Sooner or later on the trail, you're going to have to cross
water. Here's a way to teach your horse to do it safely and on
Teach a Horse to cross Water or a Stream
By Stephanie Ostrowski, DVM
If you ride in difficult terrain, you need to know how to safely
negotiate difficult water crossings. Here, I'll give you my
step-by-step strategies for dealing with: 1) swiftly moving water
over a visible, solid bottom; 2) a shallow stream with a
slippery, rocky bottom; and 3) a steep, crumbling bank leading
into and/or out of the stream. Your goal is to identify a safe
path and proceed, at a walk, in a controlled manner.
Before you begin:
Before you attempt a difficult passage, you should be a veteran
of simple crossings and know how to execute half-halts on the
trail. Your horse should also know a caution cue--such as
careful--that tells him to proceed slowly.
Tip: If you're riding with one or more people on experienced
horses, let them lead the way. When your horse sees other horses
crossing the water safely, he'll start to believe that he can,
too. In this case, his "herd mentality" works to your advantage.
(Note: Follow one or two horse-lengths behind to avoid crowding
the horse ahead or prompting a kick.)
Troubled water #1: Swiftly moving water over a visible, solid
1. Before crossing, settle your horse with light half-halts. Use
your caution cue to alert him to proceed calmly and choose his
footing with care.
2. Expect your horse to snort and blow at the swiftly running
water--even step in and out a few times before entering it all
the way. Allow him to do so, then encourage forward motion with
leg and verbal cues. Let him drink if he wants to. This will
assure him the water is part of his natural, known world, and not
3. Proceed cautiously, supporting your horse's head equally with
both reins to keep him straight. However, allow him to put his
head down to look carefully at the footing. As his trust in the
footing grows, so will his confidence and willingness to proceed.
Give him time to gain confidence. If you rush him, you may
increase his nervousness, which may result in resistance.
Monte Hale and Lightnin
Troubled water #2: A shallow stream with slippery, rocky bottom.
1. Execute steps one through three, above.
2. Carefully direct your horse away from the worst rocks (which
could trip him), asking him to walk very slowly so he keeps his
balance. (Note: If you come upon slanting rock slabs, ask your
horse to cross in the middle of each one, not on the edge.
Surface area is greatest mid-slab, giving him more room to
maneuver. There's also less chance the slab will wobble.)
3. Expect your horse to slip at least once. Reassure him
immediately, allow him to regain his composure, then ask for
Troubled water #3: A steep, crumbling bank leading into or out of
A steep bank is really two obstacles--a downhill and an
uphill--added to a stream crossing. For both, follow the
established path, if possible. On a well-used route, previous
riders will have cleared most hazards (roots, holes, etc.), or
will have made them obvious by stomping down the surrounding
1. Balance yourself in your saddle to help your horse maintain
his balance. To do so, position your center of gravity directly
over your horse's spine, and kick your feet a little ahead of
you. (Note: You'll be able to do this easily if you're riding in
an endurance or Australian stock saddle with free-swinging
stirrup leathers. However, if you're in a Western saddle, you'll
need to place your feet ahead of the girth, free of the fenders,
to stay balanced.)
2. Stand in your stirrups, then sit deep to align your feet under
your center of gravity.
3. Ask your horse to go slowly downhill. To slow him down, use
repeated light half-halts and your caution cue.
4. Cross the stream.
1. Once you reach the other side of the stream, put your reins in
one hand, and grab a big handful of mane with the other, for
2. Quickly scan the bank for the safest route up the bank.
3. Stand in your stirrups just enough so your seat clears your
saddle's seat. This will help you to stay in sync with your
horse's motion, rather than behind it.
4. Guide your horse onto the route you established in step two.
Ask him to walk up the bank, giving him all the slack he needs to
balance himself. Use his mane to steady yourself, rather than
your reins. Otherwise, you could inadvertently pull him over
When not to cross water
Sometimes, a stream or river may just be too dangerous to cross.
Don't be embarrassed to turn back. After all, Those who turn and
ride away, will live to ride another day. If you find yourself
in any of the following three situations, find an alternate
route, or go back home.
Your horse is wearing a tie-down, and there's any chance of
deep pools where you'll be crossing. If your horse's head goes
under water and he can't lift it up to breathe, he'll drown in 60
seconds. You'll have no chance to correct this in deep water, as
your drowning, flailing horse will literally be fighting for his
life. (Note: For safety's sake, always unsnap your horse's
tie-down before crossing water of any depth, and reattach it on
the other side.)
When water hazards include treacherous bottoms and/or strong
currents, or when you can't see an unfamiliar bottom. You really
don't need to drown yourself or your horse today, do you? Return
another day, when the water is lower and there's an obvious, safe
You're riding alone, and your horse is extremely anxious and
resistant. If he panics, he could throw himself over backward, or
spook so radically that you lose your balance and fall off. If
you get hurt, you'll have no one to help you get to safety. Ride
smart. Pay attention to those not-so-subtle warning signals--and
quit before you create a dangerous situation.
The Half-Halt asks your horse to shift his weight onto his
hindquarters. Although used most often to prepare a horse for
transitions, you can also use it to settle your horse on the
trail. Here's a brief explanation. However, it's not as easy as
it may sound. If you've never before executed the Half-Halt, ask
your trainer or riding instructor to help you.
1. Think subtle. Your goal isn't to stop your horse, it's to
shift his weight back on his hindquarters so he'll slow down and
pay attention to your cues.
2. Drive your horse forward with your seat and legs. Without
controlled forward motion, you won't get results.
3. At the same time, briefly apply bit pressure. (A light
Half-Halt means light pressure.) This should cause your horse to
put his weight onto his hindquarters. (If he doesn't, don't fight
him--ask a professional horseperson to help you.)
4. The instant you feel your horse's weight shift back, release
the bit pressure.
5. Repeat the entire sequence until your horse slows down and
pays attention. Then reward him with rubs and praise.
The Caution Cue
The Caution Cue teaches your horse to slow down at your verbal
request. It's especially helpful while going downhill, as it
curbs his natural tendency to give into the pull of gravity and
rush down. But you can use the cue anytime he's traveling too
fast for safety or comfort. Here's how to teach it.
1. Ride your horse up a small, steep hill. (A steep grade will
tempt him to travel down quickly, giving you an opportunity to
teach your Caution Cue.)
2. At the top of the hill, stop, then head back down, asking your
horse to walk. As you do so, say "careful, careful" in a steady,
3. After your horse takes a couple of steps, execute a light
Half-Halt. Then proceed, saying "careful, careful."
4. Continue walking downhill in a slow, controlled manner while
alternately giving him your Caution Cue and executing light
Half-Halts until you reach the bottom.
5. Safely there, give your horse a rub and some words of praise.
Repeat the exercise until he associates your caution cue with
going slow. Reward every small effort, and stop each lesson on a
Stephanie Ostrowski, DVM, a veterinary judge for the North
American Trail Ride Conference, recently completed a 3-year term
on that association's national board of directors. She?s ridden
her Arabian gelding, TC Hossar, to national honors in competitive
trail riding with NATRC and the International Arabian Horse
Association. Her mare, Raja Fire Ruby, retired from NATRC to
raise two sons, both now ready to launch their own competitive
trail careers. Dr. Ostrowski raises Arabians at her home near
Atlanta, Georgia. When she's not riding or judging, she works as
a veterinary epidemiologist in public health for the Centers for
This article first appeared in the July, 2000 issue of Horse &
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