My horse is afraid of ditches

With AsvaNara you can solve this quickly!

It can happen to anyone that his horse refuses to pass through a large ditch. This is a very unpleasant and embarrassing situation, especially when it happens during a ride with friends who are forced to wait for us.

This situation often makes not only us, but also the horse nervous, and most of the time the situation is solved in such a way that the horse jumps over the ditch with a huge jump and we risk our necks.

That doesn’t have to happen, and the key to not getting stuck in this situation again on the next ride is good and proper preparation.

Here at the AsvaNara Academy we place great emphasis on good preparation and we teach all horses to walk calmly, relaxed and safely over all kinds of obstacles.

“Some horses are afraid to cross big ditches, and sometimes it ends in a huge, uncontrolled jump, dangerous for horse and rider!”

Step n°1 - the preparation on the ground

Observe the behavior of your horse

The work begins on the ground, with a natural knot halter and the 3.7 m long lead rope, we prepare the horse through various obstacles, which will follow later in the saddle.

We start with a series of small obstacles, through which the horse has to go at a walk. For example, we can use large, thick plastic tarps, or small jumps over wooden poles and barrels, as many different types of obstacles as possible.

This helps the horse to understand that he does not have to panic when he feels something different under his feet than he is used to. It is important to repeat the exercises until the horse approaches and masters them with calmness and composure.

If we observe the horse’s behavior during this work, we can quickly determine which “side of the brain” the horse is currently using.

If it is nervous, is constantly scared or runs around the obstacles, this means that it is using the right, instinctive hemisphere of the brain.

It is therefore important to repeat these exercises until the horse switches to the left, rational hemisphere of the brain by itself.

This change is quite easy to observe, for example the horse starts to chew and lick its lips. He lowers his head, opens and closes his eyelids again and relaxes the muscles in his whole body.

In addition, during the exercises he no longer runs around, over or through the obstacles, but changes his gait from trot to walk. He generally becomes calmer and his movements become fluid and harmonious.

walking across a plastic tarp
pass through a squeeze
at a walk over small obstacles
a squeeze from both ends

Step n°2 - the preparation on the trench

survival instinct and self protection

As soon as these first exercises have been successfully completed, I look for a small ditch without water to continue working with the horse on the ground. First I send the horse from one side to the other and then I let it walk a few meters in the ditch so that it can get used to the difference in height between us.

At first this procedure seems to be a little too simplified and unrealistic, but this is far from being the case. Let’s look at the world from the horse’s point of view; if we wanted to teach a small child to swim, we would (hopefully) not just throw it into the sea and see if it could swim, but we would slowly get it used to the water.

First in the paddling pool, then in the swimming pool, later maybe in a small lake and only then in the big sea … the same is true for horses, if we want to take away their fear forever.

Horses have a strong instinct for survival and self-protection, so they must feel safe at all times and face challenges in small steps. Only in this way, if they stay in the left hemisphere of the brain, can they actually learn something positive.

Although survival instincts are absolutely necessary and useful in nature, they can become a problem in our civilized world. Therefore, it is our responsibility to help horses overcome their fears and teach them to tackle all situations that seem suspicious to them in a calm and relaxed mode, instead of reacting like flight animals and running away from all dangers.

Once the small ditch is done, I go over to a larger ditch, if possible with some running water in it.

The preparation on the ditch

We start to get the horse used to a ditch. First to a small ditch without water, from one side to the other, and then walking a few meters in the ditch. Then we go to a bigger, steeper ditch, possibly with running water in it. Here it is important that we do not walk in front of the horse, but “send” the horse.

On the long rope we ask the horse to cross the ditch, the first few times he will usually jump. We repeat the exercise from the other side, so the horse can see the surroundings with both eyes, and finally the horse will calm down and cross the ditch at a walk or a light trot.

first a small ditch without water
walk along in a ditch
then a deep and steep ditch
the first few times the horse jumps
see the ditch from both sides
then the horse will walk calmly

It is important not to be in a hurry

At this point it is very important not to be in a hurry to “go in the ditch” or, if the horse is already in the ditch, to “go out the other side”. At this important moment we give the horse the time it needs to think, smell the water and feel safe.

Horses need this time and the possibility to adapt to the terrain and the situation, to approach when they have more confidence and to retreat when it gets too much for them.

The technique of approaching and retreating is very effective for flight animals and we can support the horses by giving them space and time and motivating them at the right moment to approach the obstacle.

Let’s take the time it takes, so in the end it takes less time. In the beginning, it may well be that horses get frightened, jump uncontrollably or make other hectic movements.

Therefore, it is very important in this phase to pay attention to where we are standing, what the horse is doing and not to let it run over us.

It is also important that we make it cross the ditch from both sides. Horses have a lateral field of vision and it is important that they can get used to the obstacle and the surroundings with both eyes. You may find that one side works better than the other. Just keep going until both sides are working equally well.

For this exercise I usually use a long 7-meter rope, depending on the size of the ditch. This way I always have enough leeway and I don’t fall into the water myself.

I repeat the crossing several times until I notice that the horse approaches it with composure, calm and safe, and does not jump over it anymore. Only at this point do I go one step further; and ride through the ditch in the saddle.

Observe the horse's behavior

When you work with the horse on the ditch for the first time, be alert and observe its behaviour, as it could get scared and break out in uncontrolled panic. Observe the signs of relaxation; a horse that is previously nervous and tense will give clear signs when it starts to calm down and move to its left side of the brain. These signs may be:

  • chews and licks his lips
  • lowers his head and blinks his eyelids
  • relaxes his entire body muscles
  • goes from trot to walk
  • moves fluently and easily
observe the reactions
is the horse thinking?
is it relaxed at work?

Step n°3 - crossing in the saddle

It is the horse's responsibility to look where he puts his feet

Once I have had success on the ground, the next step, crossing the trench in the saddle, is now a “piece of cake”. Therefore it is important not to hurry on the ground, but to take the time it takes. Should there be a similar problem later on in the saddle, it is sufficient to dismount briefly, solve the problem on the ground and then ride on.

The most important tool we have in the saddle as riders is focus. That means to focus on the point we want to get to and to do everything necessary to get there. What just doesn’t work is to look where we don’t want to go, namely to fall into the ditch and then into the water.

Riders and horses have responsibilities, one of which is the responsibility of the horse to look where it puts its feet. The rider’s responsibility, on the other hand, is to look where we want to go.

When crossing the ditch I hold the reins in both hands, but not too short but loose. This is important at this stage, because the horse should have the possibility to move its head to see where it puts its feet.

The horse’s eye is constructed in such a way that it must lift its head to look into the distance, but to see something up close, it must lower its head to the ground. Often riders prevent this by keeping the reins too short, depriving the horse of the opportunity to look closely at the obstacle, the ditch or the water in it.

So I hold the reins long enough to allow the horse to look around but short enough to maintain direction. Also in this phase we give the horse all the time it needs to feel safe. If the horse is standing in the ditch and is still unsure whether he wants to cross it, this is a good moment to caress and praise.

Give your horse a lot of time and praise often

So it gets used to standing in a ditch or maybe even in water, and after that it is easy to motivate the horse with leg pressure to keep going. It may be that the first few times he jumps over the ditch with a big leap. However, if I look with a strong focus where we want to go, i.e. not into the ditch, then this should happen quite easily.

The important thing is to stay calm and cool, with a relaxed seat and a rounded back, and not to pull on the reins or jam with your legs. Although these are our instinctive reflexes, they feel terrible for horses and can cause them to become claustrophobic, get frightened and run away.

It is therefore better to grab the saddle horn when we are riding in a Western saddle, or to hold on to the mane when we are in an English saddle.

The most important thing is to keep the focus, because that way we keep ourselves naturally in the correct body position, whether we are riding down the ditch, jumping or climbing up the other side.

Perhaps the horse will jump over the water in the ditch, so we must be prepared to flow with its movement and not hinder it. The focus always stays where we want to go, this also gives us the right body position during the climb.

walk calmly with focus towards the ditch
then ride into the ditch
give the horse time to think
then ask it to move on
maybe the first few times it jumps
but soon it will cross calmly at a walk

One time is no time - the magic of repetition

Once the horse has crossed the ditch, we repeat the exercise a couple of times, always giving the horse a short break, and then motivating it to keep going. Horses learn by repetition; one time is no time, two times is just luck, three times is pure chance, at four and five the horse starts to learn.

After a short time you will notice how your horse relaxes more and more, no longer jumps over the ditch, but walks through it at a walking pace, perhaps even stops in the middle of the water and asks himself: “What was I so afraid of all the time?”

Solving problems in this way strengthens the relationship with your horse

Overcoming such difficulties together strengthens and consolidates the relationship. The horse gains trust and respect, it sees in us the Alfa animal it needs to live in safety and tranquility. We have proven to him that we take care of our horse and that we can get through difficult situations together, and that in these moments he can trust us and nothing happens to him.

If you learn and apply the AsvaNara method, frustrating moments and difficult situations with your horse will soon be a memory of the past. What was frustrating in the past now becomes a challenge and with method, play and fun comes success, because every situation mastered strengthens and consolidates the relationship with your horse.

“It’s easy when you do it naturally.”

I hope you enjoyed this article and that you found many useful hints and tips in it. Feel free to leave your comment below.

If you have any questions about this topic, contact me and I will answer you in the forum.

I wish you much success, fun and joy with your horse … and remember, it has never lasted longer than two days.

With kind regards, Edwin