I think I have a nice hunt horse in the making... who hates water

My 5-year-old went on his first hunter pace yesterday and was a dream—rateable, smart, sure-footed, didn’t mind leading or following his friends, didn’t give two thoughts about deer running out of the woods, etc. I even took a (silly) tumble, and he trotted a lap around the field and then stopped immediately to graze, letting me lead him to a log to remount. All in all, I was super impressed with his brain and how much he enjoyed it, and the huntsman even admired him at the halfway point.

Based on that experience, I’d feel 100 percent comfortable taking him out in the third field—except for one thing: this horse is stubborn as all get out when it comes to crossing water. The first crossing was shallow and inviting, and he still said, “heck no!” After about 20 minutes of all strategies, I got off and led him through with my partner chasing him from behind with a stick. He ultimately walked through it calmly with the coaxing and paused to stand and sniff before coming out, but would not cross another even smaller crossing later on. He doesn’t get nasty and does have a lot of self-perseverance, but he is incredibly stubborn and does try to go backward and get away from the situation.

This horse cantered through every single puddle in our sloppy outdoor ring a week ago, loves baths and playing with the hose, doesn’t mind riding in the rain, etc., but crossing water is clearly very different from him in an unknown environment. I can hack out across the street from our farm, but I’m usually out with pony kids or more novice adults who might be unable to give me the reinforcement I had yesterday to get him across. Thoughts on how to replicate/reinforce this at home? (I’ve considered clicker, but this horse is NOT super food-motivated.)

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Don’t get discouraged yet; this is fairly standard for a green or young horse on their first outing. Even if they walk through puddles at home, sometimes a new crossing makes them nervous or unsure.

My filly did much the same her first outing. I spent most of the summer reinforcing that she needs to walk where I point her no matter the surface.

Any Event farms near you with a water crossing? IMO the best way to install confidence is to do it daily or as often as you can, until it becomes a non issue. It helps to also have a lead pony who can give you a lead over water.

You can practice at home by laying down tarps in various places, a new place every day, and have him walk over it. Same goes for plywood, or old blankets - anything that is a novel surface is worth walking over until he learns confidence in your aids and direction.

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Yep! We have a country park with cross-country schooling a 10-minute hack away (lucky me!), so I suppose I should pack a picnic lunch and drag the kids over there for an afternoon. :laughing: Love the idea of doing blankets/tarps, etc., at home in the meantime.

Thank you—and yes, you’re 100% right that it’s less about WATER and more about “I don’t totally trust that you’re going to keep me safe.” He was just SO great for everything else that it makes this challenge doubly frustrating—because horses.

If you can lead him in that easily you can almost certainly fix this. The crossing you described is pretty easy compared to some.

You need to work with him when you are under no time pressure. Go at his pace. It is horses feeling forced and bullied who do not genuinely get over their fear of water.

The goals is to get him to where he sees putting his feet in water as no big deal. Standing in water is fine. And eventually, see water coming up, gallop right on in there.

Personally I would start from the ground with some tall waders and be in there with him. He needs to stand, get treats (if he’ll eat them), look around, whatever he needs to be more comfortable. As he has relaxed and starting to get bored, get comfortable with walking in and out of the water, over and over again. Walking through. Walking in and stopping. Turning and going out in different directions. Entering from different points. Etc. Make him comfortable before upping the ask, and finish on an easy step, even if it it going back a few.

Then same thing with a rider. You can use a companion horse to prove the water won’t kill him, but sounds like you might be able to do it with or without.

Anyway … this is desensitization just like any other. A horse that led through water with nothing more than a waving branch behind him will be one who will gallop through cheerfully, soon enough.

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I just have to remark on this although it isn’t necessarily germane to OP’s issue …

So when I was growing up, horses lived in large open pastures with every kind of terrain and a pond (at least one, artificial or natural). They drank from the pond. They stood in the pond to eat their favorite water plants (some would plunge their heads in past their eyes to get the best roots).

And in this very hot climate, they would roll in the water and/or go well into the center of the pond to just stand there and cool off.

All on their own. It was unthinkable that horses did not easily go into water. They were in the water a lot in the summer on their own in pasture. Where they lived most of the time.

In fact, when summer riding, don’t ride near the pond or the horse might plunge right in and start drinking (it was important to be sure they were getting water during the ride but not like this). And even - with rider, saddle and all - start aggressively pawing the water and splashing everywhere and then roll to cool off. And get rid of the rider. This is so bad for the saddle … grit, grime, and soaked through, although the water didn’t damage that leather. But they could break a tree rolling on the saddle.

So then I take a break from horses for a couple of decades of career, then come back to horses, and astonishingly none of the horses will go in the water. They are afraid of the water. They are not charging into the middle of the pond while fully tacked and with a rider, pawing the water madly while the rider is hauling on the reins and shouting “Stop it! Don’t you dare!” :stuck_out_tongue_winking_eye:

It seems that horses in this country no longer live with ponds. And anything they aren’t familiar with will probably eat them. So here we are, teaching horses to stop panicking and just go through the water. An animal that is very comfortable with water all on their own - but in very different contexts. :face_with_raised_eyebrow: :slight_smile:

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In the case of this particular horse, he lived a very sheltered life on the track at Keeneland up until about six months ago, so I can understand the lack of exposure. But I absolutely know what you’re saying—I’m not that old, and still, as kids, we’d ride our ponies bareback into the pond without a second thought from them or us. I don’t remember how it happened, but it just did.

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Good advice already. One option is to find a friend with a horse that is confident with water and spend an afternoon together at the local country park pond just going in, standing, walking out, grazing, walking in again … making the whole thing relaxed, no fuss. From walk to trot to canter, follow the leader style, then solo. It is something new that your horse hasn’t met yet and the company of another horse will make it easier for yours to learn there is nothing to worry about.

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Phillip Dutton did a video of introducing a young horse to go into the water. It was excellent. It was a Monday video on Eventing Nation.
The funny part is when the dogs appear … "OH look, the little dogs have come to help, " he says.

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I had a version of this horse. First time he had to cross water he trembled. He doesn’t really know how to say “no” so he did it after after a few minutes, and then full body shook. Poor guy. Water complexes also left him quaking in his bell boots.

I really tried to replicate it at home - I rode through puddles, through the impromptu ponds left in paddocks after fierce rain storms, etc. But I found that moving water specifically was scary for my horse, which I couldn’t replicate generally. I also couldn’t replicate the way water is generally presented in a creek with a slope of some type down to the water, which I think added to his nerves. He walked over tarps, blankets, and everything else without a care - water is really the only thing I’ve ever found him to balk at.

So we just did it every chance we got. Cross country schoolings with water complexes, hunter paces with creeks, trails rides with water. Over the past two weekends we did a hunter pace with 4 water crossings and then an eventing clinic where he jumped a log in the middle of a water complex for the first time. It took time and patience and lots of off-property trips unfortunately, but we have (mostly) got there aside from a moment or two of hesitation.

One thing I did is not let him just charge through and get it over with. Once he was going through a crossing, I aimed him up or downstream (as the crossing permitted) and had him walking around in it a bit and stand while getting lots of pats. Then go out calmly. I never want them to think “just get to the other side fast” and start jumping over the water, because somewhere down the line a rider will come off if they don’t expect that (and I’ve seen that happen out hunting).

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Great advice in this thread so far!

Another great technique is to pony your horse from a reliable horse. If he’s been on the track, he’s probably comfortable being ponied. If you have a cross country course in hacking distance, that’s ideal.

Walk into the water, walk out, walk in, take a little hop out, work up to hopping in, walking out.

Somehow the rock steady pony horse does more to convince them that it’s safe than the rider does. I don’t entirely understand the pscyhology, because I’ve seen horses watch all the other horses in their group cross water and then still behave like it’s going to eat them.

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My twit of a driving horse periodically decides he won’t go through a puddle…usually at horse show. Last year, coming back from a class at night, we were coming back and another horse in the barn across was coming behind us. There was not time for fun & games. Before we got near the rather large puddle, I told the gal at his head to get off to the side and clucked him into trot & growled. While he’s prone to be stupid at a walk, he knows that when I say ‘trot’, I mean now, especially if there’s growling involved. He plowed through it like a trooper. One rule of driving is to be scarier than whatever in front of the horse.

Lol I may be calling on you for this in the future :grin:

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Yes!!! Holden is not the bravest jumper but he always goes into water. He really got his gingersnaps last week: we were at a hunter pace going through the water jump when a riffraff of ponies and their riders (very young) galloped up and jumped into the water right where Holden and I were walking! Holden didn’t even flinch despite the fact two ponies literally jumped into him and we both got soaking wet. I guess that is redemption for his earlier antics where he didn’t want to leave the group to jump a portable. :laughing:

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I wouldn’t worry until you go again. I had one OTTB who spent an epic 40 minutes during a clinic putting a foot in the water. He was a last minute replacement in the clinic for a horse that stepped on a twisted shoe…it was ugly. Like ugly ugly. All the tricks were attempted. Finally got him in.

Next schooling he walked right in, time after that we trotted in, fourth time jumped in. Never had a water problem again.

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