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.

Hydration And Horses Logo

I know what happens if horses don’t drink enough. Too often in the past, I’ve seen horses that don’t drink much water have bouts with colic and mild digestive upset. No matter what you do with your horses, it’s important to make sure they have regular and constant access to fresh clean water—especially those that are finicky, like my horse Dually.

Necessity of Water
No matter what you do with your horses, water must be a first priority. When I led out big pack trips through the Rocky Mountains, we had to make sure to take trails that bordered streams and that the horses were allowed to drink each time we crossed a stream. The experienced and wise trail horse drinks at every opportunity because he doesn’t know when the next opportunity will come.

When we take our horses on the road, I make sure they have water breaks if they are in the trailer more than a few hours; and we carry water from home, just to make sure it is familiar and tempting.

When horses are at home in the pasture, I make sure that everyone knows what gates should stay open so that horses can get to the water tanks. Horses need regular access to water.

But even if you offer water consistently, what can you do to make sure your horses keep drinking—especially when you have a horse that doesn’t drink much? Salt is a necessity in a horse’s diet. You know that if you eat a bag of salty potato chips, you’ll crave a drink. I wouldn’t eat chips unless I had my water bottle in my hand. The same is true with horses—giving salt can encourage horses to drink more. Salt plays a vital role in hydration (water retention), muscle contraction and contains nutrients and minerals that are vital to digestive health.

When you drink more, your kidneys can keep the appropriate amount of electrolytes in the bloodstream and also impacts blood pressure. The same is true for horses. Salt also plays a role in digestion by helping break down food and by increasing hydrochloric acid, which lines the stomach walls and aids in the digestion of food.

Salt in Nature
Salt deposits are found in nature and wild horses would find them in their foraging areas, if left to roam. With domestication and confinement, we have to provide salt, since the horse cannot go looking for it. Most horses will voluntarily consume salt in the quantities they need, but there are always a few “high maintenance” horses whose salt consumption must be monitored.

Here are some tips to help make sure your horse keeps licking salt and drinking water no matter where you are:

For the traveling horse: Before we leave on a trip with our horses, we package their daily grain ration and supplements in a baggie—one for each day (or two baggies if they get grain twice a day). I always add a little granulated salt each day (Redmond’s Daily Red) just to make sure the horse is drinking well, and so we don’t have to carry around a salt lick.

For the high-maintenance horse: I know some horses that just won’t lick a rock and oddly enough, these seem to be the same horses that don’t drink enough. For these horses, I like to top dress their feed with granulated salt every day. Since horses are generally very good about monitoring their own salt intake, I don’t want to force too much salt on them. Start with about a half an ounce and monitor their water intake and urine output (how much shavings are you going through?). If they still need to drink more, add a little more to their ration.

For the Type A horses: Some horses feel stress more than others and some horses lead a very physically and mentally stressful life. Research has shown that many of these horses are prone to ulcers, which may manifest in poor appetites, decreased energy, lack-luster attitude and colic-like symptoms. Horses prone to ulcers may be reluctant to consume salt, but they still need some in their diet. My number one horse, Dually, falls into this category. For him, I feed Redmond Daily Gold, a clay-based salt and mineral supplement that helps neutralize stomach-acid build-up and improves appetite and digestion. As a matter of fact, I take it myself daily (in a capsule made by Redmond for humans) for indigestion, so I have a sense of how much it helps me and what it may be doing for Dually.

For the finicky horse: Some horses won’t lick a rock of salt on the ground, but if you hang it up on the fence, they’ll enjoy licking it a lot more. Hanging up on the fence, especially if it is near his water bucket, will make it an enticing toy and keep it clean. Some horses won’t lick on a rock on the ground if it is dusty and dirty.

No matter what salt you choose, make sure your horse has access to salt daily—and of course, make sure water is clean and fresh.

Enjoy the ride,

Julie Goodnight

A Hydrated Horse Is A Healthy Horse Logo

Question: Getting a horse to drink enough water has been a challenge for a long time. So long, in fact, that “you can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make him drink” is the oldest English-language proverb still in use, appearing for the first time in the year 1175. We’ve all heard it, and most of us have had first-hand experience trying to disprove it with horses of our own. But what makes it so familiar?

Answer: Chances are, you’re both dehydrated

Dehydration is common among horses, with some studies suggesting that dehydrated horses are more common than hydrated horses, even though the majority of caretakers don’t realize it. Horses are in good company—studies also show that 75% of people are dehydrated themselves. And that isn’t the only thing you have in common with your horse.

Both you and your horse are approximately two-thirds water, which means that when you ride an average-sized, 1000-lb horse, you’re sitting on 660 lbs—80 gallons—of water. Only a third of that water is used outside the cells (in the stomach or blood, for example) and the rest is used within the cells, playing a critical role in every cellular function.

You and your horse also lose moisture constantly, through sweat, urine and other natural processes. Without an adequate supply of water—maybe he’s on the trail and can’t drink, or maybe he simply won’t drink the water you provide—your horse’s body compensates by shuttling fluid from one area to another. Nature has decided that overheating is a more immediate threat than dehydration, so he sweats even when it means robbing fluid from cellular processes that quickly begin to suffer.

Then why doesn’t he just drink?

As dehydration begins to impact performance, your similarity to your horse begins to fade away. Your thirst instinct is triggered much sooner than your horse’s because of chemical differences in our sweat. Increased sodium concentration in blood (horse or human) triggers thirst, but because he loses so much more sodium in his sweat than you do, he doesn’t even realize he should be thirsty until he’s already lost about 32 lbs of body weight. By then, dehydration has already become a problem, your horse isn’t feeling his best, and colic is much more likely.
Introduce a thirst trigger

When it comes to re-hydration, we can simplify complicated chemical processes into two areas: replacing lost water, and replacing lost electrolytes. (Electrolytes are essentially the same elements found in seawater: sodium, potassium, calcium, phosphorus and magnesium. Without them, muscles and cells can’t function.)

This is one of the biggest reasons you see salt blocks in every stable and pasture. When your horse licks salt, he begins to restore depleted sodium and chloride electrolytes. Perhaps more importantly, salt triggers his thirst instinct, and he begins to replace lost water. But if you’ve had a horse reject his salt lick, you already know the next problem: horses are notoriously picky eaters, and many horses dislike traditional salt and mineral blocks. If he doesn’t like the taste, he doesn’t lick the salt. If he doesn’t lick the salt, he doesn’t drink. And if he doesn’t drink, he doesn’t rehydrate.

A thirst trigger he won’t reject

Frustrated by horses rejecting processed salt and mineral blocks, many horse owners have rediscovered natural salt mineral licks. The major brands come from two sources: Himalayan brands, mined and shipped from Pakistan, and Redmond Rock, mined and shipped from Central Utah. Both sources provide natural rocks mined from ancient sea beds, which means your horse gets natural sea salt along with more than 60 trace minerals, in the same ratio as seawater, that become excellent building blocks in natural electrolyte replacement. More importantly, horses prefer the taste of natural salt mineral licks—they go back to the rocks again and again, triggering their natural thirst response, often putting an end to dehydration.

We may not be able to make a horse drink, but when we understand why, and provide natural mineral salt in a form they actually enjoy, we can work with nature and help our animals avoid dehydration and the serious health problems that come with it.


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