Take Time When Teaching Your Horse to Wade

Crossing obstacles, whether it is stepping into water or stepping on a trail bridge, can definitely be a challenge if your horse doesn't respond to your cue to move forward. Don't be totally disappointed. The positive thing is, you are able to get your horse across water. It's just now you want to do it without getting your own feet wet, too!

On our land, there are lots of creeks and ponds that I’d like to cross, but my new horse doesn’t like to go through them. I try and try, but he won’t. So I have to lead him across. Then I get back on him and try again when I’m riding and he still won’t go. Finally, I have to give up. Any suggestions?
KK/Broken Arrow, Oklahoma

Crossing obstacles, whether it is stepping into water or stepping on a trail bridge, can definitely be a challenge if your horse doesn’t respond to your cue to move forward. Don’t be totally disappointed. The positive thing is, you are able to get your horse across water. It’s just now you want to do it without getting your own feet wet, too!

The good news is that you probably have one training issue instead of two. Since you can lead your horse into and out of water, the bigger issue is getting your horse to respond to your cue to go across when riding.

The lesson plan described here is abbreviated, but it is based on the premise of what you can do differently to get the results you are looking for. Your horse’s responses will depend on your ability to be specific with your cues and give them in a timely fashion. You can learn a lot by watching someone who uses good techniques and proper timing, and who understands how much pressure is needed, so it might not be a bad idea to enlist the help of a qualified trainer. You will also see how your horse responds to the training-all good information for you.

We recommend that you practice this lesson in a safe enclosure. You’ll start by crossing objects that are less scary or challenging to the horse. This way you can practice the principles, increasing your chances of success.

Let’s look at what doesn’t work for you right now. When you ride up to a creek, the horse stops his forward movement and will not cross. You steer him to face the creek, kick his sides and all you get is a dance, back and forth. Sometimes horses do other evasive moves such as turning and going the other way, or backing up. You kick and kick, but nothing happens, he still won’t cross.

The two cues you used were a rein cue to point the nose in the direction you want to go and your leg cue to ask the horse to go forward. You will still use these two cues to teach your horse to cross a creek, but you will use them a little differently.

Let’s say you’re in a nice, controlled setting and your objective is to cross a thick sheet of plywood. As before, you’ll use your rein cues to tell the horse the direction you want him to go and your leg cue to tell the horse to move his feet. However, here’s a very important point to remember: Do not kick your horse’s sides if his feet are moving. Yes, that means in any direction. It is the job of the reins to tell the horse the direction to go. It is not the job of your legs to tell the horse the direction to move. Your leg cue is simply a means to get the horse to move his feet. Of course, we want the feet to go forward. But kicking a horse’s sides doesn’t guarantee that we will get forward movement. If you continue to kick as the horse dances side to side or backs up, you will burn out your leg cue. Eventually you will kick and the horse won’t move at all.

Here’s the lesson: Pick a location where you want the horse to cross the plywood sheet. Keep this spot very small and definite. For example, if you were trying to cross the creek, you wouldn’t ask the horse to cross anywhere he pleases along a 20-foot length of the bank. You’d find the spot with the best footing and shallowest water and ask the horse to cross there. So when you’re working with a smaller obstacle, like the plywood sheet, pick a 2-inch spot and point the horse’s nose at it. This is critical. It keeps you very specific in your requests and takes the guesswork out of where you will cross.

Any time the horse takes his nose off that mark, correct him. Use your right or left rein to point the nose back to the specific spot. Have one rein in each hand ready to adjust the nose the instant the head comes off the mark. Apply your leg cue only when the horse’s nose is pointed to the spot. His hindquarters might be off to the side, but if the nose is on target, go ahead and squeeze or kick with your legs to ask the horse to move. The instant the horse’s feet move, stop kicking. Keep his nose centered on the target and be quick to correct the nose position if it strays very far off the mark.

If the feet move backwards or to the side, don’t be concerned. Just continue to steer the nose to the spot. Once the horse stops moving, kick again when you think he will move his feet. You may have to pause briefly, then ask his feet to move. If the horse steps only one step forward and then stops, pause, give him a quick praise and then ask the feet to move again. How quickly you ask again will be your own personal judgment call. If you think the horse needs a longer break because he has been making good progress and you don’t want to pressure him, then give him a longer break. Always try to ask when you think the horse will move in response to your leg cue.

What generally occurs is that the horse learns he is unable to go any other direction, so he steps forward. It is the use of the reins telling the horse where to go, and the use of the rider’s legs telling the horse to move that eventually teaches him to cross the obstacle.

Be patient and work gradually toward your goal. Slow progress is to be expected. If the horse paws at the obstacle, let him. He is checking it out. Once you feel that he has been given enough “checking it out” time, you can stop him from pawing. If you’re in the creek, you may want to allow only so much splashing.

A word of caution-if your creek is small in width, most horses will try to jump over it. You need to be ready for this. If you approach narrow creeks from an angle and ask the horse to step into the water, one foot at a time, you can work to avoid the leap over the water. Also, if you get a horse that puts everything in reverse, and does so quickly, you want to stop this evasive move as well. You will have to change what you are doing with the reins and ask the horse to move his hips over, stopping the back up. Then go to the lesson again. Stop the horse from backing up only if he is using it totally as a way to get out of the lesson. Connecting the rein to the hip, or moving the hips over, will counter his move to back up.

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