How to teach your horse to cross the water
When you’re riding out on trail, it's very common to cross smallstreams along the way. To a horse, water looks much different than ground—it moves, it makes noise and may shimmer, reflects the surroundings and moves in a way that may confuse a horse. Additionally, horses don't know how deep the water is. You may be able to see the bottom, and estimate that the stream is only a few inches deep, but your horse may think the water is over its head. When they feel the water on their hooves and legs, it can be a wet, chilly change from walking on the ground. Often the banks of streams or ponds are slippery or rocky, making the footing insecure.
It's not surprising that horses, who are naturally cautious, may feel overloaded with the many unfamiliar sights, sounds and sensations. Some horses, especially youngsters and those not regularly ridden on trail, balk when they encounter water, and refuse to step beyond the banks. Others may enter the water but plunge wildly in a way that is uncomfortable and unsafe.
Some are so spooked by water, they're refuse to cross puddles they may encounter on the way from the barn to the riding ring—so refusing to cross water may not be just a trail rider's problem. My own horse refused to enter the water on a cross country jumpingcourse—even though she'll plod through a creek without flicking an ear. The prospect of jumping into and out of the water of the small pond confused her.
Horses can be trained to be ridden into water obstacles, whether streams, rivers, puddles or lakesides. It helps if you have a young foal, to lead it through puddles and guide it to stand on the edge of stock ponds early in life. The more you expose a young horse to all the situations it will encounter when you eventually ride it, the easier your job will be once training under saddle begins.
Walk and Follow
The easiest way to get a horse to walk through water is to simply let it follow a more confident, experienced horse that already crosses water quietly. Most horses don't like to be left behind alone, and will follow the example of another horse. Even if the horse seems hesitant, a firm, no-nonsense cue to WALK, perhaps with a little tap on the haunches with a riding crop is often enough to encourage the horse to enter the water. However, if the horse just tends to panic, still refuses to cross, and gets upset about being left behind, you may have resort to another strategy. Losing your temper, having your horse get frustrated and starting a battle will usually be counterproductive.
Above all, before you even begin, don't let yourself get flustered and anticipate that your horse won't cross the water. Your horse will pick up your body language, and if you go into alarm, you can influence your horse to become alarmed. Stay calm and 'begin with the end in mind' and that is not crossing the water, but arriving safely on the opposite side of it. Picture your horse plodding through like an old hand.
Start with Ground Manners
If following another horse doesn't work, it's time to return to the barn and work on some basics. First of all, your horse must lead well. This is just part of basic horse manners, and the place to start training many behaviors. You need to teach your horse how to walk forward on command. It may also be helpful to teach the horse to lower its head on command. You may notice that when a horse becomes alarmed, their heads go up and necks become stiff. Lowering the head is calming. Any ground work that makes your horse more obedient and attuned to you makes training in the saddle much easier.
Get your horse accustomed to getting its feet wet. I've described how to do this in my article on cold hosing. Remember if your horse puts its head up high, ask him to lower it. Allow it to stand in the puddles made by the hose and if there's enough standing water, lead it back and forth through it. Once your horse is used to that, head out to your water crossing. Make sure it's safe for you and your horse. There's a water crossing on our trail, but sometimes the banks are steep, there are rocks and mud that make the footing slippery and tricky. So avoid spots like these and work somewhere where you won't slip and slide and have problems crossing yourself. (Shoes may be easier for you if the water will end up going over the top of rubber boots anyway. )
Lead the horse, focusing on the opposite side of the water. If your horse stops short, let it stand until it becomes relaxed. If however it backs up, calmly ask it to keep backing up, then ask it to move forward, ever closer to the water. Praise each calm approach and entrance into the water. Go slowly, rewarding one toe in the water...two hooves in the water...four legs in the water and so forth, until you are finally across. Watch your horse's body language for signs of 'overload' when they stop being confident in your leadership and are going to panic again. Don't overface your horse. Once your horse is calmly following you into the water, you can repeat the exercise from the saddle.