Whether you compete in eventing or competetive trail, or you simply like going out on the trails with your horse, you're going to come across water obstacles sooner or later. It might be as simple as a puddle across the trail or a stream you have to go through to get to your destination. In either case, a horse that won't approach or go through the water is frustrating at least, and even possibly dangerous if his reaction is to rear or reverse rapidly through the trees.
So how can you persuade that reluctant horse to go through water without a fight?
It's important, when introducing (or reintroducing) a horse to water, that you make the experience a pleasant one. If your horse doesn't like water, chances are that he's had an experience in his past that has taught him that water is scary and dangerous. It's your job to show him that it doesn't have to be that way, that it can be enjoyable.
One of the simplest ways to introduce a horse to water is to use a hosepipe to create a puddle in a place the horse has to go through regularly. For example, in a gateway that is used to bring the horse into and out of the pasture at feeding time. The association between going through the water and either being fed or being turned out on pasture will be made in the horse's mind.
When taking your horse into a natural water obstacle, such as a pond, or a stream, it's important to choose the entry spot carefully.
- What is the approach like? Is it steep, rutted or slippery? Or is it firm, smooth and gently sloped? If a horse slips or gets off balance on the approach to water, he is unlikely to be willing to go in if he is even the least bit wary of water. So choose a spot where the horse can approach the water straight on, from level or gently sloping ground. The approach should be wide, so that if the horse starts backing up or resisting in some other way, he won't get into a potentially dangerous situation.
- What is the bottom of the pond or stream like? Is it firm, or is it muddy and boggy. Does it suck at his feet as he enters? Again, horses like a nice firm feel under their feet.
- Lastly, how deep is the water and is it clear or murky. Generally, if horses can see the bottom of the pond, they are more willing to go in. If the bottom suddenly drops away it's likely to scare the horse, so shallow ponds or streams with level bottoms are best for introducing a horse to water.
Once you've found a body of water that is suitable for training a horse to go into water, find a friend who has a horse who is willing to go into water and then spend the afternoon calmly walking in and out of the water.
Have the other horse go in first, so he can see everything is ok. Then calmly ask him to move forward into the water. Be firm and don't panic if he baulks. Let him approach as close as you can get him and let stand, will petting and praising him for his braveness.
Ask your friend to bring their horse out and give you another lead. As the other horse enters the water, ask your horse again to follow. Don't lose your patience. Keep asking firmly and calmly. If you get upset you're just going to convince him that he has good reason to be reluctant to enter.
Once he's in, calmly ride him either all the way through if it's a stream, or to some suitable exit point if it's a pond. Then approach again. Ride him back and forth, in and out of the water till he no longer hesitates. Let him stand in the water and enjoy the coolness, but be very aware of what he is doing underneath you. If he starts to paw, ask him to move forward or you may end up with a dunking you weren't expecting!
This is just the first step, of course. If you're an eventer or a competitive trail rider, your horse will have to willingly enter any water you ask him to. The good thing at these events is that the water obstacles are either man-made or especially chosen for their suitability. You may be required to walk, trot or canter through the water. There may be a small jump in or out or a bank to be negotiated.
Whatever water obstacles you face, if your horse has been carefully introduced to water and has had only good experiences with you, he will trust you and take you through with enthusiasm. Each subsequent positive experience will build on that trusting partnership.