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Trail Challenge:
Crossing a Stream

WRITTEN BY: Cheryl Sutor   [May 10, 2001]


Training Question:

I have a 3 year old, almost 4, who I have trained from the ground up since she was 1. I am riding her and doing some very basic training, i.e. leg yeilding, shoulder in, turn on the forhand, trot, canter, etc. She is very intelligent and learns easliy. She has a feisty, but kind disposition. I have tried everything to get her to cross any type of water. She will not budge and panics at the site of water. I live next to a great trail, but can't access it, because I must cross a small creek. I'm at my wits end, and don't want to do battle with her as she trusts me. Help!

Teri Murtha


Trainer's Response:

Your goal is to cross a stream with your horse. However, to successfully train your horse to do so, you can't start with your goal in mind. You need to first break your goal down into many baby steps that can be easily accomplished. To do this, get out a piece of paper and write down your goal at the top (cross a stream). In order for your horse to be able to cross a stream, she must first be able to cross a smaller creek. And, before that, she must be able to cross a hose laying on the ground with water coming out of it, and before you can ride her through it, she must be able to cross it being lead. And, before all of this, she must be able to give to pressure on her halter and bit in order to listen to your specific cues to tell her to do so.

Find the easiest baby step that you know your horse will do successfully and start there. For example, if you know your horse will walk near a garden hose while it is turned off, then start at that step. Lay a garden hose on the ground (turned off) and walk her right next to it. Walk past it several times while practicing giving to the halter or bit. Pretend that the garden hose isn't even there, and focus on your training her to give to the halter or bit. Once she does this well 100% consistently, and you know that she will listen to your halter and bit cues while leading her past the garden hose, turn the garden hose on so that it is just a very small trickle coming out. Then, proceed with the same giving to the halter/bit lessons that you did earlier, ignoring the trickle of water.

Also, if your horse is even afraid of garden hoses, you don't need to start right next to the hose. Start 50 feet away from the hose, keeping your horse busy by asking her to give to the halter or bit, and asking her to respond to specific cues that you have taught her. Once she responds well at this distance, move up to 48 feet away, then back to 50 feet away after a minute or so. Then, back to 48 feet, then 45 feet, then back to 48 feet...see the pattern? This will help to keep your horse in her comfort zone. In addition, she will also be learning to give to the halter or bit better since that is what you are practicing at the same time...and she soon learns that the hose is of no importance.

I will give you a few more ideas that will help you to gradually increase the challenge, and to work towards your goal of crossing a stream. Once your horse is walking through the small trick of the garden hose, increase it gradually over time, until she is comfortable walking through a more powerful stream of water coming from the hose. Once she can do this, you can purchase a plastic tarp from your local hardware/home & garden store, and use the same techniques above to teach her to walk over the tarp, then to trot over it and canter over it....gradually and progressively.

Once she can listen to your cues 100% of the time while crossing the tarp, in a calm and obedient manner, you can start to combine the two. Place the hose on the tarp and allow the water to "pool" up on the tarp (start with just a little bit of water, and work up from there), and work your horse in the same manner to get her used to the moving water that is a bit deeper than before.

As you can see, there are probably a million preparations you can use to get your horse ready to cross a stream. Once you are ready to try crossing the stream, start with an extremely narrow part of the stream, or a small trick that runs off of the stream and work up to crossing the whole stream using the same baby steps I've outlined above.

It is important to remember that, at any time, if your horse tenses up or balks at what you are requesting, the horse is only telling you that she is not (either physically, mentally or emotionally) ready to do what you are asking. If this happens, simply back up a step or two in your training and continue training at that easier step until both of you are 100% confident again in what you are doing. Try to break down that part of the training into even smaller baby steps before advancing again. Sometimes, the horse just needs that little bit of backtracking for extra reassurance that she is doing just fine.

Happy Horsin'
Cheryl Sutor





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This article was published on: May 10, 2001. Last updated on: May 10, 2001.