What To Do If Your Horse Is Afraid Of Water?

If you take your horse on trail rides, chances are sooner or later you will have to cross water. Whether it’s a puddle or a swift river, it stands to reason that your horse will need to have had some experience with water before you attempt to cross water on a ride for the first time.

In this article, we discuss the concepts behind teaching your horse to cross water safely. We also share smart tips to help you build the necessary trust with your horse that will facilitate your efforts. Read on to learn more about horse afraid of water.

Start On The Ground

what to do if your horse is afraid of water

Many articles and videos give instructions on teaching your horse to cross water while you are mounted.

They often tell you to tack your horse up just as you would for a regular ride, mount up and then head for water and begin working on strategies for crossing it.

This is not actually the smartest way to teach your horse about crossing water.

Don’t try to train for water crossings right from the start while mounted. Your horse will feel more secure with you on the ground than with you in the saddle.

If he is very balky or frightened of water, attempting to teach him to cross water while you’re mounted could result in injury for both of you.

Learning how to cross water is a trust exercise. If your horse is actually afraid of water and has never had any experience crossing water, you’ll need to start off working on this skill in a completely distraction-free manner.

For this reason, it’s better to approach initial work with water crossings as groundwork without the distraction of tack.

There are a couple of reasons why this is the best strategy. For one thing, when you’re on the ground you have a lot more control over your horse with a good halter than you do with a bridle.

Bridles are not designed for leading horses, and if you ride your horse to water, attempt to get him to cross and end up needing to get off to lead him across, you will not have as much control with a bridle as you do with a halter.

Furthermore, if you take your horse into water fully tacked up for the first time, you stand a risk of having your saddle damaged. Many horses have the instinct to roll when they enter water.

If you lead your horse into the water and he starts splashing with his front hooves, you can take that as a sign that he is about to drop and roll. You don’t want this to happen if your horse is saddled. You’ll ruin your good saddle.

Likewise, when you’re taking your horse through water for the first time, you don’t want to be wearing your good riding clothes.

You’ll want to wear something comfortable that you don’t mind getting soaked because you may very well get splashed, or you may fall down.

This video below is a good example of all of these points. Here, the rider attempts, unsuccessfully, to ride the horse into water.

She dismounts and walks into the water in her riding boots, leading the horse by the bridle and eventually coaxes the horse into the water.

Once there, he begins pawing and splashing. If much more time had passed, you can bet he would have dropped into the water and rolled in the rocky, muddy creek bed on that nice English saddle.

Horse First Time In Water

6 Steps To Familiarize Your Horse With Water Crossings

  1. When doing groundwork to learn water crossings, lead your horse (in a sturdy halter with a sturdy lead rope) to and into the body of water you want to use for training. If your horse trusts you, he will follow you.
  2. When you arrive at the water, step in and allow your horse to smell the water and drink if he wants to. Don’t let him stomp and splash in the water because the next thing you know, he’ll be rolling in it. You don’t want him to get used to doing this behavior when he enters water. If he does become used to it, he may do it with you on board!
  3. If possible, do your training using a body of water that is too wide to jump. You want your horse to understand that he is not supposed to jump across the water, he supposed to walk through it. If he does try to rock back and jump, stop him, circle him gently and try again. Repeat this as many times as you need to until he gets the idea that he must walk through the water, not jump across it.
  4. If you don’t have success the first day, do something else right away that you can have success at and then head back to the barn. Come back the next day to try again.
  5. Once you get your horse into the water, don’t rush across. Stand in the water, wade about and get your horse used to the idea that there’s nothing scary about water. Realize that this should be true. If there is something scary about the water you should not be there either!
  6. Never try to force your horse to cross water and never rush through the process. Give your horse plenty of time to get used to the idea. Once you are able to cross water safely, always take your time and do it in a way that avoids accidents.

Start Teaching About Water Crossing Long Before You Need To

horse first time in water

Learning how to cross water should be part of the groundwork and trust work you do with your horse when you first obtain him or her.

Anytime you get a new horse, it’s smart to spend a lot of time on groundwork. In addition to lunging and traditional groundwork, you should lead your horse around to different, challenging situations that you are likely to encounter on rides.

This includes water. Lead your horse to any areas that are currently water obstacles or that may become water obstacles.

If there’s a waterway in your area that is currently dry but may be full of water in the future, lead your horse to it while it’s dry.

Walk back and forth and through it so that he can become accustomed to and familiar with the terrain.

This will work in your favor when the canal, stream or creek bed is full of water. After a good rain, put on your rubber boots and walk your horse to the same area to take the same walk you usually take.

He should not have any trouble adjusting to the water in this familiar situation.

If you have another horse of your own who knows how to cross water, and you feel confident to pony your new horse while riding your older horse, this is a good way to teach a new horse how to cross water.

Just mount up on the horse that is familiar with water crossing and lead the new horse.

The first time you actually go on a ride that includes a water crossing, go with other riders and horses who have already accomplished the crossing.

Let your horse see the other horses crossing safely. This will go a long way towards teaching him or her that crossing water is a safe thing to do.

Communicate Clearly With Your Horse To Build Trust

In this video, the rider gives some very good advice on using your reins efficiently to keep your horse’s hooves moving when you encounter challenging situations such as water crossings.

He also gives good advice on gaining your horse’s trust. This is absolutely essential to successful water crossings and successfully navigating other challenging situations on a trail ride.

If your horse trusts you, he or she will look to you for guidance in frightening and unfamiliar situations.

For this reason, you must strive to always be trustworthy and always make wise decisions for your horse.

Be Safe!

It is especially important that you make wise decisions in regards to water. Never attempt to have your horse cross water that is not safe. If it’s a raging river and you don’t have to cross it, don’t.

Likewise, don’t allow your horse to swim in the ocean. Horses are not able to turn around on their own if they get in out of their depth. If your horse gets away from you in the ocean, he may very well get too far out and not be able to come back.

Also be aware that not all horses do know how to swim. Horses can drown in deep water.

You And Your Horse Should Dress Appropriately

Don’t ruin your good saddle in a deep water crossing. If you’re going to make a deep water crossing, for safety’s sake, your horse should be wearing minimal tack, and you should be wearing streamlined clothing.

It’s best to cross deep water bareback (hold onto your horse’s mane) or with just a bareback pad or surcingle that has a hand-grip and can be easily dried.

Absolutely avoid having your horse wear a tie-down that prevents him from raising his head when crossing deep water. He needs to raise his head to be able to breathe while swimming.

Always choose points of egress and exit from the water that are safe. Banks on both sides should not be steep, rocky or otherwise dangerous.

Frequently Asked Questions

FAQ about a horse afraid of water
1. How can you tell if your horse is afraid?

Frightened horses may shiver or tremble. Their eyes may widen, and you may be able to see the whites of the eyes. A frightened horse may flare its nostrils and snort. If tied, he or she may pace and pull back. If not tied, the horse may bolt and/or run away.

2. Why do horses become anxious?

Just as with anyone, new and unexpected situations can be frightening and anxiety producing for horses. Trailering, training, competing, moving to a new place, meeting new horses and people can all be anxiety producing. This is especially true when the horse does not have any safety touchstones. If your horse feels he can trust you to treat him well and keep him safe, he will be less likely to be frightened and anxious when unusual things happen.

3. How can you calm your horse down if he is afraid?

Talk quietly and confidently. Stroke your horse’s neck and withers firmly. Always use the same words in the same way to calm your horse. Establishing a calming song (something you always sing during grooming and/or riding) is a good idea.

4. Can essential oils help a frightened horse calm down?

A few drops of lavender essential oil rubbed between your palms and stroked over your horse’s muzzle and around his nostrils can really help with calming a frightened horse. Establish this scent as a calming scent by combining it with your calming song and using the essential oil before potentially stressful and frightening events such as vet or farrier visits.

5. Will my own fear affect my horse?

Horses are very empathetic. If you are afraid, your horse will pick it up. This is why it is always important to behave in a calm, confident manner when handling horses and especially when attempting to teach a horse not to be afraid.

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