Exactly how often does the average horse confront a large body of still water’ Compared to the water trough or the creek in the back pasture, the answer is not often. So from his perspective, a water jump presents several unknowns:
It’s bigger than what he drinks from,
It may look like a submerged pen,
If the water’s cloudy with silt, he can’t judge its depth or when his feet will touch bottom.
The jump we’ve photographed is a perfect example of a great schooling water jump. It has four easy banks with a drop of about two feet, plus a gently descending dirt approach from the flat. Horses can walk or trot in, jump the banks, or vary the approach with a little set of cross rails going into the water from the flat. It also has a reasonably firm bottom, a key point. Don’t make the mistake of introducing a horse to water by starting him out in deep mud — the sinking sensation and effort required to pull his feet out could induce fear.
When first introducing a horse to water, we like to get in and out smoothly without directly jumping in, if possible. Some horses will have the previous schooling, or simply the personality, to find this no problem. Others will be less eager. Remember, it’s the fear of the unknown that causes a horse to balk.
If you’re with a group, let the one with the boldest horse walk in first, to show his tentative buddies that everything’s OK. If that’s not an option, dismount and lead him in. But make sure you’re not in his way, in case he decides now is the time to jump into the water. Take your time now, whether a minute or an hour, and you’ll save hours of reschooling later.
After he’s walked into the water, make sure he stays there. Walk him in circles. The questions you want answered are, “Can I turn him, and does he remain rideable’” Take your time.
Once he’s accustomed to the water splashing his legs, ask him to trot around in it. Repeat the same procedure as the walk, first working him in circles in one direction and then the other. If he can’t seem to relax, get a few horses to walk in and join him. When it comes to water and horses, misery loves company.
With a little courage gained by numbers, ask again for a relaxed trot on a circle. Having other horses with him should help him turn his attention from the water and back to listening to you. When he feels more confident trotting and circling, reward him by bringing him back to the walk and casually leaving the water where you came in.
The next step is to go back in — alone. Ask him to walk and trot circles in both directions and jump out from one of the banks. If the introductory work has been done patiently, by the time he jumps a bank, he might actually be enjoying himself. Once he knows the water’s depth, build on his willingness by asking for a trot into the water from off a bank. Break the pattern so your horse doesn’t anticipate one particular route — he’ll learn to think on his feet should he be faced with tougher situations later on.
Then practice these exercises at the canter, repeating them to the point of boredom, as we say. It may be boring to you, but each time he does it correctly, you’re building his confidence and teaching him water is no problem.
Make a big fuss over how well he’s done his lessons. Usually, you can dispel your horse’s fears in one session if you go through the step with gentle persistence, and it will pay off handsomely for you in the future.
While real splash fences don’t start appearing on cross-country courses until training level, it doesn’t hurt to vary your routine now. After simple walks, trots and canters into the water, and coming off banks into and out of it, it’s time to set up a little obstacle to complicate matters a bit. Try a cross-rail where he can work on jumps into water, out of water and in the middle of water. As long as he’s taught to treat water as an easy matter, you shouldn’t have trouble riding a little fence through it, either.
Schooling your horse to water, like any other riding exercise, will only be as successful as the degree of correctness with which you attempt it. At first, it’s going to be difficult to worry about form and style when you horse is “popping” into the water, squirming between your legs like a worm, or just downright refusing to go in. But it’s no excuse for overlooking proper riding.
Two points you, as the rider and teacher, need to remember throughout these exercises are to keep your eyes up, and hold your horse straight on the line. The classic rule that you don’t ride the jump, you ride a line that happens to have a jump in it, holds true for water, too. Sit tight and urge him on firmly with your leg, seat, voice and, if necessary, a light tap from a bat.
Most of a water jump’s intimidation factor is psychological, but if you don’t bring him in straight and look where you’re going, rather than down at the element, you’re bound to have a sloppy ride. And since many horses will have at least a few lurching efforts during these exercises, it’s imperative you keep your position so you avoid things like banging on his mouth as you scramble to regain your balance.
Patience and gentleness in your horse’s introduction to water and a safe schooling jump will help your horse take to this cross-country obstacle like a fish to water.
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