Being eliminated at water is not fun, and having a horse who point blank refuses to walk through water while you are cross country schooling can be incredibly frustrating. Between the E-Venting Team, we have all had several experiences of overcoming water phobia and so here are some of our most successful solutions.
The best tip I was ever given was by Roger Day. Roger’s suggestion was to work the horse in circles in trot or canter. You then ask the horse to go into water. If the horse will not move forwards or still plants, you go back on the circle and keep asking. After a couple of times, I find the horse is much more forwards thinking and tuned to the rider with doing circles and understands that walking into the water is an easy option. Once in the water stop, lots of pats and a loose rein so they learn to relax. It is too easy to stand on the edge of the water and they plant and become stubborn so keeping them moving and forwards just really helps their brains rather than becoming obsessed with what they are not doing.
Once a horse has gone into the water several times in walk, and is happy about it I tend not to ask anymore as there is always another day and I want the experience to be relaxed and happy for them.
My main tip when it comes to over coming a water phobia is patience! The horse must choose to go in it mustn’t be forced, yes you can help it along by making going in the water the easy option but they must make the choice. If you do get a horse in through fear be it from screaming, shouting, whips, chasing etc in all likelihood when you get to a competition and you give the horse even half a chance to stop it will.
Fleur as a youngster hated water and it is still our weak link but she has progressed from not daring to even considering getting her precious toes wet to now jumping in although sometimes maybe needing a look first 😉 With her the key ingredients were trust and repetition. She now trusts me that most of the time if I say go she will go but I use repetition aka lots of water schooling to better our chances.
If there is a puddle out hacking she will be made to walk through it not round it. Previously if she went round it I calmly turned her round and asked her to walk through again until she did. She soon learnt that she had to go through eventually so it may as well be sooner rather than later!
Now we are facing novice events where we actually have to jump straight in, if xc schooling the first time we go to the water it will be a jump in not a trot/canter through. I then repeat multiple times until I’m convinced that she is happy with what I am asking.
I’ll say the same, use extreme patience. Getting the horse totally confident is the key, and as a very wise old horseman told me once, Time = Confidence to a horse.
The first time into water you might well need someone on foot in wellies to walk in and out and convince the wussy horse that the water jump is not bottomless and s/he won’t drown. Time spent walking in and out of water, firstly down slopes, and then up and down steps, is never wasted. You want the horse to understand that it’s just another thing it’s expected to do, never a drama. Lots of patience, lots of praise, leads to a happy confident horse who thinks nothing of going down a big drop into water.
The Eventing Vet
My top tip is to use the power of reverse. If you’ve reached deadlock and the horse won’t entertain the idea of going in forwards I often turn them round and reverse them in. Once they’re in they’ll usually then quite happily walk out again and back in the normal way. It’s just sometmes a case of overcoming that mental block. I use this technique with nappy horses too where it is also quite effective. The only time I’d definitely avoid it is with a horse whose first escape mechanism is to stand up.
Also it can end up quite expensive continually hiring XC courses just to use the water jump. To get the point into a nervous or difficult horse they could do with practicing a couple of times a week for a few weeks. At ~£20 a time it can be an expensive phobia to overcome. I have a hack that I can use which passes a river with firm shallow sloping sides and a pebbly bottom. It’s ideal for wandering in and out of, and slightly higher up there are firm banks which are perfect for hopping up and down. I also sometimes box to a place a couple of villages away where there is a ford I can ride back and forwards through to my heart’s content for free