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Pat Parelli: Crossing Water with Confidence

Teach your horse to safely cross through water on the trail.

By Cynthia McFarland with Parelli | July 2010 Extra

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Horse Illustrated MagazineFor many riders, splashing through a cool creek on the back of a horse can be enticing on a hot summer day. It’s an irresistible image, but not a likely scenario if the horse isn’t prepared to cope with water.

Tips on helping your horse encounter water“Water crossing can be one of the most frustrating and dangerous obstacles in your horse experience,” says Pat Parelli.

Many horses are skeptical about crossing water if it’s not something they regularly encounter. Experts at survival, horses are extremely perceptive to changes in their surroundings. Water can present a challenge, even to otherwise laid-back horses, because it’s hard for them to gauge depth. As a result, they might feel like they are stepping into an endless dark hole. Even more primal than this is their instinct as prey animals to avoid anything that hinders their feet.

Pat believes that horses and riders have specific responsibilities to uphold if they’re going to have a harmonious partnership. If both partners fulfill their responsibilities, water crossing and all other challenges become much easier, not to mention safer.

The horse’s responsibilities are:

  • to act like a partner instead of a prey animal
  • to not change gaits unless asked
  • to not change directions until asked
  • to look where he’s going

The rider’s responsibilities are:

  • to act like a partner, not a predator
  • to have an independent seat and be skilled enough to stay out of the horse’s way
  • to think like a horse before thinking like a human

Start at Home
It goes without saying that your horse’s first introduction to water should take place in the safe and reassuring environment of home. Before you ever attempt to cross water on the trail, your horse should be calm when you bathe him. If he hates getting his feet wet and won’t stand in a puddle when you give him a bath, you can hardly expect him to forge through water on the trail. Spend time working with him so he is completely comfortable with water at home. Let him sniff and drink from the hose if he shows an inclination.

You can also prepare your horse for an encounter with water by asking him to walk over unusual objects, such as sturdy plywood panels, or a tarp. This is a great simulation for crossing water because it helps him feel more confident in general about putting his feet on something other than solid ground. When he willingly walks over these without fear or hesitation, it should be easier to convince him that water is safe, too.

Even the horse that plays in water at home can have second thoughts when you first ask him to wade through a stream out in the woods. This is where your job as a leader becomes so important. It’s up to you to build your horse’s confidence.

If you do this properly, it becomes less about the water and more about the horse’s trust in you and his confidence in himself. It’s much the same as trailer loading not being about the trailer, but about the horse trusting you not to do anything that will put him in danger. Once trust, confidence and leadership are firmly established, your horse should willingly load into a trailer, cross water, and do virtually anything else you ask of him.

“It’s a big thing for a horse to entrust his decision-making to you,” observes Pat. “The horse has a mental, emotional and physical state, and a sense of self-preservation.”

Have a Foundation
To be the leader your horse needs when it comes to something challenging, such as crossing water, you need to have a foundation of communication in place first.

“Most people don’t have a good ‘go button’ on their horse,” explains Pat. “You need to work on improving the go button first, and establish a good response from your horse when you ask him to move forward. He should
respect the pressure of your legs and promptly move off when you squeeze once. If he doesn’t, use the end of your reins or a lead rope to flick his hindquarters and encourage him to move out when you squeeze with your legs.”

Work on improving the go button before you ever approach water. Your horse needs to be responsive to your legs before you confront any type of obstacle.

Common Mistakes
According to Pat, a common mistake among riders is focusing on the water instead of their destination.

“A typical mistake people make is looking at the water, but they’re focusing on the wrong thing,” Pat explains. “Instead of looking at the water, riders need to be looking across to where they’re going. Focus across the water, not on the water.

“Focus is important because it affects your feel, timing and balance,” he adds. “When you drive a car, you don’t look at the steering wheel, you look ahead to where you’re going. The more focused you are, the better you can use your seat, legs and hands. If you focus on the wrong thing, you usually do the wrong thing.”

Also, be aware of your horse’s emotions. You want him to be focused so he trusts and respects you. Ideally, your horse should be thinking, not reacting.

If your horse shows a lack of confidence, you should use the approach-and-retreat method.

“When a horse is startled or chased by anything, he will run a short distance, then turn and reassess the situation,” Pat explains. “When you get him to turn 180 degrees and face the direction you came from, it gets him thinking. This is what you do when dealing with a water crossing: approach the water, and then retreat.”

This method takes the pressure off the horse and encourages him to start thinking.

After you have approached and retreated several times, approach and ask your horse to continue forward by squeezing with your legs. Squeeze once, and if your horse won’t go forward, enforce your leg aids by using the end of your reins or lead rope to flick his hindquarters.

“Give this a 10-second try, and if your horse still won’t cross the water, then get off and go to the ground,” says Pat. “Send him between you and the water instead of straight at it. Have him go back and forth in front of the water until he shows some curiosity in it, instead of being panicky or trying to get away from it. Persist until your horse tries, and then let up as soon as he makes an effort. Once your horse’s fear is gone, he will feel safe and be curious about the water. Use the Parelli ground skills you’ve learned to direct your horse to cross on a long line. Once he’ll do that, then go back to the saddle again, and use the same pattern instead of going straight at the water.” Be sure to choose firm footing and not a deep, muddy crossing when introducing your horse to water.

Initially, horses will often try to jump the water instead of walking through it. If this is your horse’s tactic, work on directing him across the water on a long line first. As he gains confidence, he will be willing to walk through the water. Do this numerous times before you remount and ride through the water. If there is any question about the depth of the water, always remove any martingale or tie-down before crossing. Your horse can drown if he hits a deep spot and can’t get his head above the water.

Don’t attempt water crossing unless you have a secure seat and clear, accurate aids. You don’t want to confuse your horse by sending him mixed signals. Remember, if you are nervous, this will translate to your horse. You need to be confident about your own ability and what you’re asking your horse to do.  

Finally, make it a point not to get frustrated with your horse. This will add nothing positive to your water-crossing session. Stay focused so you can become the leader he needs. Forcing him will make a bad situation worse.

“When people get frustrated, they tend to act like a predator and force the horse to do something,” says Pat. “Don’t get frustrated! Above all, prepare your horse well in advance — that’s the savvy thing to do.”

Born in California, Pat Parelli has a diverse background as a rodeo bronc rider, horse trainer and student of the horse. He realized long ago that it was the human — not the horse — who needed more instruction. A consummate horseman, Pat has a deep passion for helping people to be more successful with horses. In 1981, he founded the Parelli Program, a step-by-step, learn-at-your-own-pace horse/human development course.

Linda was raised in Australia and met Pat there when she participated in a clinic in 1989. Today she is the highest-rated Parelli Professional, helping to teach and train.

The couple married in 1995 and now regularly travels the world sharing the Parelli Program. There are two Pat Parelli Centers, located in Ocala, Fla., and Pagosa Springs, Colo. For more information, visit www.parelli.com.


This article originally appeared in the 2008 issue of Horse Illustrated. Click here to subscribe.

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Pat Parelli: Crossing Water with Confidence

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Reader Comments

PKL    Somewhere, WY

11/28/2011 5:40:49 AM

Now it is nearly winter, so my horse will have to walk "on" the water. :)
i know when leading the horses, sometimes they will walk around the mud puddles.

Sam    St. Jo, MO

6/25/2010 6:00:29 PM

Hey Petra, I have to second your advice about sending a horse across water from the ground first. It really helps out! There's a small, deep pond in my horses' pasture that I like to play the circle game from the banks of. I think it's funny to watch a horse swim, but maybe that's just me! Cheers, Sam

I'd also like to remind everyone again about how dangerous it could be to cross water. The other day me and a friend were out on the trail and we decided to swim across another on of those deep ponds. It was going great, in fact the horses just had to wade across; but my mare got bogged in the bank we were exiting in. My colt and i made it out okay, but my friend fell off my mare and potentially could have gotten hurt. Everyone's okay, and cross water is fine and dandy, but just be careful!

Petra Christensen - Parelli 1Star Instructor    Pagosa Springs, CO

6/21/2010 2:35:34 PM

Hi Galadriel, We humans can logically explain the difference between a river, a creek and an irrigation ditch. Horses will see it differently - literally. They have poor depth perception... and are prey animals always on the lookout. One strategy could be to ask your horse to cross the irrigation ditch with you being on the ground and sending him across. You will need at least a 12' line for this exercise. Once across you want him to turn and face and wait. Once he crosses the ditch willingly and confidently with you on the ground, then ride him across, using the strategies mentioned by Pat. To get your horse used to being hosed down, use approach and retreat. You want to stop when he is reacting positively, like lowering his head and relaxing. Start with his feet first. It will help if you don't tie your horse. This way he will not feel trapped. Let him drift when he is worried and gently ask him to stop while still spraying his feet. Immediately stop the water when he stops. Cause your idea to be his idea... and think about building a relationship based on trust and respect. It's NOT about the water... Hope this helps!

Petra Christensen
Parelli 1Star Junior Instructor

Galadriel    Lothlorien, ME

6/19/2010 1:25:28 PM

My horse hates being bathed but he has swum in the river and walked across a small creek. But he absolutely refuses to jump a small irrigation ditch. I don't know what's so different about it.

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