Archived Backcopies

Vol 33-3 October/November 2011


by Pat Parelli

The image of horse and rider splashing gently through a creek on a warm afternoon, sun glittering on the water is an irresistible picture, but it is not a likely scenario for many riders without a solid foundation in place.

“Water crossing can be one of the most frustrating and dangerous things in your horse experience,” says Pat Parelli. The fact is that many horses are skeptical about crossing water if it’s not something they regularly encounter in their environment. Experts at survival, horses are extremely perceptive to changes in people, places and things and water can present a challenge, even to otherwise laid-back horses, because it’s hard for them to gauge depth. Because of this the horse may feel as though it is stepping into an endless dark hole!
Pat believes that horse and human each have specific responsibilities if they’re going to have a harmonious partnership, and if both partners fulfill their responsibilities, water crossing and all other challenges become much easier to negotiate, not to mention much safer.

These responsibilities are simple, but clear.

The horse’s responsibilities are:
to act like a partner instead of a prey animal, not to change gaits or directions until asked, and to look where it is going.

The human’s responsibilities are:
to always act like a partner, not a predator, to have an independent seat and be a good enough rider to stay out of the horse’s way, to think like a horse before thinking like a human and to learn the natural power of focus.

Start at Home

It goes without saying that the horse’s first introduction to water should take place in the safe and reassuring environment of home, and before ever attempting to cross a creek or water on the trail, the horse should be quiet and calm when being washed and when a watering hose is being used around it. If the horse hates getting its feet wet and won’t stand in a puddle when being washed, it can hardly be expected to forge on through water encountered on the trail or at the beach. In order for the horse to be completely comfortable with water, the rider needs to spend time working with the horse in a familiar environment, allowing such things as sniffing and drinking from the hose should the horse show an inclination.

Even the horse that plays in water at home can have second (and third!) thoughts when first asked to wade through a stream or puddle out in the bush, and this is where the rider’s job as leader becomes so important - it’s up to the leader to build the horse’s confidence.

Done in the ‘right’ way, it becomes less about the water itself, and more about the horse’s self confidence and trust in the rider. It’s much the same as float loading not being about the float, but about the horse trusting the handler not to do anything that will put it in danger, and once trust, confidence and leadership are firmly established, the horse will willingly load into a float, cross water and do virtually anything asked.
“It’s a big thing for a horse to give up their decision-making to you,” observes Pat. “The horse has a mental, emotional and physical state and their sense of self preservation comes up.”

The leader horse needs to have a good foundation when it comes to something challenging, such as crossing water.

“Most people don’t have a good ‘go button’ on their horse,” explains Pat. “You need to work on improving the ‘go button’ first and practice having a good response from the horse when you ask him to move forward. He should respect the pressure of your legs and promptly move off when you squeeze once. If he doesn’t, use the end of your reins or a lead rope to ‘spank’ his hindquarters and encourage him to move out when you squeeze with your legs.”

Before ever approaching water, the rider should work on improving the ‘go button’ so that they are sure the horse will be responsive to the riders leg when confronting any type of obstacle.

Watch The Focus

First, a word about safety - if there is any question about the depth of water, always remove any type of martingale or tie-down before crossing, if the horse hits a deep spot and can’t get its head up, it can drown in a hurry.

“When crossing water, you might think that should be your focus, but this is where a lot of people make mistakes,” Pat notes. “Yes, you should look at the water before you approach to determine the best place to cross, but don’t do this when you’re standing at the edge or crossing it.”

“A typical mistake people make is looking at the water, but they’re focusing on the wrong thing,” Pat explains. “Instead of looking at the water, the rider needs to be looking across to where they’re going. Focus across the water, not on the water. The rider needs to look ahead to where he wants to go while the horse looks where he’s going.

Focus is important because it affects your feel, timing and balance. When you drive a car, you don’t look at the instrument panel or the hood of the car, you look ahead to where you’re going. The more focused you are, the better you can use your seat, legs and hands. If you focus on the wrong thing you usually do the wrong thing.”
Being aware of the horse’s emotions will enable the rider to know whether the horse is ‘emotionally collected’ - trusting and respecting the rider- as ideally, the horse should be thinking, not reacting.

If the horse shows a lack of confidence, use the ‘approach and retreat’ method, as explained by Pat Parelli. “When a horse is startled or chased by anything, he will run a short distance, then turn and face and reassess the situation,” he says. “When you get them to turn 180 degrees and face where they came from, it gets them thinking. This is what you do when dealing with a water crossing. Approach the water and then retreat.” This method takes the pressure off and encourages the horse to start thinking.

After approaching and retreating several times, go ahead and approach all the way to the water and ask the horse to continue forward by squeezing with your legs. Squeeze once and if the horse won’t go forward, enforce the ‘go button‘ by using the end of the reins or lead rope to ‘spank‘ the hindquarters.

“Give this a 10 second try and if the horse still won’t cross the water, then get off and go to the ground,” says Pat. “Persist until the horse tries and then let up immediately as soon as he makes an effort. Once your horse’s fear is gone, he feels safe to be curious about the water. Use the ground skills you’ve learned to direct the horse to cross on the ground on a long line. Once he’ll do that, then go back to the saddle again.”

If the rider isn’t comfortable crossing water on the horse, the horse may be worked on a long line first before asking it to cross while the rider is in the saddle. Remember, if the rider feels nervous this will translate directly to the horse, so confidence in their own ability and what they are asking the horse to do is vital.

Horses will often try to jump the water instead of walking through it, so if the horse tries this tactic, the rider should definitely dismount and work on directing the horse across the water on a long line. This should be done numerous times before the rider remounts and rides through the water, so that the horse will be more willing to walk through the water as its confidence builds.

“People often get in their horse’s way and don’t even know it,” say Pat. “Don’t attempt a water crossing unless you have an independent seat and are a good enough rider so that you aren’t confusing your horse by sending him mixed signals with your seat, legs and hands.”

First and foremost, make it a point not to get frustrated with the horse, as this will add nothing positive to the water crossing session. Instead, read the horse’s emotions to find where the rider needs to help the horse to become more confident and stay focused so that the horse has the leader it needs.

“When people get frustrated, they tend to act like a predator,” notes Pat. “Don’t get frustrated; make a commitment to build his confidence and progress through the problem.”


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