Helping Horses Conquer Fear without Force

I’ve been riding Baron on the beach at least once a week since I moved to Hatteras Island 7 months ago. At first, I rode alone because I hadn’t met any riding buddies. Baron was amped about going out alone, and I wondered whether I would survive the initial breaking in period until he calmed down about going out on the beach. He wasn’t terribly spooky, but he was nervous, and when he’s nervous, he likes to GO! I wanted to walk peacefully down the beach and he wanted to run. Eventually he calmed down and now I’m able to ride him on a loose rein most of the time.

His second issue was the water. He wouldn’t get anywhere near it. We started out walking in the deep sand at the bottom of the dune, as far from the water as we could possibly get. Then he figured out that it’s much easier to walk on the hard packed sand down by the water, but he still would not get his feet wet. He would leap and spin if a wave crept up on him and touched his twinkle toes.

Even after watching other horses go in up to their bellies, he refused. He would walk along the water’s edge, zig zagging to avoid the incoming waves.

My way of dealing with this was to encourage curiosity but not force anything. I would ask if he wanted to go in, but the answer was always no and I didn’t push it. We walked through tide pools a couple time (no waves), and I left well enough alone. I knew that when it started to get hot, he would change his mind about the water. He used to LOVE swimming in the lake in Georgia. He was just freaked out about the moving water here.

On my last ride, it was 80 degrees and humid. I could tell Baron was extra curious about the water, because he reached down to smell it and he was inching his way toward it. He would start to go in, but a wave would come and he would lose confidence at the last second and throw it in reverse.

After our ride, I went back to the trailer and untacked him, and then headed out to the beach again on foot to see if I could coax him in. I walked out into the water and he followed me, spinning a couple times initially but then realizing he was safe and the water felt fine! We played in the water for a long time. I was wearing jeans and boots and got wet up to my thighs, but it was worth it!

I have a feeling that from now on, the water won’t be an issue and he’ll want to go swimming all summer long. Next time I ride, I’ll try to actually ride him into the water. I don’t foresee there being an issue. He’s learned that he has nothing to fear.

It was really important to me that it be HIS decision to go in. I could have tried to force him months ago, but he would have dumped me in spectacular fashion! Not worth it! Better to let him figure it out on his own time table when his curiosity and the hot weather finally got the best of him. Experiences like that build trust between us. There are very few times when he has refused to do something I’ve asked of him. If I let him take his time and think a thing through, he usually complies, whether it’s trailer loading or crossing water or riding alone in the woods. I want to encourage curiosity and exploration, not fear and force!

When you force an animal to do something, maybe all your friends are impressed that you “won” and you got your horse to “behave,” but you end up with a shut down animal, not a true partner. There has to be a choice, and an option to say no. Otherwise, it’s not a real relationship; it’s slavery. I had 7 months of “No” before I got a “Yes.” He didn’t NEED to go in the water though, so there was no hurry. Experiences like this one set us up for success when I actually do NEED him to do something for me, and do it quickly (like get in the trailer or cross a bridge). Every time we overcome something small like this, it sets us up for more success in the future!

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