Spending time with your horse while he drinks water can be an opportunity to connect and grow your relationship.

I’ve heard a few different words of wisdom in my years.

You can’t teach an old dog new tricks.

There’s more than one way to skin a cat.

And, one of my favorites: You can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make him drink. 

That last idiom rings awfully true, and can be a frustrating one for us equestrians, yes? 

It seems that when we most want our animals to drink—say, on a hot, long ride, or when we are in a hurry to leave, or maybe even traveling for a competition, it seems they can be indifferent—scared, even—of any type of bucket or trough holding water (and don’t even mention a running stream!).

So we have no choice but to offer water and then…wait. We try and we hope that they’ll take a big drink and appease our minds, but often they don’t. Sure it helps to stand still and not discourage the drinking thoughts. But it’s just like the old saying says. We can’t make them do it.  

horse drinking water from trough

On another note, a lot of us have seen tough horses in some form or another. Some mares and geldings might be a little more resistant to training, or have a bigger engine than most, or just plain don’t want a job as a riding animal. Often, I’ve heard the statement, “We’ll just tie that stallion up tonight without feed or water. That’ll teach him.”

I’ve wondered what he might be learning from being tied up all night. I certainly don’t perform my best when dehydrated and hungry. I know it can knock a horse down a notch, short-term, but I don’t know if it really helps in the long run. And in my experience it doesn’t seem that horses carry a sense of reason that would clarify to them that if they behave, they get fed and watered.

But I can understand that there is something to be gained by leading a horse to water. Once in a while, we will leave horses tied up for long periods of time, but not because they are being punished. We always leave feed in front of them, allow them chances to lie down and rest, and we spend a lot of time in our day untying and leading them to a bucket of water. I’ve seen tough horses, perhaps something that doesn’t want to be caught or handled, rewire a bit when a human’s presence means a chance to drink. Often he will ignore the opportunity at first, but will learn to look forward to seeing us and becomes much more approachable and easier to handle.

I’m not saying this is something everyone should do, or that it is better than another method. It just got me thinking about the value of having an animal look to and depend on a human.

When I really think about it, I see how vulnerable a horse is when he drinks. His head is lowered, so his peripheral vision becomes limited, and he isn’t in a good position to flee. He has to trust the person holding him in order to drink comfortably. Instinctively, horses need to be a bit guarded when drinking for the best chances of survival. Skepticism and concern for something new is a natural feeling for a horse, and they have to learn to overcome that with our guidance. When traveling or in a new place, it’s sometimes hard for a horse to relax and drink, which can be frustrating and concerning for the rider or competitor. Being able to let down and have a big drink with someone standing alongside him is a really big step of achievement in a touchy or tight horse.

So, I’m not saying you can lead a horse to water and make him drink. But you can lead a horse to water time and again and see it as an opportunity to get him to relax, settle and maybe over time take a big, comfortable swig. I know it’s been a fun and interesting thing for me to work on with my own horses.

Come to think of it, this old dog may have just learned a new trick after all!

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