There is a hilarious horse meme that has been circulating around: On one side, there’s a photo of a small puddle with the caption What I See. Opposite, a photo of Niagara Falls with the caption What My Horse Sees.
It’s funny because it’s accurate. I remember explaining to a non-horsey friend what cross-country was and going into detail about water complexes. “The horse technically has no idea how deep the water is. They just have to trust that the rider isn’t asking them to jump into a quicksand pit full of crocodiles,” I joked. Saying it out loud made me realize that it is, in fact, pretty incredible that horses will do that for us.
Last year, I was riding my friend’s gelding while she was away for college. The horse was just about the chillest dude on the planet, except for a weird aversion to water obstacles on cross country. When we attended a clinic, I made sure to let the clinician know about the monsters under the bed, so to speak. She gave me a sort of mental pep talk, explaining how sensitive horses are to the rider’s thoughts. By the time I trotted slowly up to the drop off, I was in an almost meditative state, with a sky blue clear mind that was devoid of any preconceptions about whether or not this horse would jump in.
I was astounded. I desperately tried to replicate the same zen mindset the next day, but of course, the very act of trying so hard made it impossible to do. The monsters came back out, and it took ages to get the horse back in the water. It’s a problem that’s not just for eventers. Water happens, whether it’s a stream on a trail ride or a huge puddle in the corner of the hunter ring – and having a horse refuse to go in it can really cramp your style. Or ruin your ride.
While most “how to” articles on this subject are very similar (“start with a puddle and work your way up”), here are some more unique angles on the issue that you can add to your current routine.
It’s in your head(s)
There are two reasons a horse won’t go into water – either they’re scared, or petulant. I chose the word petulant because the definition is “childlishy sulky or peevish,” which I think is an excellent way of describing some equines. The courses of treatment for these two reasons are radically different. Being too assertive with a scared horse will just make them more afraid. However, some horses are just going for a power trip. Like a spoiled child who finds out that that they don’t actually have to do anything, soft baby talking and pats are probably not going to do the trick.
And what about you? Did you ever have a bad experience going into water with a horse? Maybe they rocket launched halfway into the stratosphere in their attempt to get to the other side without getting their toes wet. Having mild PTSD from a water-related “incident” is going to stick around in your subconscious – and horses are practically mind readers. You can’t hide anything from them.
While you can’t exactly go to couple’s therapy with your horse to discuss deep-seated trauma (wouldn’t that be great?), having a coach who knows the whole story on both sides will definitely help. Maybe you need to get on a schoolmaster and go around and around to get it ingrained in your head that it can be easy.
Do (other) scary things
Whether the problem comes from lack of self-confidence or “childish sulkiness,” taking the focus away from water for awhile, and onto “other” challenging obstacles could help. Maybe it’s stepping on a tarp, or just going for a hack down the road past the “big scary rock.” Even a trail ride over challenging terrain might help change their mindset. The more difficult tasks that you and your horse conquer as a team, the more they will trust and respect you.
One brick at a time
Having the luxury of being able to school cross country every day is very rare for eventers. This results in having the pressure to accomplish a “to-do” list during schooling trips. If the situation is really bad, maybe you need to just spend the whole hour standing with your horse’s toes in the water, watching other riders going up and down the bank. Or sitting it out completely to allow a more experienced rider pilot your horse. Baby steps are painfully boring, but sometimes they’re the only way.
Like those million other articles say, start with a small puddle.