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It’s Not Really About the Water

June 11, 2015

Intention.  Desire.  Empathy.  Leadership.

These are the words that come to mind when I try to help a horse overcome a fear or distrust in… whatever.  I meet so many horses that their owners describe as “perfect, except for…”.  Horses that meet most of their human’s needs, with the exception of a small hole or two.  Perhaps they have trouble loading into the trailer, or leading a group on the trail, or standing nicely for hoof care, or standing tied.  Perhaps, they refuse to cross water.

I don’t like talking or blogging about what NOT to do, I prefer to share my thoughts on what techniques have been successful for me.  For this topic, however, I’m going to say DO NOT MAKE YOUR HORSE DO THE THING HE DOESN’T WANT TO DO!  In my experience, nothing causes a horse to create and build brace better than having a human MAKE them do something.  It’s about your intention and how your horse feels about your leadership.

Lu learning to be comfortable while being led through water.

Lu learning to be comfortable while being led through water.

When we make the topic about the thing our horse doesn’t want to do, we make it easy for them to answer our request with a firm “NO”.  Instead, I’ve learned I’m way more effective if I make the topic about the horse following my leadership and then setting the horse up to understand how good life is when they take that road.

For example, I recently had a horse in training named “Lu”.  Lu is a cute Paint/TB who’s job is to simply be a safe trail horse.  Lu decided at some point in her life that water was a bad idea.  It doesn’t matter why she made the decision, there’s no reason to examine her past.  The bottom line is when she sees water on the trail, she becomes unsafe and unfit to have a rider on her back.  The owner had tried lots of things, trainers, following a more confident horse, etc… to help Lu overcome this “hole” in her foundation.

She came to me and I saw right away that Lu didn’t really understand who was the leader – her or the human.  See, horses don’t necessarily care who is the leader, but someone needs to step up to and do it.  If the horse doesn’t think the human can handle the task, the horse will fill the shoes.  However, most horses don’t do a great job of it – at least not when there’s a human involved.  So, as Lu was being led around, she’d decide things like, “hey, I want to stop and eat here” or “that’s interesting over there, I think I’ll go investigate”.  The human was spending his time trying to deal with all these decisions Lu was making on her own.  So, why on earth, when she feels that she can do what she wants, would she be interested in stepping through water when asked by a human?

I knew that the problem was with the human-horse relationship.  Lu just didn’t realize that she wasn’t the leader. She needed her human to show her that he’s the leader and that he’s a GOOD leader.  A good leader keeps his followers safe, acknowledges their needs, manages things so that there’s comfort.  A good leader makes a follower want to follow.  Horses are followers by nature in varying degrees.  Some need more convincing that a human can handle the position of leader than others.  Lu didn’t need a ton of convincing, thankfully.

I started by simply showing Lu how to be led.  I showed her that I was very particular about where she should be in relation to me and that when I walked, or stopped, or jogged, her job was to maintain that position.  I then helped her understand that sometimes I’ll ask her to put her hooves on things that don’t make sense like a mounting block, a bucket, a barrel or a tarp.  After I felt that she had the gist of things, who was calling the shots and how I’d be expecting her to respond to my requests, we approached the water.


After getting comfortable on the ground, we move to the saddle.

At first (and very briefly) Lu tried to let me know that she simply doesn’t cross water.  My intention was clear, though.  I didn’t care that there was water there.  I cared that she led with me liked I had taught her, maintaining her position and her responsibility.  She quickly figured out that not being a good partner for leading was more uncomfortable than touching water with her hooves.  I took the time to help her understand that being my partner and following my leadership was her best choice.

Now we are approaching water and crossing it without a single negative thought.  She’s a horse, after all.  And water is natural to horses.  Somewhere along the way she learned that water was bad and that people plus water would be VERY bad.  She’d learned to brace against a human’s requests and to say “no”.  It was never about the water, it was about how she felt about the requests being issued and who was issuing them.

My next step?  Teach Lu’s owner how to be a quality leader for a horse, who’s now ready and willing to follow.

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