The water box is a fun obstacle that’s a crowd-pleaser at competitions. But it can be tricky to train a horse to calmly walk through it—let alone do a 360º turn inside! If we break down these scary parts, it makes it easier for horses to overcome.
We start everything we do on the ground because it’s safer for the rider. And remember to make sure you have established your “Bolender Bubble” as I call it, so you know your horse will not jump on top of you or run into you if she tries to avoid her fear.
Problem: Horse Won’t Go in Water
“My horse will only go through water if it’s following another horse.” I hear this all the time from people who attend clinics or come to Bolender Horse Park for training. It’s true that having your horse follow another one into the water may be a quicker way, but I have found it does not help them get over their fear. And, when asked to do it on their own, they won’t.
If your horse won’t go in the water, don’t start with the water box. Start with something easier like a shallow puddle (easy during the Pacific Northwest winters!) or come use our pond at the Bolender Horse Park.
Patience is key when getting a horse to face their fears. Give them time to think it through and respect that they all learn differently. Look for any forward movement and a dropped head (signaling calm). When you get that, stop and praise! Once you can lead them through the puddle or pond, you can move on to walking through a water box with the floating board removed. The board adds an element of difficulty that is harder for some horses.
Problem: Horse Won’t Step on Moving Platform
When a horse steps into a riverbank, the mud sinks, causing many horses to quickly jump out (which often results in the rider being dumped). This is intelligent on the horse’s part – after all, they don’t want to get stuck in the mud or sink so deep they drown. We need to respect their instincts and have the patience to help them learn that we are not going to lead them somewhere dangerous and that they can trust us. That is what being a leader is to the horse.
So, give your horse a chance to think about what you are asking and to react to it. Again, look for forward movement (even if that means your horse jumps over the box at first) and look for head down, signaling calmness.
To make it easier, you may want to start by asking your horse to cross the narrower side of the box. As soon as you get a foot in with a calm dropped head, give your horse a break and praise.
The backing out is the part you want to avoid. This is when riders get dumped because horses will back, spin, and bolt. If your horse starts to pull back out, encourage them to go forward instead. They may jump the box in response. That’s okay at this point. You want forward movement. Bring them back to the edge of the box and look for that head down, forward movement.
Problem: Horse Jumps Over Box
If your horse is like many others, at this point he is probably jumping the box. As I said, that’s okay! Just keep approaching the box. Be patient, be persistent, and respect your horse by giving him time to think. Jumping the box is still a forward movement. The key here is to not stop while your horse is still jumping. If you stop while your horse is still fearful, it will be even harder the next time.
Jumping is a result of too much forward movement. So, you can start to ever so slightly slow your horse down as you approach the box to see if you can get him calm, with his head lowered, looking at the box instead of looking past it to jump. But be careful—if you slow down too much, your horse may stop, back, and spin. Better to continue to jump than to back away. Eventually, your horse will calm down and think about stepping instead of jumping.
Have patience and you can conquer the water box!
Mark Bolender is the nation’s leading expert in Mountain Trail, Extreme Mountain Trail, and Competitive Trail. He’s a three-time National Champion and one of the most popular trainers in the country. Today, Mark’s unique style of horsemanship has made the Bolender brand synonymous with these disciplines.
Mark has written for numerous national magazines and authored the popular book, Bolender’s Guide to Mastering Mountain and Extreme Trail Riding. Mark and his horse Checkers hold the sport’s all-time highest honors. Checkers was distinguished by becoming the 2020 Breyer Horse.
Mark and Lee Bolender founded the International Mountain Trail Challenge Association (IMTCA) to promote these sports. Today, the IMTCA trains judges, coordinates activities, and maintains certifications around the world.
Mark owns and operates Bolender Horse Park in Washington State. Mark has also designed and built Mountain Trail courses around the world.