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Is your horse ready to take the plunge?

Tackling water complexes with confidence

Is your horse ready to take the plunge?
Is your horse ready to take the plunge?

[dropcap]H[/dropcap]ave you ever wondered why some horses fear water? Eventers and some showjumpers can have a hard time convincing their horses to go through water complexes or over water jumps. A young horse naturally fears puddles, because the position of his eyes on the sides of his head doesn’t allow him to see directly beneath him. He can also only get a perception of how deep the water is when he lowers his head. To your horse, that puddle might mean disappearing down a deep hole, so it’s understandable that his brain tells him not to go there.

Building up your horse’s confidence through water can be a lengthy process, depending on the horse, so it’s important that your horse trusts you and that you have bucket loads of patience!

Taking the plunge

Introducing a horse to water is all about taking things one step at a time. Find a suitable water body that is not too deep or scary (stay away from flowing rivers!). A puddle or shallow dam bank is a good start. Before starting the process, remind yourself that arguments won’t help you achieve anything. Take an experienced horse with you, so that your horse learns by example.

Allow your horse a long rein so that he can stretch his head all the way down and take a good look at the water. Do not allow him to go dashing through the water with his head up – he will learn to be confident by looking down. Don’t allow him to try and spin around, but rather encourage him to move forward.

Some horses might start pawing at the water, which is good, but be careful that they don’t enjoy it too much and try to roll!

Don’t forget to make a big fuss of your horse when he goes in.

Let the training begin

Start off slowly and give your horse the time he needs to build his confidence
Start off slowly and give your horse the time he needs to build his confidence

Once your horse is confident in natural water, you can introduce him to a cross country water complex. Once again, go with a confident and experienced horse and follow him in and out of the water before trying it yourself. Start by walking through the water, and once your horse is feeling confident, try a trot. From there you can build it up to a canter. There are almost always slopes in and out of the water, so practise going in and out of the water in a trot and canter. You can also spend time circling in the water and standing still, so that your horse learns to relax rather than only look for the exit.

Adding a fence

If your horse is feeling confident through the water, it’s time to add in some jumping. There are usually several fence options around the water complex that are jumped according to level. Look for a fence that is a few strides away from the complex. It’s a big learning curve because your horse now has to learn to multitask with more than just the water to think about. Your horse might get overwhelmed and your first attempt at a fence straight after the water complex might result in a stop. Don’t panic, take it slowly, and try again.

Just because your horse has coped well with water when you’re schooling him doesn’t mean that he won’t baulk when he meets a water jump on course. Any new water fence is different, so before your first event, it’s worth finding two or three different water complexes to practise.



How to ride through water

Build it up and practice galloping into water
Build it up and practice galloping into water

As a rider, be prepared for anything your horse might throw at you. Your horse might throw you an unexpected curveball jumping in or out of the water. Make sure that you always sit with your shoulders back, so that you are in a secure position. This way, if your horse stumbles, you won’t fall forward or get in the way as he tries to find his feet.

Offer some support with the reins, but do not restrict his head and neck movement by holding him too tightly. Your legs must be on and clearly saying ‘go’.

As you jump into the water, you should lean back with your lower leg forward. Slip the rein so that your horse can stretch his neck. Regain your position and gather your reins as quickly as you can on landing, so that you can guide him to the exit.

Riding too fast into water can result in accidents
Riding too fast into water can result in accidents

Common rider errors

– If you go too fast into the water, you will end up creating a big splash and your horse will struggle to see where he is going.

Solution: Make sure your horse has time to see the slope, step or fence coming out of the water complex.

– Your horse might slow down or try to walk heading into the water.

Solution: Teach your horse to trot and canter through the water. It requires confidence and balance on his part.

– Some riders panic when cantering to a step out of the water complex, wondering if the horse is reading the fence correctly.

Solution: Some horses will stumble, but they are quick learners, so put it in the practice.

– Some horses spook at shadows on the water.

Solution: Be aware of how the sun will change from when you walk to the course to when you ride it. A dark spot at the entry of the complex could cause your horse to spook. A secure position and encouraging leg is imperative in this case