How to Teach a Horse to Cross Water

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.

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