Aquaphobia. We’ve all experienced it in our horsey lives, and we aren’t talking showers during a three day event camp.
We’re talking large ponds of water and Loch Ness monsters. The fact is that every eventer has to jump into water and most show jumpers have to leap over water; dressage riders avoid it, but just like trail riders they sometimes need to splash on through.
Seemingly innocuous puddles of water can cause you to believe horses see the Loch Ness monster. Water has been the undoing of many riders, needlessly so. The fact is that most of the issues lie in a lack of preparation or too many gaps in basic training. So let’s start with some empathy.
Why should your horse voluntarily plunge straight into water? Evolution has taught them to be flight animals, so we need to overcome this natural instinct.
I can already hear some of you saying, ‘But what about horses that have dams in their paddock?’ Well, one of my horses always avoided being caught in the paddock by standing in the middle of a dam. But come to a small water jump, and Timmy Almighty used to transform into a mobile hen-house of terrified chickens.
So we all feel the frustration. It can be tough riding along on a wet track when the horse leaps ten feet into the air to avoid touching a puddle. But If we can calm everything down and smooth the ride, we can avoid some very muddy falls and maybe pick up a few more ribbons. Preparation and patience is what is needed and as with anything to do with horses it pays to go slowly in the beginning.
Before you even go cross country schooling here are some fundamentals you need to check:
Is your horse responsive to a light leg aid? If you’re having to use a lot of spur to get an upward transition you need to train the ‘go’ button a little better. This will be your main way of helping the horse through the water. When a horse is more responsive and understanding of your aids it is going to be more confident in a new environment, to help understand this take your leg off for a couple strides while trotting or cantering and test their self carriage. If they slow down as soon as you take your leg aid off you need a better ‘go’ button. This will come in very handy later if your horse maintains its pace when you take the leg off briefly. Otherwise you are going to wear yourself out and at the same time make the horse duller to the leg.
Using a dressage whip to support your leg in this situation is very helpful. That way you can keep your hands on both reins to maintain straightness and encourage them forward at the same time.
Always make sure the depth and footing of the water obstacle is appropriate. If you need to check it on foot, do it. Giving your horse a safe and positive experience is essential!!
Having a more experienced, calm horse nearby is always helpful. Even more helpful would be having an experienced, calm coach (and an older horse) helping you.
Keeping the horse calm is the priority. Start at the walk. Allow them to reach down and sniff the water as they gradually walk through. If they don’t go straight in don’t give them a big smack with the whip as punishment for not going in. This will only make them more tense. On approach keep encouraging them forwards while being very precise and releasing the leg/whip pressure as soon as they take a forward step.
Reward every forward step! So you make it into the water. What’s next? Lots of scratches on the wither at this point or food treats if you are able to coordinate that.
Ask them to walk around, allowing them to sniff the water. They may paw at it – which is fine until they decide to roll on you. Also, pawing may dig the base up which you should be aware of at a competition venue.
Building to canter in water: After walking through the water a few times, trot out and come in at a working trot. The horses will still be a little wobbly so do your best to keep them as straight as possible. If the water is not too deep finally try it in canter. The deeper the water the harder it is for them to maintain their pace so a steady canter is a good way to start. Keep going through the water until they are calm while maintaining their speed and straightness as much as possible.
Training the bank up: For the bank out of/into the water it’s good to take a step back. Practice the bank up and down separate to the water first. When this is under control then trot into the water and up the smallest bank.
Going up is easier and out of trot is better to start. Don’t hesitate to grab some mane or a neck strap to stay off the horses mouth as they jump up.
At the event : One big issue people have out at competitions is they gallop at the water way too fast. The horse has little chance to see and read the situation. It then jumps hollow and lands flat, usually with the rider flopping on their back and pulling on the mouth.
Take a few extra seconds to set up, ride forward but not flat out. Your horse will thank you, probably by being smooth enough for you to stay in the saddle, high and dry! It might happen that you are on course and you stop at the water. Stay calm if your horse stops. It’s either stopped because you gave it a bad ride or you haven’t trained it thoroughly enough.
Take a deep breath and trot the horse into the water from an easier entry point. Time is of no importance anymore so even an extra circle in the water can be helpful. Remind them of the ‘go’ button and reapproach. Not galloping, just closing the leg a little more the last couple strides.
Make sure your rein contact is light on approach. You might be a little tense and then pull back on the reins which is going to either tell him or stop or make him dull to the rein aid. Always do your best to finish on a good note and remember there is always tomorrow and there will always be another water jump! Get a good coach for advice and watch some videos of Stuart Tinney and Chris Burton for inspiration and to understand textbook position.
Charlie Brister of Brister Equestrian is an all-round horseman based in western Sydney. His expertise is in re-training problem horses, as well as coaching riders in the art of cross-country, show jumping and dressage.