safely, with your horse under control and actually enjoying the ride. Achieving that may take some work and diplomacy on your part.

Calm Crossing

  • Allow your horse to stop and relax when he reaches the boundary of his comfort zone.
  • Choose one spot to cross. Keep your horse's nose pointed at that spot.
  • Only give the cue to walk forward when you have better than a 90% chance that the horse will obey it.
  • Allow your horse to investigate the water or footing by pawing.
  • Forget about "crossing the creek." Just take it one step at a time.

Asking a horse who's unfamiliar with crossing water - or perhaps that particular stream - to step down off firm ground is a big deal. Riders sometimes assume that since they wouldn't mind crossing, their horse shouldn't either. But a horse's sense of self-preservation is pretty strong.He doesn't see things the same as his rider does. The horse knows that home is behind him and who-knows-what lies ahead. So tell yourself, "It isn't about the water." It's about being under control. And then eliminate the word "should" from your mindset.

Imagine that you were asked to cross a creek loaded with snakes. You'd hesitate before stepping into the water, even if you had confidence in the person telling you to do so. Your horse doesn't know what he's getting into, so he's actually being smart in playing it safe by staying on the bank. Assuming that the horse should be more confident, or should obey you better, sets up a battle. What you really want is a partnership.

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Pick a Spot
After you determine that crossing this stream won't endanger you or your horse, you need a plan to explain that to your horse.

Begin by riding toward the creek, scanning the shoreline to determine the best place to cross. We're going to call that place "the spot." Choose an area with good footing and a gradual slope into the water, if possible, so there's no big drop-off to frighten your horse or compromise his balance.

As your horse approaches the creek, you'll likely feel him pause when he tries to assess the situation. Just relax, even if he stops. He's telling you that he's reached the border of his comfort zone. Allow him to stand, facing the spot. You may be 20 feet from the creek, but just let him relax there, while keeping his nose pointed toward your chosen spot. You want to establish in his mind, and yours, that this is the safe zone.

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Cross Where it Makes Sense

It's pretty easy to picture yourself crossing a river the way we've seen in movies. But not all horses know how to swim, and horses, like people, can trip or fall in the water or be knocked off balance by undercurrents.

The National Weather Service warns anyone who comes to a flooded roadway when driving, "Turn around… don't drown! Avoid flooded areas or those with rapid water flow. Do not attempt to cross a flowing stream. It takes only six inches of fast-flowing water to sweep you off your feet. Water only two feet deep can float away most automobiles."

Though horses are neither human nor automobile, walking on wet rocks, or putting their feet where they can't see the bottom, doesn't come naturally. Use common sense in terms of the depth of the water, the type of footing, and particularly how fast the current is moving.

If you get upset with him, kick him, or try to lead him from another horse, you'll send the message that getting 20 feet from the creek is unsafe. You'll set up a fight. Instead, reassure him that 20 feet from the creek is a good place. Continue to keep his nose pointed to the spot, even if he turns his body so he's parallel to the creek. If his head is turned toward the creek, eventually he'll straighten his body. Try to avoid turning him away from the spot, even though your intent may be to reposition him.

At this point, your horse should be relaxed, since you haven't done anything to tell him that your intention is to cross the creek. For all he knows, you're looking for a perfect place to take a photo. While you relax, remember that your objective is to have fun and to enjoy nature with your horse. Your horse is your partner, not a dirt bike.

When you're evaluating what to do with your horse, remember that you shouldn't get hurt, the horse shouldn't get hurt and the horse should be calmer at the end of the lesson than at the beginning, the basis of all Lyons training. Revving the horse's motor to force him across the creek doesn't fit the rules.

Remember, too, that when you want to control a horse, work at controlling one piece of him. So when you point his nose toward the creek, the horse is essentially facing the creek. Point the nose and relax.

Now if the horse tries to move away and his nose is pointed to the creek, it's probably his hindquarters that have moved to one side or the other. No problem. Don't fight with the horse. If need be, just reposition his hindquarters (though the horse will likely do that himself if you keep his nose pointed toward the spot). In a worst-case situation, that's all you need to do. But for now, you don't have to do that because you're calmly facing the creek, enjoying the view.

How Friends Can Help - or Hurt

Riding buddies mean well, but sometimes they create a dangerous situation in their attempts to help. Don't let someone try to lead your horse across the water. If your horse isn't ready to step forward, he'll normally back up. That leaves him neither under your control nor under the control of the person trying to lead him. And there have been plenty of reports of horses literally slipping out of their bridles in the process.

Similarly, don't let someone talk you into following them across the creek. While everything might go OK, just as likely, your horse may panic at being left behind and leap into the water, scaring or hurting himself and unseating you. And again, he's not under your control. Merely getting across the creek alive won't build his confidence. If anything, it will make him more apprehensive the next time he's faced with a water crossing (which, of course, may be the same water on the way home).

If your friends want to help, they can stay alongside you, so your horse doesn't fear being alone. It will be hard for them to avoid giving you advice. But remember that you're in control of your horse. Don't let anyone pressure you into doing something you feel may be unsafe.

When you feel that you have at least a 90% chance of him stepping forward when you squeeze with your legs, gently ask him to walk forward. If he takes a step and stops, that's OK. If he merely leans forward or drops his head, as if he's thinking of taking a step forward, relax your legs to reward his forward thought. If he walks forward, relax and allow him to walk. Realize that his comfort zone has expanded, but there will be a new boundary ahead.

You'll know when you've reached the new boundary by the fact the horse pauses. Because you've already taught him that you're not going to overpower him, he'll probably stand there looking at the creek without feeling as if he has to panic. Again imagine yourself as a tourist looking at the scene. Relax. As before, when you think you have a better than 90% chance that he'll obey your signal to move forward, ask him to walk on. Continue in that pattern until eventually you find yourself at "the spot," close to the water's edge.

One Toe in the Water
Your horse may still not realize your intent is to cross the stream. He knows he can't walk on water, and he may be thinking, "Surely you don't want me to get my feet wet!" We really don't know what he's thinking, and it's best not to generalize. It's more useful to think in terms of what the horse's body is doing, because it's really only his body that you can control. Controlling his body will control his thoughts.

Unless he's an old pro at crossing water, he'll likely drop his head, perhaps give a little snort and back up a few steps. That's OK. Don't scold him for that, but also don't let him turn away. Sit quietly, and when you think he's ready, ask him to step forward. You may repeat this forward-and-back pattern several times. Be sure not to scare the horse or be rough with him at this point, or the whole process will take longer. You'll know that he's ready for the next step when he no longer tries to back up.

The next stage involves him dropping his head when you ask him to go forward. As you squeeze with your legs, his head will drop before his foot will move. The moment he drops his head, stop squeezing to reward his "forward" thought. After a few times like that, encourage him to actually step forward.

By now, you're probably at the water's edge. If you're crossing a narrow creek, he may think about jumping it, rather than walking into it. However, your goal is to have him take one step into the water, not one leap across it. Be sure to hold the saddle horn or keep yourself safe in case he decides to jump. Also, realize that if he jumps across, he's likely to be revved up on the other side. It's unlikely that he'll jump and then casually keep walking.

When you ask him to move forward, the horse will likely drop his head and paw the water. He'll paw, and paw, and paw… Unless he seems obsessed with it (more than 20 or 30 pawings without a break), allow him to paw. If he seems stuck in a pattern, then gently raise one rein to interrupt him, but without scolding him. Allow him to relax, and then ask him to move forward again. Don't be surprised if he starts pawing again. After a few times like that, he'll be ready to take a step forward.

While he's checking out the creek, sit quietly. The longer he investigates, the less chance that he'll make a sudden leap. However, realize that a leap forward or a sudden turn to the side is a possibility, so stay alert up there.

Two Toes in the Water
When your horse has one foot in the creek, relax and pet him. You don't have to go anywhere. Congratulate him, because that's all you asked him to do.

When you feel that he's ready, ask him for one more step. Again pause and let him relax. Then one more step, and so forth. Depending on how steep the bank is on the other side, you may need to lean forward a bit and allow your horse to take several quicker steps. When safely on the other side, though, ask him to walk on calmly for about 40 feet. Stop and congratulate him - and yourself.

If you plan to cross the creek again on your return home, realize you may have to go through the same process. If time permits, you can practice crossing back and forth, starting about 40 feet from the creek. Don't drill, though. Make it fun.