In partnership with Equisafety

From puddles in the road to crossing streams, there are plenty of times where our horses might encounter water on a hack. It’s therefore key that they can handle it safely and with confidence, but many horses will shy or refuse. Accredited coach and 4* eventer Sarah Gairdner shares some tips to help you and your horse navigate water obstacles.

Do you need to go through it?

Just because you want to go through water doesn’t mean the same for your horse, especially if there are other routes around. If your horse is refusing to go through a puddle or crossing, try putting yourself in their shoes.

“If they were in the wild, would they choose to go through it or go around? They’d pick whatever route is safest,” says Sarah. “Water can be murky and they can find it tricky to read when there are reflections or shadows in the water. So if it’s a small puddle where there’s a clear way around, why wouldn’t they go round?”

To us, it seems sensible to introduce water with the smallest expanse, like a puddle, rather than something bigger like crossing a stream or a cross-country course water complex. But this isn’t the same for our horses.

“The biggest mistake I see riders make is with a short expanse of water. Riders want a horse to walk through, but when it’s narrow a horse will naturally want to jump it to get to the other side, or go around,” says Sarah. “When there’s length, horses will go in rather than jumping it.”

There is also the question of depth – whilst we know that a puddle in the road is shallow, a horse will not have this reasoning. In deeper water, such as a river crossing, we can’t see the bottom so don’t know how safe it is.

“As a kid, I was always told ‘if you can’t see the bottom, don’t go through it’,” advises Sarah.

Some horses may refuse to go into water because they are genuinely afraid – your job is to show them that it’s safe. You can do this with training.

How to get your horse used to water

Sarah advises riders that whilst it can be tempting to start tackling it on a hack when you happen upon a puddle or stream, this isn’t the best place to begin, particularly if your horse is nervous.

“I would always start somewhere where the horse can clearly see an entrance and exit, like a water complex at a cross-country course, so they understand they have to go through it,” says Sarah. “It’s all about confidence and trust. We know where we’re going, why we’re going through the water, and that it’s going to be ok – but the horse doesn’t know any of that, so they have to trust that you do.”

There’s also the safety aspect to consider – whilst hacking, there are often too many external factors to consider, such as other road users, that you need to be aware of, meaning your focus can’t solely be on providing your horse with a positive experience.

“If you’re in the middle of the road then you have everyone’s safety to consider,” says Sarah. “In a controlled environment, like a cross-country course, they can say ‘no’ safely. You don’t have to worry about it becoming a battle.”

1. Get them thinking forward 

You’ll struggle to get your horse striding on with confidence if they are behind the leg.

“The horse needs to be forward. If they aren’t in front of the leg then they’re not thinking forward,” says Sarah. “Reward them for moving forward. Let them stand if they want to, but not move backwards.”

2. Let them have a look 

A young or nervous horse will benefit from having the opportunity to investigate the water. Letting them approach at walk and then stopping to have a look can help.

“Going slowly gives them time to see where they’re going,” says Sarah. “Allow their head so they can look and see, especially if it’s a young horse; they might want to put their nose down and look at it like that.”

3. Find a lead 

“If they’re not sure, take a lead from another horse. If another horse makes the first step they’ll often follow,” says Sarah.

You could always ask a friend to go in on foot too if your horse will follow a person.

“Don’t put yourself in a position of introducing water without help. There’s only so much you can do if they’re digging their heels in and you’re on your own,” she adds.

4. Don’t overdo it 

“Don’t be greedy – if they go in, don’t keep getting in and out. If they walk in and out of the water then that’s good enough, especially if they’re nervous,” says Sarah. “Just because they’ve walked in doesn’t mean they are ready to trot and canter – they can scare themselves and set you back further than when you started.

“Venues are expensive to hire, so many people want to get their moneys worth, but that can mean overdoing it. You want to come away with them having enjoyed it, not being overwhelmed.”

5. Preparing for a leap 

Many horses would rather leap over a puddle than walk through it, and the idea of this can make some riders nervous. Sarah advises you have a neck strap ready just in case.

“If they leap in, have your neck strap ready to hold on to so you don’t catch them in the mouth,” cautions Sarah. “If the rider unintentionally loses their balance they usually rely on their hand – their hands go to the horse’s mouth. The less you react down the rein, the better experience the horse has.”

6. Building up – and also back down 

When things are going well it’s easy to push for more, and whilst this helps with progress, Sarah finds that de-escalating an exercise to end on an easier note to be beneficial for her horses’ mindsets.

“I build up in difficulty and then always build back down again. So let’s say you want to canter through water – start with walking through, then trot, then canter. But don’t end it on that note as it’s the hardest. Instead, come back to something simple like walking through. The horse comes away thinking that it was easy and straightforward,” she explains.

7. Putting it into practise at home 

Unless you have a water tray it can be tricky to replicate this at home, but mimicking the scenario of asking them to calmly walk through – or over – something unusual will help build up the trust in your relationship. Then the next time you ask your horse, they’ll remember you kept them safe before, and will be more willing.

“You can teach your horse to step onto something and walk off, for example walking them over tight tarpaulin,” suggests Sarah. “Then you have already built up trust in that type of situation. It’s about making sure that your groundwork and ridden work have built confidence.”

This content is brought to you in partnership with Equisafety, high viz clothing for horses and riders.

Meet the expert: Sarah Gairdner is an accredited coach and eventer who has competed up to 4* level. She is the youth coach for the under 18s Eastern region for British Eventing. She runs Danesmore Eventing, based on the Oxfordfordshire-Northamptonshire border. 

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