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First Water Crossing

16 August 2011 No Comment

First Water Crossing
Laura Phelps-Bell has over 25 years experience in the equine industry as a trainer and instructor. Her background includes successfully competing in dressage, on the “A” Open circuit in hunter/jumpers, showing in many western events, management of several large training/boarding facilities and teaching equine management courses at the college level. More about Laura

From: Maggie

I have a two year old paint filly that I have just started riding on the trail. Our first water crossing she flatly refused to go over. I tried everything I know but nothing got her to venture over that water. I finally had to get off and lead her over it. I figured since we were headed home I wouldn’t have any problem. Boy, was I wrong! I could use some pointers that will help me keep her feet moving.


First, let me say that I don’t advocate riding horses when they are very young unless the riding is walking on fairly level surfaces that have good footing. I believe that if the rider is not really large and if the horse is a decent size, that flat walking on easy trails for short periods of times will not do any harm. Beyond that, I don’t believe that 2-year-olds should be doing anything more strenuous with a rider up then light walking and maybe a little jogging or trotting for a few steps here-and-there.

Sometimes the best thing to do in a situation like you describe is to just outwait your horse. If another more experienced horse is out with you, then of course you can have them go into the water first and even have them stand in the water until your horse gets confident enough to go in. However, if you are riding alone (which is not an ideal situation but some people don’t have other people to go out riding with) and you encounter an obstacle that causes your horse to become frightened or anxious, just stop, facing toward the obstacle. I don’t hustle or hassle the horse, I just simply keep them “pointed” and then settle down and just sit there. It won’t take long usually before the youngster will want to move. That’s great! When they want to move, just keep them directed toward the obstacle, in this case, the water. You may at this point want to gently prod them with your legs or softly cluck at them. If your filly takes so much as a half step toward the water, tell her how wonderful she is, highly praise her for being brave. If she wants to drop her head and take a good look at the water and touch it with her lips, that’s even better. Because of a horses lack of good depth perception, your filly really can’t tell how deep the water is. She may think that if she steps into it, the water is going to swallow her right up! Let her take a good, long look at the water, let her smell it and touch it with her lips. If she tries to turn around, gently keep her pointed toward the water. If she backs up, that’s O.K. too, still keep her pointed toward the water. If she just wants to stand, that’s fine, just keep her pointed toward the water. Finally, rather then stand doing nothing, or realizing that she’s not going to get to turn around and go the other way, your filly will decide that further investigation is a good, although maybe a scary, idea. When she finally does put a foot in the water, praise her profusely, but don’t be surprised if she immediately snatches her foot back out of the water. When she realizes that she can feel the ground below the surface of the water and with your praise and reassurances, she will become more brave and confident. Our horses are very sensitive to our moods and attitudes towards things, so if your filly gets the idea that you’re not concerned about the water and that you’re not in a hurry and you’re also not hassling her, she’ll begin to think that maybe that water is not a big deal at all.

Once she’s put a foot in a few times, she’ll probably decide that she’s not getting hurt and the waters not swallowing her up, so she’ll get confident and go on through. If possible, I like to stop a horse mid-stream and let them stand and realize that they aren’t getting hurt at all. Beware if your filly starts to paw that she might be getting ready to lay down and roll in the water, so pick her head up and proceed on through. If this isn’t a wider stream, also be aware of the fact that instead of stepping into the water, your horse might try to leap over it. Don’t get left behind. The best water obstacles to work a horse on in my opinion are the streams that aren’t very deep and don’t have a lot of rocks on the bottom which causes insecure footing, but are wide enough so that the horse won’t attempt to jump in. I don’t challenge horses with little puddles because it’s just too darn easy for a horse to skirt it and go round-‘n-round the puddle without stepping into it.

I think that if you just keep your filly pointed toward the water and leave yourself enough time to just sit and enjoy the sunshine, your filly will want to do something rather then stand and she’ll find out that going through water, with your praise and reassurances, is no big deal at all.

Good Luck!

Laura Phelps-Bell

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