How to Teach a Horse to Cross Water

Dr. Robin Foster offers a step-by-step guide to teach a horse to step into bodies of water without drama.

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How to Teach a Horse to Cross Water
In some cases, training with another calm and confident horse can help; your horse is likely to follow the other horse, and will be relaxed by its calm demeanor. | Photo: iStock

Q.My mare is great on trails, but we’ve yet to have a successful water crossing (she’d rather jump over than step in). She’s happy to get wet and wallow in the mud when her water trough overfills on a hot day, but she won’t cross a creek or canal. This year, however, we have some big rides planned that will require river crossings that are too wide for her to jump. I have an irrigation canal near my house where I’m planning to train her to cross using treats. Would it be better to introduce her to the canal before it’s filled with water, or should I wait until water is flowing? What recommendations do you have for training a horse to confidently cross water?

—Emily, via e-mail

A.Refusing to cross standing or moving water is common in horses and can put a damper on an otherwise fabulous trail ride. As with your horse, many will vault over a puddle or flatly refuse to step into a stream. Training a horse to calmly and confidently cross water takes planning, patience, and practice

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Robin Foster, PhD, CAAB, IAABC-Certified Horse Behavior Consultant, is a research professor at the University of Puget Sound in Seattle, Washington, and an affiliate professor at the University of Washington. She holds a doctorate in animal behavior and has taught courses in animal learning and behavior for more than 20 years. Her research looks at temperament, stress, and burn-out as they relate to the selection, retention, and welfare of therapy horses. She also provides private behavior consultations and training services in the Seattle area.

3 Responses

  1. This method goes for anything new one is trying to teach a horse. Whatever progress my girl makes when it comes to a new task, no matter how little, I always praise her. I want her to look to me for security and trust.

  2. My horse’s response depends on what we encounter. He does well on ocean beaches with waves, puddles and small streams. Moving water and ponds often are a challenge. He is okay on wooden bridges; many horses aren’t, Many years ago I was told that part of their fear or reluctance is due to not being able to gauge the depth and footing because they can’t see below the surface. It made sense after watching a “trail” class at a local show when they had to walk over a “bridge.” It was a sheet of plywood that turned out to be 1/4″ thick paneling. The first horse put a front hoof on it. It made a crunching sound and sank under her weight. She refused to go any further as did the next couple of horses so they pulled it. It appeared to be well outside everyone’s comfort zone.

  3. Thank you. This is some great advice and even though I worked with horses for many years, I have learned so much from your explanations of behavior, I’m beginning to understand why water gives so many horses problems.

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