Wednesday, August 16, 2017

Feeding For Weight Gain

Feeding for Weight Gain


When your horse is too thin, whether it’s a short-term aberration or a chronic struggle, careful feeding can help to keep his weight up.


EQUUS
NOV 7, 2014


Overlooking subtle change is easier than it should be. When you care for your horse every day, you may not notice slight variations in his body condition. Then one morning it strikes you: Watching him turn toward you in the paddock, you can see a faint outline of every rib along his sides, and his haunches are looking a little less rounded, too. Clearly, your horse is losing weight. And suddenly the questions are flying through your mind: What’s wrong? Is he sick? Am I not feeding him right?

Take heart. Many thin horses are suffering from nothing more than “agroceroisis---a lack of groceries!” says equine nutritionist Sarah Ralston, VMD, PhD, DACVN, of Rutgers University in New Jersey. In other words, a horse loses weight simply because his caloric needs are not being met. Either he’s burning more energy than he’s consuming, or somehow he is not utilizing the feed that he does eat efficiently enough.

The next question, then, is Why? A number of underlying issues can cause weight loss in a horse, and to help him regain some pounds, you first need to understand and address what’s going wrong. Only then can you develop a plan to restore him to his proper weight.



Why horses lose weight


A number of factors, mental and physical, can cause a horse to lose weight, and in fact, his difficulties may stem from multiple problems. Of course, some horses seem naturally more prone to weight loss; a “hard keeper” may have a metabolism that requires more than the usual amount of calories for maintenance, or he may readily lose his appetite---and drop pounds---in response to even slight variations in management routine, weather or other factors. Likewise, a horse who is stressed by travel, intense training, herd squabbles or other disruptions may eat less and/or burn more energy and end up losing weight. But if your otherwise robust horse suddenly loses weight without apparent reason, ask your veterinarian to help you investigate the causes. Here are some of the possibilities:

• Illness. A number of diseases can lead to weight loss. Most will be accompanied by other obvious signs, such as diarrhea, colic, fever or lethargy---but in some cases signs of illness might be extremely subtle or nonexistent. “If your horse starts losing weight and his diet has not changed, get the veterinarian out ASAP,” says Ralston. “Check his liver and kidney function and screen for chronic infections.”

During the examination, your vet-erinarian may also suggest a fecal egg count and discuss your deworming schedule. A heavy parasite load can not only rob your horse of calories but also over time it may damage his intestinal tract to the point that it inhibits his ability to extract nutrients from his food.

Your veterinarian will also investigate possible sources of chronic pain, which can put a horse off of his feed. In fact, weight loss is one of the major signs of gastric ulcers, along with tooth grinding, a grumpy attitude and poor performance. Treating any underlying illnesses or injuries will likely be enough to get him gaining weight again.

In addition, the pain of arthritis can interfere with a horse’s feed intake by preventing him from walking to hay feeders or covering enough ground to graze sufficiently. Adding feed stations in strategic spots in larger pastures may make them easier to reach, and horses with pain in the neck or withers will graze more comfortably from a net or rack at shoulder height.

• Dental issues. Problems with a horse’s teeth can affect his ability to eat: Uneven wear can cause hooks, waves and other malformations that inhibit chewing, and cracked, broken or infected teeth can be painful enough to prevent a horse from chewing his food properly. In addition to weight loss, signs that a horse is experiencing dental problems might include dropping partially chewed feeds from the mouth, bad breath, fussiness with the bit and unchewed grains and bits of hay in the manure.

Routine dental exams---annually for most adult horses, or every six months for seniors or those who have had problems in the past---can catch and address any developing problems early, before they affect a horse’s over- all health and body weight. By the time he reaches his late 20s or 30s, a horse’s teeth may wear down completely so that he cannot properly chew coarse feeds or hay. At this point, he’ll need softer foods, such as soaked hay pellets, beet pulp or senior feed, to maintain his weight.

• Social problems. Horses who live in stable herds develop distinct social hierarchies, and those at the bottom of the pecking order---often the very young, the aging or the submissive---may be chased away from the hay feeder and other sources of food. One solution is to bring the low-ranking horse in to a small paddock or stall where he can eat undisturbed. Another option for horses in turnout is to distribute hay around to multiple feeders, or to use one that the horses can access from all sides without getting trapped against a fence, so that everyone gets access to a share.

Don’t forget that a horse’s social status can change over time, and the addition or subtraction of other members can rewrite the whole equation. Keep tabs on conditions in the field to make sure none of the horses are being bullied away from the food or water.

• Personality. We all know them---those busybodies who spend their time running back and forth between window and door, nickering to other horses and soliciting attention from every person. These social butterflies may have a hard time focusing on their meals. It might be best to move them to a quieter location, or offer them their larger meals at night when the barn is more peaceful, so that they can settle down and give their full attention to eating.

Then there’s the picky eater, who pushes his pellets around or picks out the choicest bits of hay and poops on the rest. If this is your horse, you may have to get creative, experimenting with different types of forage or changing its form. Some horses who pick through hay will readily eat pellets or cubes. And sometimes the horse who walks away from an overflowing manger will eat the same quantity if it’s divided up into six smaller meals per day. Slow feeders---hay nets or other devices with small openings that allow a horse to draw out only small amounts of hay at a time---can keep a horse interested in “grazing” longer, with less waste.

• Environmental conditions. Horses burn more calories to stay warm in cold weather, but extreme heat can also cause them to lose interest in food.

In the winter, steps to help a horse who is having trouble keeping on weight include adding blankets and bringing him into the barn when temperatures dip. Make sure pastured horses have access to shelter that will shield them from prevailing winds. Free-choice access to hay will also help a horse to generate internal heat around the clock. Slow feeders can keep the hay clean while helping the ration last longer.

On the hottest summer days, bringing horses into a cool, well-ventilated barn with fans can help them cope with the heat, and deep, shady shelters are essential in turnouts---to provide protection from the sun as well as from biting flies. Horses can expend huge amounts of energy stomping, shaking and running away from pests like horseflies. If biting flies are a problem in your area, protecting your horse with fly sheets, sprays, traps and other measures can help him to focus more on grazing.

Ample fresh water, of course, is essential year-round---loss of appetite is one of the effects of dehydration. Installing heaters or taking other steps to prevent water buckets from freezing in winter is crucial, and in the summer moving some of the outside sources into the shade can help to keep it more palatable. Soaking a horse’s feed can sometimes encourage him to eat more, but never provide more in one meal than he can eat before it either freezes in winter or goes rancid in the summer heat.


Getting started


Once you’ve identified and addressed the most probable reasons for your horse’s weight loss, it’s time to develop a strategy to put the pounds back on. If you’re faced with an extremely thin horse---one whose vertebrae, ribs, and other bones are prominent---call in veterinary help right away. Introducing starving horses to too much food too quickly can cause serious digestive consequences that may be fatal. However, if your horse is only moderately thin, you can probably handle managing his weight gain yourself---just be prepared to call your veterinarian if have any questions or run into difficulties.

First, it’s a good idea to establish a system for measuring your horse’s weight as accurately and objectively as you can. You have several options (see “Two Ways to ‘Weigh’ a Horse,” page 32). Whichever method you choose, record your measurements in a journal, starting with a baseline, to keep track of subtle changes over time. Photographs, taken in good light while your horse is standing on level ground, can be a good supplement to your records. Just don’t rely entirely on your eyes and memory---you may have difficulty recalling details if you need to explain anything to your veterinarian later.

Also establish a good baseline measurement, in pounds, of what your horse currently eats. If you don’t have one already, buy a food scale and weigh out your horse’s normal ration. Even flakes of hay can vary in weight, and if you’re measuring out feed by volume---in a coffee can, for instance---you may discover that you’re feeding substantially less than a manufacturer’s recommended portion, which is usually given by weight. But it’s important to know how much your horse eats up front so that you can begin increasing his feed in an orderly fashion.


If your horse has been inactive, consider implementing a moderate exercise program. It may seem counterintuitive to make a thin horse burn calories to gain weight, but the work will help him to build muscles, and exercise will increase his appetite.

As you develop your plan, keep one rule in mind: Go slowly. All changes to a horse’s diet need to be made gradually. Your horse didn’t become skinny overnight, and he can’t safely gain weight in a hurry, either. Abrupt changes in a horse’s diet can lead to colic, laminitis and other ills.



First, the forage


Before you go shopping for new products, the first step is to gradually increase a horse’s current feed, and of course, the cornerstone of the healthy equine diet is forage. In fact, the average pleasure horse in light to moderate work can maintain a healthy weight on forage alone.

To sustain a healthy weight, a horse needs to consume a daily ration of 2 to 3 percent of his body weight each day; of that, at least 1.5 to 2 percent needs to be some form of forage. That means two pounds of total feed for every 100 pounds that he weighs, or 20 pounds for a 1,000-pound horse just for maintenance---more will be needed for weight gain.

To help your horse gain weight, assuming he was getting restricted amounts of good-quality hay, Ralston suggests increasing his current forage ration until his total feed reaches at least 2.5 percent of his desired body weight. In other words, if your horse currently weighs 1,000 pounds, and you’d like him to be 1,100, then your target would be 2.5 percent of 1,100, or 27.5 pounds of hay.

The quality of the forage matters, too. If your hay and pasture are poor, then your horse is filling his gut with fiber but not getting adequate calories or nutrients. An extension agent can help you assess the nutritional value of your pasture and hay. Since few areas of the country allow for high-quality grazing year-round, most of us must supplement our horses’ diets at least part of the time with hay.

You want to choose the highest quality hay you can find for your thin horse. That means leafy, green hay with a minimum of brown stalks and mature seed heads. One quick test of the quality of hay is to squeeze a handful. Stiff stalks that hurt your palm are not a good choice when you need a higher calorie feed. If you want a more scientific analysis of your hay, you can send a sample off to a laboratory to have the nutritional value assessed.

Blending a flake or two of good-quality alfalfa in with a ration of grass hay is another way to add nutritional value to your forage. Alfalfa is higher in calories and protein than grass hays, which makes it an excellent choice to help to add weight to a thin horse. If your horse tends to be wasteful with his hay, he may eat more when offered alfalfa hay cubes or pellets.

Another fiber supplement is beet pulp, which contains about the same digestible energy as good quality hay. Most horses seem to like beet pulp, and it’s a good matrix for blending in supplements or other feed additives such as oils or rice bran. Introduce it slowly, one pound (dry weight) per feeding, up to 0.5 percent of your horse’s body weight. Although beet pulp is a good source of calories, it is not a complete protein source, and it’s relatively low in vitamins and most minerals, so it works best as an addition to, not a substitute for, your horse’s regular rations.



Fats, for calories


Forage may be the cornerstone of equine nutrition, but it’s not a calorie-dense food, and there’s a limit to how much a horse will eat in a day. If your horse has been consuming all of the forage he wants, and he still is not gaining weight after several weeks, it’s time to add some more calories to the ration.

The safest way to increase the energy in your horse’s ration is to bolster the fat content. While carbohydrates and proteins offer around four calories per gram, fats offer a whopping nine calories per gram. If introduced slowly, horses can adapt to higher fat intakes, and you can reduce the concerns associated with really high starch intakes such as wide fluctuation in blood glucose and insulin levels seen with high-grain concentrates.

You’ll find a number of supplements and feeds on the market formulated to help horses gain weight safely. Most contain high amounts of fat as well as amino acids, vitamins, minerals and other nutrients that help a horse build and maintain muscle. Some of these products can be pricey, however, especially if your hard-working hard-keeper needs to stay on them long-term to keep his weight up.

One of the simplest and cheapest ways to add fat to your horse’s diet is vegetable oil from the grocery store, which can be poured over his regular concentrate ration. Corn oil is palatable to most horses, but you can also use canola, peanut or any other vegetable oil your horse likes. Although you’ll hear debate about the ideal ratios of omega-3 to omega-6 fatty acids in all of these products, when you’re trying to put weight on a horse, all fats are good fats. Like with other dietary changes, oil needs to be introduced slowly, starting with a quarter cup per day, and adding another quarter cup every few days, up to a maximum of two cups for an average size horse---less for small horses and ponies. Too much too fast, and your horse will develop diarrhea and steatorrhea (fatty stools)---his manure will have an oily sheen from undigested oils passing through his system. Another problem with oils is they can go rancid, so be sure to store the bottle in a cool place and give it a sniff before feeding.

Rice bran is another source of fat that most horses love, and it’s also rich in vitamin E as well as fiber. The biggest concern with rice bran is that it is also high in phosphorus, which can inhibit the amount of calcium available in the horse’s body. If you’re feeding a natural rice bran, you might want to add a calcium supplement or another calcium-rich food, such as alfalfa. To be safe, consider purchasing a rice bran product formulated for horses that contains added calcium to balance the ratio of the two minerals.

As with oil, rice bran needs to be added to the diet slowly, starting with about a cup at a time, working up to one or two pounds daily. Follow feeding instructions on the label for serving sizes for any commercial products.



Finally, concentrates


Grains, sweet feeds and other starch- and sugar-based concentrates had long been the high-calorie foods of choice for thin horses, especially those in hard work. They are convenient to use, but the benefits come with a price: Feeds that are high in starch and sugar can pose some health risks if fed in large amounts. When a horse eats more starch in one meal than he can break down in his stomach and small intestine, the undigested molecules ferment in the hindgut, which increases the acidity and throws the microbial population out of balance---not only may the horse’s gut become less efficient at digesting fiber, the resulting changes can lead to colic and crippling acute laminitis. Although some horses seem to be more sensitive to starches than others, says Ralston, “You can induce laminitis in any horse with a sudden grain/starch overload.”

Commercial concentrates, which are formulated for complete, balanced nutrition, can be a valuable source of calories for a thin horse, but they must be used wisely. First, select a product that is formulated for your horse’s stage of life and activity level. Then, follow the instructions on the label to introduce the feed slowly and carefully to his diet.

Never feed more than 0.5 percent of a horse’s body weight of concentrates in a single meal, says Ralston. That’s five pounds for a 1,000-pound horse. If your hard-keeper or athlete needs more than that to gain weight, break his portion up into as many small meals as you can manage, spread throughout the day.

No matter what type of concentrates and added fats you incorporate into your horse’s diet, remember to make sure he always gets at least 1.5, preferably 2, percent of his body weight in forage each day. He needs it to keep his gut functioning at its best.

The basic concept behind fattening up a thin horse is fairly simple: Feed him more calories. But the devil is in the details. It may take some trial and error to find the right combination of forages, fats and concentrates to keep your horse healthy and strong. If you have trouble bringing your horse back to his ideal weight, don’t hesitate to consult with an equine nutritionist. Keeping weight on a perpetually thin horse can be tricky, but the effort will be worth it when you see him moving out across the pasture looking fit, strong and healthy.

This article first appeared in EQUUS issue #447, November 2014.

Monday, August 7, 2017

Confident Cross-Country Water Jumps


Part 1: Make your horse’s initial education fun and positive to create a solid foundation for life.


MIKE HUBER
MAY 2, 2016

Jumping cross-country water elements is an essential skill for all event horses, but many people don’t realize just how much homework it takes to build a horse’s confidence over this challenging feature and to sustain that confidence throughout his career. | Amy K. Dragoo

One of the most important aspects in an event horse’s training is exposure to cross-country water jumps. With a positive, well-planned introduction, you can avoid the all-too-frequent heartaches that many riders experience when their horses refuse or are eliminated at this inherently challenging element. In this two-part series, I will walk you through the training plan that I follow with both green and experienced horses. This month, I will help you see water jumps through your horse’s eyes and will explain how to overcome his initial fear and hesitation in your first training sessions. Next month, I’ll show you how to teach him to jump fences in combination with water.

Let’s begin by recognizing exactly how difficult this task is. Horses don’t magically go into water without being trained to do so. Most have a natural wariness of it because they cannot easily judge its depth or the quality of the footing underneath it. Even the bravest horses need to be reassured that they will only be asked to tackle safe, doable water jumps.

Building your horse’s trust in you, however, is more than just a matter of getting his feet wet once or twice; it requires multiple, enjoyable, logically progressive schooling sessions. In addition to building his confidence, these sessions must teach him how to approach, enter and exit the water in a steady, balanced, relaxed manner, maintaining the same speed and stride length from beginning to end. These are fundamental skills necessary for safely and cleanly negotiating obstacles into, out of and in the middle of water jumps—challenges he will face as he moves up through the levels.

When you see a horse make a spectacular leap into water, however impressively brave it may seem, he’s actually revealing a lack of education. A well-schooled horse should pop into the water and over each obstacle with minimal fanfare, making it look almost boring.


No Bad Memories


Select a schooling water jump with good footing, shallow water and inviting entrances and exits. A variety of small "in" and "out" jumps will also be helpful later as your horse progresses through his education. | Amy K. Dragoo

Achieving this level of comfort requires a step-by-step, multiday—even multiweek—plan involving a carefully selected venue, uniquely qualified helpers and a patient yet determined attitude. In each schooling session, you must be prepared to spend as much time as necessary to reach a happy conclusion without ever getting mad or frustrated. The goal is to make water fun and easy so your horse never dreads going in. A single bad experience can leave an indelible mark on his memory. If you allow a session to escalate into a battle of wills with excessive whipping, spurring and hollering, every time your horse faces a water jump after that, he’ll have flashbacks to that experience and will think, “Oh no, here’s where I get beaten.”

Even if your horse’s first water school goes well, you must reinforce that success with additional positive memories. Just like a fisherman whose great catch gets bigger every time he retells the story, your horse may mentally exaggerate his first water venture over time. Weeks after coming home to tell his barn-mates, “It wasn’t so bad,” he may begin to remember the water as having been 10 feet deep and terrifying.

That’s why it’s so important to follow the first school with many additional sessions, both in the short term and periodically throughout his career. Even four-star horses with excellent foundations need occasional water schools in between competitions. In fact, the water questions they encounter on course are so challenging that they often need to practice simpler exercises at home to bring their confidence meters up. As is true in so many other areas of horsemanship with horses of all levels, the best rule of thumb is to school water “little and often.”

For many eventers in the U.S. who have limited access to suitable schooling facilities, this may sound like a near impossible task, especially for those based in the West, where even natural water resources are scarce. This is a disadvantage, but it doesn’t have to be a deal-breaker. Think about how much money you invest in a single competition. Then imagine throwing all that money away by getting eliminated at the water jump. You’ll be much better off spending the same amount of money trailering to a good schooling facility—even if it’s hours away—and hiring a professional to guide you through the process. Making your horse’s water education a top priority will be well worth the investment in the long run.


First Schooling Session: Get His Feet Wet


1. Every water session should begin with a confident, yet relaxed, attitude, as Elizabeth Bohling’s 4-year-old Shannondale Suvio is demonstrating. Before approaching, Elizabeth has established a forward walk and a deep, secure position with her upper body centered, her lower legs closed and her heels down. | Amy K. Dragoo

2. At the water’s edge, Elizabeth gives Suvio time to sniff and paw the water. She sits quietly in the saddle and follows his mouth with her hands but also keeps both legs closed on his sides to make it clear that turning or backing away from the water is not an option. | Amy K. Dragoo

3. When Suvio refuses to go farther into the water, I ride alongside him on a more experienced horse and attach a longe line to his bit. With a good role model and a gentle tug on the rope, he bravely walks in. | Amy K. Dragoo

4. In the middle of the water, I unclip the rope and Elizabeth walks him quietly out the exit ramp. | Amy K. Dragoo

5. In their next approach, I ride alongside again but this time without the rope. Suvio hesitates but then … | Amy K. Dragoo

6. … follows my horse into the water. | Amy K. Dragoo

7. Finally, Elizabeth approaches the water alone again. This time, Suvio walks in confidently. She walks him in a circle, allowing him to continue sniffing the water and familiarizing himself with the new sensation of moving through it. | Amy K. Dragoo


Make a Plan


A young and/or green event horse can be introduced to water as soon as he’s trotting and cantering on the flat and over fences in the ring, hacking outside the ring and going up and down hills under control. Give him this invaluable education before his first competition or clinic to avoid the potentially crippling fear created by a negative experience. Incorporate the following factors into your introductory schooling plan:

1. A suitable schooling facility. Legendary U.S. Eventing Team Coach Jack Le Goff used to say, “It’s possible to teach a horse to jump into a swimming pool—once!” In other words, you will lose your horse’s hard-earned trust if you ask him to do something unreasonable. Be sure that every body of water you ride him into has the following qualities: footing that is firm and level, not muddy or boggy; water no deeper than 24 inches; and overall dimensions of at least 24 feet wide and 24 feet across. Anything narrower than that might invite your horse to jump the entire thing. Finally, your chosen water jump’s introductory-level entrances and exits should be invitingly gradual—no steep Man From Snowy River banks!

Our farm’s water complex has an added benefit of banks on either side of the lower-level entrance, which serve as wings. They help to channel the horse into the water both physically and mentally. We keep the complex filled all the time so it is available for daily schooling year-round.

For riders who don’t have easy access to a water jump specifically built for eventing, think twice before practicing in a nearby creek, stream, pond or lake. Such natural features can actually add to a horse’s fear and distrust if they contain steep, rocky banks; boggy, sticky footing; deep water; strong currents or any other potentially disconcerting characteristics.

2. A good support team. All amateur eventers should introduce their horses to water with the assistance of a knowledgeable, qualified trainer, ideally mounted on a quiet, experienced horse. As I’ll explain later, having a “Steady Eddy” equine companion who can tell your horse, “Hey Dude, it’s no big deal,” while accompanying him into the water is the best way to instill confidence. It’s important that this companion be extremely calm and unflappable, as he may have to tolerate some dramatic behavior on your young horse’s part, such as big “leaps of faith” into the water.

You may also find it helpful to have a ground person with a longe whip willing to stand at a safe distance behind your horse as he approaches the water. This person’s role will merely reinforce your “go forward” message in an encouraging—never abusive—way.

3. Proper equipment. One of the pieces of tack I never go without on cross country is a breastplate with a strap across the withers. This provides you with something to hold on to so you don’t risk pulling on the reins and punishing your horse in the mouth accidentally if he suddenly launches into the water and throws you off balance.

4. Plenty of time. As I mentioned previously, to guarantee your horse a positive experience in the water, you must give him the feeling that there’s no rush. When time is tight, tempers flare and horses quickly pick up on your negative emotions. This is why a clinic is not the best scenario for introducing a horse to water. Clinicians are obligated to spend time on other horses and riders and other cross-country elements. Instead, for your horse’s early water lessons, plan to focus entirely on him and the water jump. Even if you travel a long way to a schooling facility, if you arrive late in the day, don’t try to squeeze in a practice session that evening and risk running out of daylight.



Getting Started


In the beginning of each schooling session, warm up over a few easy, straightforward cross-country fences—logs, coops, etc. The goal is to get your horse feeling confident and in front of your leg (forward and responsive to your leg aids). Be careful not to overdo it, though. Especially when you’ve gone to great logistical and financial lengths to set up a cross-country school, it may be tempting to get your money’s worth by jumping every obstacle on the course. This increases the risk of you and/or your horse arriving at the water jump mentally and physically fatigued, which can drastically reduce your chances of success.

When you feel adequately warmed up, approach the water jump in an active, purposeful walk. Sit squarely and securely in the center of the saddle with your legs wrapped around your horse’s sides, holding the breastplate strap with one hand. In your initial approach, have your lead horse follow several feet behind you so you can see how your horse reacts to the water on his own. This will give you a good reading of his aptitude for the sport. If he walks into the water with little hesitation, that’s a good sign. However, if he hesitates or stops, that’s not necessarily a bad sign. Many top-level horses are cautious about water in the beginning of their careers.

Your reaction to hesitation is critical. Think offense, not defense. Immediately encourage him with a cluck, a nudge of your legs and perhaps a tap with the stick on his shoulder. Be firm and positive but committed to preventing the situation from escalating into a fight. Give him a chance to test the water. Allow him to sniff and paw at it if he wants to. Then gently ask him to step in. Whatever you do, don’t turn him away from the water’s edge. Trying to re-approach from a longer distance or at a faster speed will only get you stuck farther away from the water. Instead, hold your ground and make it clear that his only option is to go forward.

If after a few minutes he is still unwilling to step into the water, ask your companion on the lead horse to walk alongside him and clip a lead rope to his bit. Then ask her to walk her horse calmly forward into the water, simultaneously giving a gentle tug on the lead rope. Nine times out of 10, the green horse will follow the experienced horse into the water. Again, be prepared for a dramatic leap—and ready to praise your horse the moment he takes it.

If he still isn’t willing to enter the water at this point, it may help to have a ground person stand behind him—far enough back to be safe from a kick—slowly waving a longe whip to reinforce your forward aids. She can even lightly tap him on the haunches with the whip. Again, be very careful to keep the mood encouraging, not punishing.

In extremely rare cases, it may be necessary for you to dismount and remove all of your horse’s tack. Your expert on the lead horse can then work directly with your horse to persuade him to enter the water. This can be especially beneficial if you are inexperienced and/or anxious about the situation. With time and patience, even the most stubborn horses can be convinced in this way to overcome their fears.

Once your horse is in the water, he may still want to sniff and paw at it, familiarizing himself with these new sensations. Give him time to do this. Then quietly exit the water and re-approach it in the same positive, forward way you did before. Do this several times until he’s walking into and out of the water confidently.

Throughout this first session and the next several ones, do everything at the walk, asking your horse to maintain the same speed and stride length as he crosses the water. Save trotting—which creates more of a splash and requires more effort to move through the water—for the fourth or fifth schooling session.

If your horse is entering and exiting the water fairly confidently after 10 or 20 minutes, leave the water to do something else briefly—for example, jump a few other types of fences. Then, if he still feels fresh and positive, come back to the water at the end of your ride for one more mini-session. This way, you get two schools in one.

Introduce the Trot

1. When Suvio is really comfortable walking through the water, Elizabeth picks up a balanced, steady trot. | Amy K. Dragoo

2. As they reach the water, she keeps her legs closed on his sides and her shoulders back to encourage him to continue moving forward. At the same time, though, she softens her fingers on the reins so he can stretch his nose down toward the water. | Amy K. Dragoo

3. You can tell by Suvio’s expression that the bigger splashes from his trot are a little disconcerting at first. With repetition, though … | Amy K. Dragoo

4. … he gets used to the splash and trots through the water in a nice rhythm and pace, staying straight and relaxed. | Amy K. Dragoo


Trotting Through Water


Once you’ve gotten your horse’s feet wet for the first time, your job is far from done. Even if he seemed confident, it’s important to follow up with another session to reinforce the lesson and quell any initial worries he had. If you’ve traveled a long distance to a schooling facility, plan to stay there for a number of days to fit in these invaluable follow-up sessions. Otherwise, find a way to get to a water jump again soon—ideally within a few days.

After the first two or three schooling sessions, you should have a good idea of your horse’s comfort level. If he is on the braver end of the spectrum, he may need only occasional refreshers every few weeks or so. If he’s on the more cautious end, he may need to revisit the water daily or near daily for several weeks. When we have green horses sent to us for intensive training periods, we take them down to the water jump almost every day, even in their dressage saddles after a flat school.

As your horse’s confidence grows, follow a logical, step-by-step training process, building on his skills gradually and giving each new challenge time to sink in. After several successful sessions at the walk, try trotting into and through the water. Be prepared for his reaction to the new sensation of water splashing in his face. Also continue to encourage him to regulate his speed and stride length throughout the exercise, just as you did at the walk.

Depending on how much access you have to a good water complex, it may take your horse weeks or even months to graduate from this phase of his training. Give him plenty of time to solidify this foundation. The more confidently he is walking and trotting through a simple water question, the easier it will be to introduce him to the next step: jumping obstacles in combination with water. I’ll explain how to do that next month.

Originally posted on practicalhorsemanmag.com.