Traversing Tricky Terrain on a Trail Horse

Learn how to safely maneuver through water and other uncertain situations to avoid stress for both horse and rider.

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by Carien Schippers

Sometimes, the best thing to do is go out and learn on the job. Any horse, especially a young one, can quickly become bored working in a small area, so some trainers take a green horse out after only a few rides “inside.” When you take your horse outside the corral, do all you can to ensure those rides are successful. A good experience will set the stage for future training, making it easier; a bad one will make future lessons more challenging. As with earlier lessons, the horse will encounter many new things during these first few rides outdoors — a first big rock to pass by; a first hill to climb; or a first stream to cross. How you help your horse get through these experiences will determine whether it learns to relax about the outside world or develops phobias that are difficult to resolve.

Water Crossings

Your horse must learn to traverse water if you ride across country or on backcountry roads and trails. With an inexperienced horse, groundwork with water crossing is helpful. If you’ve already led your horse through puddles or little streams, it won’t be so fearful of these obstacles when you start riding. You can cross bigger streams, and it will learn to handle them well, especially if you’re riding with other horses that it can see cross calmly. Your horse will probably follow, perhaps with a bit of urging.

Getting Acquainted with Water

If there’s a nearby shallow stream for practice sessions, take some time to acquaint your horse gradually with crossing so its first experience won’t be out on the trail, when getting across a stream or other body of water is essential. Taking the time to convince your horse that it’s their idea will make future crossings easier; it won’t associate water with struggle and confrontation, as it would had it been forced to cross. Lessons for water crossing will be more pleasant for both of you if you’ve already ridden your horse enough to have it be responsive to your signals and direction.

For water lessons, choose a shallow (fetlock-deep or less) stream with ground-level entry and exit points, good footing, no big rocks or steep or boggy banks, and enough width that the horse won’t try to jump it. Ride along the edge of the stream at a distance your horse feels comfortable with; if it’s not being forced into something, it will be more relaxed about it. If your horse is nervous, spend some time just being by the water, going back and forth, or coming and going to the stream; just keep riding back to the water. If your horse will stop briefly beside the stream, ride away again as a release and reward. Don’t ask it to cross yet. Soon, it will discover that the reward for going to the water and staying calm is being ridden away again, and it will become more relaxed about standing by the water. If your horse can drink from the water, that will also help relieve some anxiety. Your horse may even decide to walk into the water on its own.

When you get to the point where you’re ready to ask your horse to cross the creek, encourage forward movement with your legs, but not so much that the horse becomes defensive. The instant it takes a step toward the water, release your leg pressure. If your horse gets nervous, ride away from the creek and come back to the same spot again. Your goal is for the horse to progressively get one step closer; release all pressure when it does. Let the horse stand and relax and check out the water, and then ride away again before it tries to leave on its own. Don’t increase pressure if your horse is trying; talk reassuringly to make it feel safe and comfortable by the creek.

It may take several tries, but your horse will eventually attempt to enter the water. Let it move forward without urging. If it goes in, let it stand in the water for a moment if it wants, or go on across. Once it gets out, ride a few feet away, and then come back to the creek. If you follow these positive steps, your horse will gain confidence and be more willing to do the lesson again.

Narrow Streams

Most inexperienced horses will try to leap a narrow waterway rather than walk through it or step calmly over it. Be prepared for this so you won’t be unseated by a sudden lunge. Even a small ditch or stream that could easily be stepped over may be broad-jumped by a nervous green horse that hasn’t yet gained confidence about crossing water.

Try to avoid narrow streams and ditches until you’ve ridden your horse enough to have solid control over how it handles itself, and you’ve worked with it to cross wider streams, during which it learned it’s OK to get its feet wet. Leaping a stream or ditch can be hazardous if the footing is bad, or if the horse decides to turn the leap into a bucking spree upon landing.

Stopping for a drink on the Fawn Pass trail

If you must cross a narrow stream, select the most level spot with the safest footing, and approach it parallel rather than straight on. This will make the stream a wider obstacle, and you’ll have better luck making your horse walk through it rather than leap it. If your horse gathers itself for a leap, steer it away from the water and approach again, encouraging it to go slowly and walk through. If it does leap it, turn around and go back over it. Cross several times in a more controlled manner until your horse crosses the water properly.

Don’t Let ‘Em Wallow

If a horse starts pawing in a stream or pond when it’s standing in water, quickly ask it to move forward. Some horses want to lie down and roll in water, especially if they’ve been sweating and are hot and itchy. Pawing at the water is often the first clue that they’re thinking about lying down in it.

Tips for Safely Crossing Water

  •  One way to get a green horse over its fear of water is to find a shallow place in a stream, or a puddle-covered dirt road after a rain, and ride around in the shallow water. This way, there’s no way for the horse to avoid it. After going up and down a stream or around and around in a large puddle, the youngster will learn that there’s nothing to fear.
  •  If your horse balks at a shallow stream, ride it across; don’t dismount and lead, even if rocks are there to give you dry footing. If the horse is spooky about the water, it may jump onto the same rock with you, or knock you down in its lunge across. It’s safer to stay on your horse. If you absolutely have to lead a horse across a stream or up a steep bank, be prepared for it to jump or lunge.
  • If your horse knows how to pony — being led from another horse — one way to get a reluctant youngster to cross a stream is to have another rider lead as you ride your horse, or follow behind on foot with a switch. There may be times when you have no choice but to cross a stream, and this method will generally do the trick for a reluctant horse. Once across, go back and forth a few times so your horse gains confidence in crossing.
  • With swift-flowing water, ride across at an angle, facing slightly upstream. An inexperienced horse may be confused by the swift water and move downstream with the current. If you’re facing upstream, it’s easier to keep a horse traveling across — and you won’t become dizzy if you look at the opposite bank. A rider can become very dizzy looking down at the water. Don’t look toward the downstream side of the horse; stay focused on the bank upstream.

Dry Ditches and Gullies

The same methods for teaching a horse to cross water generally work for a horse that balks at a dry ditch or gully. Choose the easiest place to cross, where the bank is the least steep and deep. Ride it across rather than leading, so it won’t knock you down if it chooses to leap. If your horse is following another horse, it may think it’s being left behind and panic. Unless it’s too insecure to try the gully on its own, have your horse go first. If it’s simply too fearful, have the other horse go first, but slowly, and have it wait for you on the other side of the gully so your horse can see it. Not wanting to be left behind, your horse will usually try to get across. If it still won’t cross, have the other rider lead it while you encourage your horse from behind.

Once a youngster realizes it can cross, it’s usually easier for it the next time, especially if you were patient and didn’t make it more fearful by using an angry voice or punishment. A horse can understand a light touch on its hindquarters with a willow, especially if it’s being stubborn rather than truly afraid, but inflicting pain with a sharp spanking is never a good idea.

When crossing a deep ditch or gully, a green horse often picks up speed going down into it, and then lunges up the other side. To prevent this, halt before you start down, and then make it go down in a controlled manner. Halt again at the bottom if your horse wants to hurry up the other side. Turn it parallel to the steep bank, make it wait until it relaxes, and then ask it to turn and walk quietly up the bank.


A green horse may hesitate to cross a bridge, especially if it’s never seen one, or the footing seems insecure or noisy. If it balks, either lead it across the first time or follow another horse. Feel your way with each situation; it may just need a little encouragement. Choose a safe method that suits your horse’s ability and confidence level.

Heather Smith Thomas has written extensively about animal care. Her books include Storey’s Guide to Raising Beef Cattle and The Horse Conformation Handbook. This is excerpted from her book Storey’s Guide to Training Horses (Storey Publishing).


Storey’s Guide to Training Horses is a one-stop reference for every aspect of horse training, including a complete program for turning a shy and gangly foal into a calm, confident, well-balanced equine partner. Now with full-color photography, the third edition includes step-by-step guidance on all the essential training procedures for both English- and Western-style riding, including haltering and leading, saddling and mounting, and addresses the finer points of gaits, lightness, and collection. Best-selling author Heather Smith Thomas draws on her decades of equestrian experience to anticipate every situation that might arise and provide answers to managing all the potential challenges of training different types of horses. Order from the Grit Store or by calling 800-234-3368.