Friday, July 3, 2009

Water crossing

A recent ride in Kananaskis country...those black ears belong to my OTTB Link's peaked little head. The chestnut belongs to my mom and is also an dressage prospect. The grey is a 4yo Arabian mare, freshly started under-saddle. She did amazing that day, handling the terrain and various scenarios beautifully - a testament to the Arab breed! This was Link's first outting in the mountains, his first experience outside the track, arena, and nearby bordering hilly pastures. His very first time encountering such uneven ground, bridges, and water. We crossed water four times (once over a narrow wooden bridge) - by the last crossing he was headed in with confidence and relaxation, though it was the deepest and swiftest yet.

Crossing water is often less about the water, and more about the partnership between horse and rider. The following are a number of factors that might contribute to an unsuccessful water crossing:

Former bad experiences
Being forced into fearful situations can have a lasting effect - the kind that inhibits the horse from crossing water in the future. This is typically a lesser factor, however.

Horses are prey animals
As such, there is no way they are going to place themselves in a situation that could potentially jeopardize their safety or survival. Like, water. We've all seen the lions hiding in the tall grass awaiting the thirsty zebra on the National Geographic channel. Predators naturally are going to lurk around areas guaranteed to be populated by prey animals. And prey animals are naturally going to take any and all necessary precautions around such places and even avoid them if possible. Prey animals are innately aware of this relationship. Furthermore, water is a heavier medium than air, and as such, more difficult to move through, which could impede flight. Lastly, horses do not possess the x-ray vision we seem to expect them to. They cannot see through water to judge its depth. Especially if it is muddy (ie. your average puddle). Let's not forget either the footing a horse cannot see beneath the water - rocks, mud, sand, whatever it may be. As prey animals, a horse's primary instinct is to flee - something water may inhibit. All these factors combined result in one very suspicious horse who's more than a little leery of approaching - never mind walking through, the water you're asking him to.

Lack of confidence
On the horse's part. Horses are something comparable to huge bunny rabbits. Wearing horse hair. What we can do? Develop confidence in our horses. Develop a braver, calmer, smarter horse via games, patterns, and methods that instill confidence in a successfully learning, thinking, horse that can trust in the leadership of its rider/handler. Challenge our horses to learn and acclimate to various situations and in doing so, create a more confident horse. This also ties in with developing an emotionally balanced horse that learns to think rather than react.

Lack of partnership
For your horse to do something Mother Nature has programmed into him as quite possibly insane (aka - cross water), he has to have a very high level of trust in you. This sort of trust goes beyond your horse simply trusting you will not hurt it. Your horse has to trust that you - his leader - will keep him safe, that you will ensure his survival. Spending a lot of time with your horse, both on the ground and in the saddle, encountering different situations and "surviving" questionable circumstances, continuously earns your horse's trust that you can lead him through future iffy situations. I personally use NH (Parelli, specifically) - I play the same games my horses play out in the pasture, gaining trust with one another within the herd, with them on the ground before taking those same games and patterns up into the saddle. Consequently, it also enables my horses to gain confidence in themselves. It also enables me to earn their respect (the same way their horse buddies do), which also helps me later in my quest to have them cross water. Partnership is absolutely vital, and is something that is required to be built with lots of time and work with your horse. Check out the methods out there.

Obviously while there are instinctual factors at play that concern the water directly, if you've got the partnership with your horse, crossing water is not a problem, because the horse is trusting in your leadership and thus can follow your lead, without a fight and often without question even.

A couple other things you can do to help your horse cross water successfully (in addition to the above):

Play all sorts of games - both on the ground and under-saddle - around water. Near water, in water, over water - be creative. Ask your horse to back next to the water, into the water, away from the water, to go between you and the water, to sidepass next to the water - use your imagination! You can even go so far as to pasturing your horse in a pasture with water in it.

Approach and retreat
Rather than asking your horse to go through the water, ask your horse to approach the water. Then ask your horse to touch the water with his nose. Then put a toe in, a foot in, the other foot in...eventually he's got all four feet in. Once he's standing quietly in the water, ask him to go through the water, sidepass in the water, back through the water, etc etc. Use approach and retreat though to get him used to the idea of going through the water. Reward him with a rest break every time he does what you'd like (always reward the slightest "try", even if that try is only a thought at first), and put him to work whenever he's away from the water - this way the water becomes a "sweet" spot. Welcome to reverse psychology. When he does especially well, walk him completely away from the water to really cement that reward with a really marked release in pressure. On another note, always allow your horse to back out should he feel the need to. Not doing so is like asking you to go out into deep water when you're first learning to swim, then not allowing you back in to the shallow end. Of course, you panic, because you no longer have a safe spot to return to should you feel as if you are drowning. Allow the horse to back as far as he needs to (the work with approach and retreat to get him closer to the water), just keep him facing the water. Also, if he does successfully "try", back him out of there before he chooses to - that way it becomes your idea. His idea becomes your idea, which in turn becomes his idea...

Follow the leader
Horses are herd animals and so will follow a leader, whether it be another horse, or you. If you're still having trouble, have your horse follow another horse through the water, or get off and lead your horse through. What you have is halved in the saddle, so if you're having trouble having your horse do something when he's under-saddle, get off - you'll automatically have a higher level of partnership, trust, respect, etc when your horse is following you and can visibly see you.

Prior and proper preparation is the key to success.

Good luck in those water crossings!

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