Horse Training for the Trail Class

Master the water box with these four tips from AQHA Professional Horsewoman Tami McClure.

From The American Quarter Horse Journal

“Oh, no! A water box!”

It’s a line often heard when a trail course is posted. Panic strikes riders who face the dreaded water and expect trouble from their horses. It doesn’t have to be that way. AQHA Professional Horsewoman Tami McClure, of Caldwell, Idaho, says that understanding a horse’s natural fear of water and keeping it in mind during a sound training program can help you and your horse beat the water-box blues.

Tami offers these four tips for training your horse to go through a water box:

1. Use a solid barrier.

When a horse is introduced to an empty box for the first time, Tami positions it against a solid barrier, such as a fence. This sandwiches the horse between the barrier and the handler. Tami works the horse with a halter and a 12- to 15- foot lead rope that allows her to hold it with enough slack that the horse’s head isn’t pulled toward her.

“I twirl the rope and tap the horse on the side or the hip,” she says. When the horse takes a step forward, she takes the pressure away.

All she wants is to see the horse make an effort to go forward, even if it is just one step at a time. If the horse wants to stop, drop his head and look, that’s fine. She’ll wait a few moments, then encourage him again.

“When he takes another step forward, or drops his head to look,” Tami continues, “I’ll take the pressure off again. It might take a while with some horses, but eventually they’ll make an effort.”

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Even if the horse places one foot in the box, then jumps the rest of the way out, that’s fine with Tami, because forward motion is the name of the game. If the horse is taken through a few times, eventually, he’ll start to become more relaxed and confident. Each horse needs to be schooled as an individual. Some take longer to relax.

2. Next, progress to a lower barrier.

Once the horse is relaxed and walks through with confidence, Tami moves the empty box away from the solid barrier and puts a lower obstacle in its place. This can be a pole elevated on blocks, jump standards with a pole or a railroad tie.

“It has to be a safe barrier that will discourage the horse from moving to the outside,” she says. “It should keep him channeled between you and that barrier.”

Then she leads the horse through several times, allowing him to stop and investigate if he wishes to do so. She is still very careful not to pull on the horse’s head.

3. Now, you’re ready to ride through the dry box.

In the beginning, as she schools from the saddle, Tami uses a snaffle bit. If she feels she must use a higher, more solid barrier at first, she will. But, most of the time, she can ride through with the low barrier to one side. Use low barriers on both sides if the horse wants to drift off.

The same system of pressure and release works from the saddle.

“I keep the horse between my reins,” Tami says. “I’ll put a little pressure with my legs. If the horse makes an effort to step into the box, or even to drop his head and look, I release the pressure. I don’t get in a hurry. When I feel like the horse is relaxing, I’ll ask him to go forward a little more. It might be just one step at a time at this stage.”

If a horse jumps the box, she is careful not to grab his mouth.

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“Once he gets over it,” Tami says. “I’ll stop him, turn him around and ask him to go right back through.”

She’ll repeat this as often as necessary, and pretty soon, the horse will go through slower and will be attentive.

4. Add the water.

When a horse relaxes with walking through the dry box, Tami puts just enough water inside so that it looks wet. “The first time or two that a horse puts his foot in there, getting splashed by deep water might startle him,” she says.

If she feels that a horse will be reluctant to test the waters, she will start again on the ground, sending him through with the halter and long lead rope, following the same procedure she used to coach him through the dry box.

Whichever step she’s working on, she allows the horse to investigate.

“Initially, I’ll let him smell it, drink it, even play in it a little. That will make him more relaxed.”

Before long, the water box on the home course becomes old hat to the horse. More water can be added when he’s ready to accept the splash.

Of course, when the horse gets to the first show course and has to work with a box that is not his own, he might react with a little surprise or fear. The key is for you to be prepared and handle the situation without overreacting.