Help Your Horse (Safely) Confront His Fear of Water
by Mark Bolender
Nearly every equestrian has experienced a horse with water issues. Often I’m told by owners that no matter what they try their horse will refuse to enter water, or else it will leap the smallest stream or even a puddle in the road. Some horses are worse than others. Not only is this frustrating, but it’s dangerous for the rider and those nearby. Recently, while riding a three-year-old near Mount St. Helens in Washington State, I came to a very small stream and the horse refused to cross. It seemed as though the water was some kind of monster, to be avoided at all costs. But what’s really amazing is that only a few minutes earlier that horse had crossed an entire river!
Horses are remarkable animals with incredible minds. We know with certainty that they think, but nobody knows what they think. And surely they don’t have the same logic patterns as humans. I consistently see horses at my clinics that exhibit all kinds of “illogical” learned behaviors regarding water avoidance. Once such a behavior has been allowed and reinforced it’s always a challenge to get the horse to focus on a water crossing because it will use all of its tricks to avoid the water. So how do we fix this problem?
Before I even begin to address water avoidance issues with a horse I work on creating—and maintaining— the “Bolender Bubble.” This is establishing my personal space, which the horse is not allowed to enter under any circumstance. I use techniques to establish myself as the alpha mare, which lets the horse know I’m worthy of leadership. This superiority forms the basis of the Bolender Bubble and until it is clearly recognized I would be at a much greater risk of injury when approaching a water obstacle. Once I have established my personal space and approach the water, my only thought becomes “you can do this.” I never approach thinking “you will do this.”
My next step is to allow the horse to approach the water on its own. Horses with a strong learned avoidance behavior will often bolt at the first sight of water and the primary behavior is the horse pushing into my space – literally moving on top of me to push me aside. When you move over with the horse’s weight, its pressure is released for a moment, telling it that this is a way to avoid the water. In that situation, the horse essentially is in control. That’s why the Bolender Bubble must be clearly established in the beginning. If you understand this behavior in advance you will know what to look for and you’ll be much less likely to move your feet in response to the animal’s push.
Always remember that the less you move your feet, the better off you are. In the horse’s mind, if you move your feet – as though to step aside— you are not superior. You are inferior and not worthy of respect. This is part of their natural body language and instinct. It’s not about authority, respect, or who can dominate. It’s a test the horse conducts instinctually to see if you are worthy of leadership in confronting the water monster. You must be the leader who can motivate the horse to do great things, like facing its fears. And the magic doesn’t end with water; any obstacle can be conquered using this understanding of the horse’s behavior.
Once all the avoidance behaviors have been blocked, allow the horse all the time it needs to touch the water, step back and forth, paw, blow, stomp, etc. This is all an effort to think the situation through. The only behavior I don’t allow is for the horse to go forward or back into my Bolender Bubble. While it is thinking and considering, I do not request that the horse advance further into the water. They need time to process what they’re doing. I’ve found that it will take a problem horse about 30-60 minutes to step quietly into the water using this method and it works similarly for small puddles, streams, and water step-downs.
Happy Trails and Bolender Blessings!
Published in August 2012 Issue
Mark Bolender’s name has become synonymous with the new and exciting international equine discipline Mountain Trail. Mark earned national titles in this sport in 2008, 2009 and 2010 and has been supporting Mountain Trail for the past nine years by teaching clinics, judging shows, and building courses worldwide.
Prior to his involvement in Mountain Trail, Mark developed a solid foundation of experience by breeding Quarter Horses and showing in open, Quarter Horse, and Reining competitions. He writes for a number of magazines and is the author of the popular book, Bolender’s Guide to Mastering Mountain and Extreme Trail Riding. He has produced four DVD’s about training for Mountain Trail and one DVD entitled The Road to Bridle-less. He has been featured twice in the American Quarter Horse magazine America’s Horse for mastering the Trail Challenge. Mark operates a judging school which certifies judges in the USA, Canada and Europe for Mountain Trail and Trail Challenge. He and his wife, Lee, are the founders of the International Mountain Trail Challenge Association (IMTCA) which was formed to promote the sport of Mountain Trail. Mark and Lee own and operate Bolender Horse Park in Washington State, which houses the finest Mountain Trail course in the world. Mark and Lee travel the world to give Mountain Trail clinics in almost every corner of the globe.
Mountain Trail made its television debut on RFDTV in November of 2016, further promoting the sport to audiences everywhere.
Using Bolender Horse Park as the model, Mark and Lee have designed and built Mountain Trail courses for private and public use in the USA, Canada, Australia and Europe – with many more in development. These courses are premier sites used by beginners and highly advanced riders alike; they are designed for clinics, shows, and training.
Mark and Lee actively promote the Bolender training philosophy, which centers on using the natural instincts of the horse in the training process. Mark says that activating key instincts in the horse combined with good horsemanship results in real equine magic. They continue to set goals to build more and more courses, promote the IMTCA, and write books and articles for eager enthusiasts. The next goal is to bring Mountain Trail to the Olympics.