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.
Planning: Set your horse up for success
An important first step is to set-up suitable water challenges. One option is to build a water obstacle, but because it bears little resemblance to a moving stream, you’ll also need access to natural bodies of water. Training involves introducing the horse to the water, and the starting point will depend on the water feature, the horse’s distance from it, and how distracting the environment is to the horse.
If you start training your horse now at the canal, make sure she’s relaxed when the canal is dry, find out how close she can get before showing signs of tension, and train at a quiet time of day with no vehicles, riders, or other distractions make her anxious.
Fear is the most likely underlying reason why horses won’t cross water, so use training exercises designed to reduce that fear. Train below threshold (the point at which a stimulus is of sufficient intensity to begin to produce an effect), avoid situations that are too challenging, and gauge the horse’s level of anxiety and distress by closely observing her body language. The sweet spot for training is when the horse is both calm and paying attention to the water obstacle—in other words, “attention without tension.”
Patience: Training is a process, not an event
Create positive experiences
Help your horse become calm and confident about crossing water by using positive, low-stress training methods. Desensitization and counterconditioning can change the horse’s emotions by pairing the feared object or situation with something pleasant. As an example of the application of counterconditioning, you could lead your horse toward the canal, stop while she’s still relaxed, pause briefly, and then scratch her favorite itchy spot and/or give her a treat. After repeating this a few times, your horse will learn that approaching the canal comes with a scratch and a treat, and she will respond less fearfully. 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.
Reward desired behavior
It’s easy to focus on trying to eliminate the unwanted behavior, but it’s more effective to recognize and reward the desired target behaviors. You can use several different reinforcers can, including treats and scratches.
Early in training, the target behavior might be simple and something the horse can accomplish. For example, if the horse is relaxed while standing near the water, call it success! Reward the desired relaxed stand by making a wide, arching turn away from the water, and then taking a short break before repeating the exercise. As the horse progresses through training, the target behavior will change and might include standing at the edge of a moving stream for 10 seconds, taking one step into a pond, walking through a water obstacle, and, finally, crossing a river.
Avoid triggering and punishing the unwanted behavior
Changing behavior takes time and persistence. It’s tempting to shoot for big gains, but doing so risks triggering fear and unwanted behavior. For example, if you push your horse to step further into the water until she starts to freeze, fidget, snort, bob her head, step backward, or spin, it would only serve to repeat the same well-practiced cycle of avoidance that you are trying to change.
If the fear and unwanted behavior are accidentally triggered, avoid harsh corrections like yanking on the lead rope, turning the horse in tight circles, or generally “making the wrong thing hard.” Punitive techniques like these involve force and pain, and while they might work in the moment, they do nothing to reduce the underlying fear and could even make the problem worse.
Practice: Strengthen new behavior and expand your horse’s comfort zone
Frequent practice will strengthen your horse’s calm behavior and confidence about crossing water. Build on your horse’s success by expanding her comfort zone. Vary the depth of the water, strength of the current, and visual properties of the water (i.e., reflective, muddy, and crystal clear). Also, set up training sessions that include a canal, stream, river, puddles, and pond to ensure that the training generalizes to different types of water crossings.
A Final Thought
A word of caution in closing: When done correctly, this progressive, low-stress approach to behavior change can be a bit boring for the person because it lacks action and drama. The trainer’s role is passive and indirect, with most of the effort invested in careful planning to set the horse up for success. It’s important to bear in mind that the techniques outlined in this article are designed to change behavior for a lifetime, not just for one time.