Crossing And Wading Water Logo

Water crossings are common on most every trail. But do you and your horse cross without worry or do you ride along the shore hoping the water will dwindle to a drip? And does your horse move obediently and quietly forward across creeks and streams—or is he anxious and ready to jump even the smallest water source?

Here’s help if your horse isn’t used to crossing water slowly and safely or if you’re not sure how to make your crossing as safe as possible. Top clinician/trainer Julie Goodnight demonstrates the safe and proper way to introduce your horse to a creek water crossing and how to make sure you cross slowly and safely. Goodnight will help you identify the best place to cross and guide you through a step-by-step process to make sure that you and your horse are relaxed and take your time as you move through the ripples and currents.

Crossing water is a perfectly natural task for your horse—if he’s had the opportunity to cross, play in and even drink from an open water source. If your horse is often turned out in open areas or was bred and raised on a large ranch, there’s a chance that he’s crossed water with the herd. If that’s the case, your job may be easier. The sight and sound of moving water won’t be brand new. You’ll be able to focus on safe crossing habits—and focus on reminding your horse not to play—instead of worrying about your horse’s fears and reactions.

Keep in mind that many horses aren’t familiar with open water. If your horse was born and raised in a stall, his only encounters with water may be to drink from a bucket or get a bath from a hose. You’ll need to make sure that your horse is properly introduced to water that sounds, smells and feels like a new experience.

Exercise Prep

Horsemanship lesson: You’ll learn a safe sequence of steps to help you introduce a horse of any age to water and learn how to cross safely.
Why you need it on the trail: Most every trail has a water crossing that should be crossed safely and purposefully. Goodnight says she often sees riders who think it’s fun to jump water or to allow their horse to speedily maneuver to the other side. Jumping water is a great danger because you can seldom be sure of the footing near water. It also suggests that your horse is spooked by the noise and feel and is moving of his own accord to flee the scene instead of obeying your precise go-forward cues. When riders do stop and relax, she often sees horses that are allowed to paw and play without a correction—the behavior suggests a horse is ready to roll. While rolling is in general a bad idea when a rider is on board, rolling in moving water puts riders at risk for being swept away.

What you’ll do: You’ll help your horse negotiate a crossing by invoking his herd instincts. With a friend to lead you, your horse will see that he’s safe, learn to stand and relax mid-stream, then understand that your usual riding cues apply in this new environment as you ride along with the current instead of teaching your horse to rush across.

What you’ll need: Enlist a friend with a trusty, been-there-done-that trail horse who can act as your horse’s mentor and stay with you throughout your training session.

Ask friends who frequently ride in your area what water crossings are appropriate for first-time training sessions. As a general guide, look for a trail with a water crossing that’s flat and well traveled by horses. The stream shouldn’t be too deep or too fast. Look for a water crossing that you trust you could walk across without the water reaching above your knees or without a current that would prompt you to lose your balance. Look for clear water that allows you too see the footing on the bottom and be sure to avoid muddy and boggy crossings or ones with too much slick rock.

Make sure that your horse isn’t wearing a tie down or any tack that might prevent him from using his head and neck for balance if the water is unexpectedly deep and he needs to swim. Tie downs can be lethal if your horse needs to raise his head above water to breathe.

Notes: This is a good skill to teach your horse when the water in your area is low. Make sure to check with your local forest service or area wilderness guide to find out what the water conditions are where you’d like to practice crossing.
Skills your horse will need: Your horse should be responsive to your cues to move forward, stop and back as well as side to side. Make sure that you have good steering and speed control at the walk and trot while riding in open spaces. If your horse is familiar with easy trail obstacles (such as crossing poles or logs), you can better trust that your horse will go where you ask.

Step #1. The Introduction

Outfit your horse in his usual riding gear and set out on the trail until you reach your suggested and pre-planned water crossing. Ask your riding buddy to ride ahead then follow her to the water’s edge. When your horse reaches the shoreline, ask him to move forward and encourage his investigative behavior by reaching your hands forward and applying gentle leg pressure. If your horse seems curious (as our young horse does in Photo 1B), allow him to sniff and feel the water then encourage him to move forward and step in.

Make sure your horse doesn’t put his head down and rock back to jump the creek; jumping water is not a good trait in a trail horse. If you feel your horse stretch his neck forward then rock back, sharply correct him with a “whoa” command. As he investigates, don’t allow your horse to stand and paw at the water—pawing behavior isn’t a cute and playful habit, it’s a precursor signaling that he’s about to lie down to roll. Let your horse sniff and sip the water if he wants and even play in it with his nose—just be careful that too much play may also lead to lying down. Be vigilant and promptly tell your horse “whoa” and pull up and back on the reins if you feel that he’s shifting his weight or playing too much.

Take all the time you need to walk your horse into the water. Be patient with him during his investigation as long as he keeps looking at the water and doesn’t threaten to turn his nose away or back up. At this point, you’ve pointed him to the water and expect him to pay attention to the new experience. Insist that his focus stay ahead in the direction you are asking him to go. It’s okay to let him stand still, look forward, drink or sniff, but don’t let him turn away or back up. If you do, you’ll be training your horse that water is something to avoid and allowing him to choose where he goes.

When your horse seems calm and willing to pay attention to the water’s sights and sounds, it’s time to move in. Your riding buddy should already be ahead of you and in the stream. Ask her to stand in the middle of the stream, face upstream (with her horse’s head in the direction of the water’s source so that her horse isn’t knocked off balance).

Cue your horse to walk on—providing ample rein and applying gentle pulsating leg pressure to encourage him to move on. When you reach the middle of the stream, ask your horse to stop and relax your body and reins. Your calm position will show your horse that the water is a safe and comfortable place to be. It’s important to “hang out” for a few minutes until your horse stands quietly. Be patient! This literal “soaking time” will teach your horse that it’s not okay to rush across the water.

Even a seasoned trail horse may need to work on this training step. It’s important to cross water slowly and precisely so that you can choose the best and least-slippery path. And it’s important that your horse does not rush and plunge across.

Step #3. Down-steam Detour

Next, instead of continuing across the stream to dry land, change direction and lead your horse up and down the waterway. Spending some time in the water will help him get used to the feel of cold water on his legs and splashes to his barrel. Your water ride will also reinforce the lesson that you started in Step #2—don’t rush.

Spend five to 10 minutes walking up and down the stream. Pause every few moments and allow your horse to stand still in the water. When he seems quiet and confident, it’s okay to ride him across and out of the stream at a place you designate. Make sure the entrance and exit from the water is safe and reasonably easy for your inexperienced horse. Steep, slick embankments are scary for a horse and can make him concerned about future water crossings; slipping can cause injury as well.
Teach Respectful Drinking

Chances are, your horse will attempt to drink as you’re working on your water crossing skills. This is the perfect time to instill proper drinking behaviors as well as water crossing safety. Different types of trail riders have different ideas of what is good drinking behavior in a horse. Some trail riders want their horses to drink at any and every crossing in order to stay hydrated or to cut down on in-camp watering chores. Others want their horse to march obediently down the trail, crossing without stopping and keeping the ride moving; only drinking at designated times. Whatever your idea of perfect water behavior, instill it in your horse from the beginning.

Canter Control Logo

Dear Julie,
I have had my horse for 10 months. I am scared to ride her outside because every time I ask her for a canter, or if another horse canters off ahead of her, she does her best imitation of a bucking bronco then takes off like her tail is on fire. So far I’ve managed to hang on, but it’s very scary. If I ride her in the arena, she’s fine. She’s also a very buddy and barn-sour horse. I am working on that with her by riding a short distance from the barn and bringing her immediately back. I do this over and over. It’s pretty boring, but I don’t know what else to try. She’s a really sweet-natured horse except for these two problems. I go back and forth between keeping her and selling her. I would like to use some natural horsemanship methods to overcome these problems. Can you help? I’m turning into a scaredy cat!
Scared Enough to Sell

Dear Scared Enough to Sell,
First of all, there’s nothing wrong with being scared in this instance. If your horse is out of control, it’s perfectly normal to be frightened! So don’t call yourself a scaredy cat.

When your horse takes off her herd behavior is over-riding her training and her flight response is triggered. The solution is more training. You’ll need to do a lot of ground work—both round pen and lead line work. Once your horse is totally focused on you and accepts you as her leader, she will no longer resist leaving the barn with you. You’ll be a herd of two and you’ll be the leader.

You’ll also need to work on your mounted training. Start out in the arena. There’s an important saying that is thousands of years old, “The best way to improve the canter is to improve the trot.” It’s very, very true. You need to work in the arena doing lots of trotting and lots of transitions. Also, work on circling and other school figures so that your horse is very obedient and responsive to your aids. Then you can begin working on the canter in the arena, doing the same transitions and riding maneuvers. Focus on the transitions and not the cantering. Cue her up, canter six or eight strides, then return to trot and repeat. Your upward transitions should be very smooth. As long as your horse is leaping into a canter, she’s not ready to progress. You’ll know she’s ready for more when she quietly and obediently changes gaits. If your horse is exploding into a canter, chances are you’re over-cueing her.

While you’re in the arena, also make sure you know how to effectively use the one-rein stop. If you pull on two reins to stop the horse, the pressure on his mouth is so great that the horse will tend to lean into the pressure and brace against it—your horse may even run off to escape the pressure. When you want to slow down or stop your horse, simply lift one rein up and diagonally toward your opposite hip. At the same time, shift your weight back into the saddle. This will cause the horse to yield his hip as he turns and to disengage his hindquarters. Disengagement of the hindquarters simultaneously causes the horse to stop his forward motion (putting the engine in neutral) and become submissive. The instant you feel a change in the horse (well before he actually comes to a stop) drop your hand dramatically to his neck in a clear and meaningful release. You can pick up the rein again if he doesn’t come to a complete halt, but it’s critical to release the horse when he first makes an effort to do the right thing. Timing is everything in horse training and the sooner the release comes, the better. A horse’s natural reaction to pain and discomfort is to run away from it. Therefore sometimes the horse inadvertently is taught to speed up when the rider is asking for the stop. My videos on riding, particularly Goodnight’s Principles of Riding Volume 2, Communication and Control, show in great detail how to use your seat effectively and how to cue the horse to stop with your seat and not the reins.

As you’re teaching any new cue to the horse, make sure you sequence the cue
into three parts. For instance when I teach horse to stop I exhale and say “whoa” then shift my seat/weight, then finally pick up on the reins, in a one-two-three rhythm. This gives the horse two opportunities (cues) to stop before the pull comes on his mouth. If you use this sequence consistently, the horse will learn to stop before you ever touch his mouth. All horses are happy to do that if they know it to be an option; no horse wants his mouth pulled on.

Stay in the arena as long as it takes and be confident of your control and her obedience before you try your transitions and stopping cues outside. When you’re ready, keep her at a trot for a while. Let the other horses canter off around you, but make her stay at a trot. When you do ask her to canter, just go a few strides and return to a gentle trot. If you have done this enough in the arena, your horse should be thinking stop as soon as you begin cantering, and that is the thought you want for this horse.

It sounds like your horse has great potential—she just needs more training. If you don’t have the time or the ability to invest in her training, maybe you want to consider an older, better-trained and seasoned horse. There’s nothing wrong with her that time and training won’t cure, but then again, there’s nothing wrong with recognizing when you’re in over your head and making a change. After all, you didn’t get into this sport to cause more stress in your life! You’ll have to decide for yourself what the best course of action is for both you and your horse. Good luck and be careful!

Until next time,

Julie Goodnight

Stand Statue Still Logo

Stand Statue Still
Lots of people “do” ground work but like with any type of training, it can be done well or not. Groundwork done poorly is training the horse the wrong thing and I have seen many cases where horses have been damaged in the process of “groundwork.” To be an effective trainer, you have to know what you are doing and why you are doing it, what is the desired response and how to get it, and most importantly, you must have the ability to reward (release) the horse with perfect timing (the optimum timing is within one-half second of the desired response of the horse).

If your horse is not adequately trained and you expect the veterinarian, farrier or anyone else to work on your horse or pick up his to feet, then you also have to accept someone else’s fast training instead of your own work with your horse. Don’t wait for someone else to train your horse in a hurry. It’s your job to train the horse.
You need to train your horses to stand still on your request. This can be accomplished in about five minutes with the fussiest of horses if the handler is consistent and has good timing and is adequately outfitted with gear. To teach the stand-still skill, I prefer to use a rope halter with a training lead attached with a knot (and not a harsh buckle). A trained, obedient and subordinate horse will willingly and calmly stand ground tied, with or without a halter and lead.
As you do ground work teaching the horse to stand, work from a looser and looser lead, getting farther and farther away from the horse like he is ground tied. When he is standing reliably (because you have consistently corrected his mistakes or the slightest look away from you—where his attention should be), start lifting his feet and messing with them while he is ground tied. You horse will learn to stand quietly and relaxed while his feet are being handled and manipulated. Be sure to pet and praise the horse for his efforts and make sure that he learns that when he does the right thing, life can be quite good and quite easy.
Once you’ve taught your horse to be mannerly and obedient, you need to get him accustomed to what the farrier or veterinarian will require him to do: hold the foot up high and long, place it between your legs and pound and scrape the foot. As you work with young horses to teach them about foot handling, it is critical that you only put the foot down when the horse is standing still and relaxed. If you release the foot while the horse is fidgeting or fighting, you have trained the horse to fidget and fight. When you let go of the foot, make sure you let it down gently, slowly giving back control to the horse, never dropping his foot out from under him. It is best to place the foot in a specific location when you set it down, but never try to force the foot down.
This technique is explained thoroughly and demonstrated on my video, Lead Line Leadership. You can also find out more about collection and many other riding skills at my Training Library:
–Julie Goodnight

Issues From The Saddle: Parrot-Mouthed Bucker Logo

Question Category: Issues from the Saddle

Question: Hello Julie, I have a horse with a few problems. He is a six yr old that was professionally trained at 3 (ya right) then put out to pasture for 3 yrs when I got him they said he was so sweet he’s not very aggressive just trying to worm him he rears and tries to strike. They said when you want to ride him just lung him for a while (ya like 2 hours till he’s on his knees) and that will get the buck out of him, well he does okay in a walk or trot but any time I canter he bucks a lot. I have been riding him with a quick stop because that’s what he was trained in and because he is very parrot mouthed I feel if I could work him in a bit I would have more control I’ve asked a few people what they thought but no one knows that much about a parrot mouthed horse the equine dentist I use said he doesn’t recommend a bit. What do you think?

thanks Melissa Panzera

Answer: Melissa, I am sorry to say that I do not have a lot of experience with parrot mouthed horses. The ones I have trained have not been so severe that you couldn’t use a bit. If I could not use a bit on a horse for whatever reason, I would use a bosal or a side-pull, nothing harsher. From the sounds of your horse’s history, I would proceed as if he were totally untrained. Longeing a horse to the point of exhaustion teaches a horse nothing but does condition him so that he has plenty of reserves stored up when you get on him. Instead, I would look at the horse’s groundwork. Is he respectful and obedient with good ground manners? If not, you need to spend some time training him to be in that frame of mind. In my experience, when a horse is respectful and obedient on the ground, the saddle training is easy. If he wants to buck at the lope, I would keep working at the walk and trot for sometime before even trying the lope. When you feel totally confident that he is 100% at the walk and trot, then try the lope again. If he bucks, you’ll need to gently ride him through it, pushing him forward until he relaxes in the back. Only stop him when he is relaxed. Let him move as forward as he wants to at the lope, don’t try to keep him slow. When horses buck at the lope, it is usually either because he is refusing to move forward or because he is cold-backed and the lope feels funny to him on his back (his back comes way higher up in suspension at the lope that at trot and for some horses the additional pressure on their back is disconcerting). Either way, the solution is to ride him forward through the bucks until he relaxes his back, then let him stop. It sounds to me like your horse needs total retraining from the beginning and lots of ground work to get him in a submissive and obedient frame of mind.

Good luck! Julie Goodnight

Copyright ©Julie Goodnight 2000. All Rights Reserved. No part of this website may be reproduced without owner’s express consent.

Issues From The Saddle: Meandering On The Trail Logo

Question Category: Issues from the Saddle

Question: My 6 y/o AQHA gelding is very focused in the arena, on or off cattle, keeping his face directed at our target or direction. On the trail, he likes to look all around and, if I don’t re-direct him, follow his face off toward whatever catches his attention. If I allow that behavior (meandering, I call it), am I creating long term problems for us? As always, I appreciate your expertise.


Answer: In defense of your horse and in the spirit of “you can’t have everything,” you have to understand that a horse bred to work cattle does not always make the best trail horse. A “cowy” horse’s mind is keyed into movement and wants to follow it; he notices every little thing and tends to stay on alert. While this works out great in the arena and on cattle, it is not ideal for trail riding. Having said that, being cowy is no excuse for disobedience, and yes, if you allow disobedience it will cause bigger problems for you down the road because it erodes your authority and leadership.

An obedient horse will be focused straight ahead and will go in the direction you ask, at the speed you dictate, without constant direction from you. Many riders micro-manage their horses by constantly steering and correcting speed with the reins, so the horse becomes dependent on that. Once you cue a horse to go at a certain speed and in a certain direction, he should continue on that path and at that speed/gait until you ask him to speed up, slow down, turn right or turn left.

To check how obedient your horse is, find a target and give him a cue to walk or trot straight toward your target, then lay your hand down on his neck with a loose rein, and see if he continues. If he changes speed or direction without a cue from you, it means you have a horse that is either disobedient or co-dependent on you and you have some work to do. You need to break your habit of micro-managing, give clear directives, then give your horse the responsibility to obey. Correct him with your reins and legs if he makes a mistake; but leave him alone when he is obedient. Use enough pressure in your corrections that he is motivated to behave.

I have written a lot about having nose control on your horse. He should not be looking around while you are riding him, either in the arena or on the trail. Simply correct the nose with the opposite rein—if he looks right, bump the left rein, and visa-versa. Do not try to hold the nose in place; just correct it when he is wrong. I use the point of shoulder as a guideline; he can move his nose all he wants as long as it stays between the points of his shoulder; as soon as it crosses the line, he gets a correction. In short order, he will keep his nose pointed in the right direction.

Keep in mind, that just because you control the nose, does not mean you control the rest of the horse. He can easily run through his shoulder and go in the opposite direction that his nose is pointed. The most important thing is to control the horse’s shoulder but if you cannot control the nose, you have little chance of controlling the rest of the body.

How strict I am on the horse’s nose and his looking around, depends somewhat on the horse, his level of training and his willingness to be obedient and subordinate. If I am riding a horse that has proven to be well-behaved, responsive and obedient, I may let him look around a little, as long as he does not alter the course I have set in either speed or direction. On the other hand, if I have a horse that has proven to be disobedient, spooky or otherwise fractious, I will have a zero tolerance for looking around.

For your cow-bred horse, you will have to factor in his training, temperament and obedience and decide how strict you will be. Always correct a horse when he changes course without a cue from you, but with a cowy horse, that is bred to be very alert to any movement in his environment, you may have to cut him a little slack as long as he remains obedient. The most important thing for you is that you have a clear and consistent view of what will be corrected and what is expected of your horse. That’s why I use the points of shoulder as a landmark—that way I have clearly defined what I expect and I know exactly when to correct the horse and when not to, so that the horse can clearly understand the rule and that I can give consistent corrections.

You’ll have to use your own judgment with your horse, but as long as it is clear and consistent, your horse will learn quickly. Good luck!


Copyright ©Julie Goodnight 2000. All Rights Reserved. No part of this website may be reproduced without owner’s express consent.