Water Play

By Terry Golson

Tonka is not a horse that likes to get his feet wet.  Some horses like to roll in mud. He does not. As far as Tonka is concerned, dust is fine but muck is yucky. It’s not that he’s scared of water, he just doesn’t like it. When on the trail, Tonka will walk through streams. I give him his head and he carefully steps across, always finding the best footing and skirting the murky spots when he can.

So, this is all to say that Tonka will put his hooves in water, but it’s not something that he’d choose to do.

A couple of days ago, Michele and I trailered our horses to a favorite place. It’s an old orchard that’s now a wildlife refuge. Tonka and I had been there several times on our own so thought we knew it. But Michele asked if we wanted to go into the pond.


Maggie likes water. It turns out there is a side trail to a pond which has a sandy slope where the horses can walk down and into the clear water.

Tonka couldn’t believe that I thought that this was a good idea. When he doubts where I want to go, his shoulders tense and his neck bulks up and his throat latch locks in place. He did this at the edge of the pond. I sat deep and squeezed with my legs. This is a cue that tells him Go ahead. It’s safe.  He hesitated, still unconvinced, but then watched as Maggie splashed in. Tonka followed. It’s good to have a friend to rely on – one who doesn’t mind when you’re on her butt.

Maggie's help


I think that Tonka liked this place. Even after Maggie got out, he stayed put. He even played in the water a bit!



We’re in the midst of a severe drought and heatwave. Standing in a pond is a joy, even for a horse that has his doubts about water.


(It’s hard to take photos from horseback, especially when you have to take your gloves off to do it, a scary dog is coming up the trail, and a hiker looks like a zombie because she has a blanket over her shoulders. Thank you, Michele for this pic!)

After going into the pond, we returned to the main field to begin the training that I talked about in the last post. Maggie walked one direction and Tonka the other. We did this so I could gauge how far away from Maggie Tonka could go before becoming worried. He kept an eye on her, but didn’t get tense until she was out of sight behind a bush. It’s good to know a baseline. So, yesterday, Michele and I rode our horses at the stoneyard (a property next to the stable) and we circled a stand of trees in opposite directions. The horses are very familiar with this place, so Tonka knows exactly where Maggie is even if he can’t see her. The first time around he was tense, the next he was relaxed. Maggie never worried about where Tonka was! After fifteen minutes of riding next to, and away, from Maggie, it was clear that Tonka was learning that whenever he left his friend that he would also return. A little more of such training, and Tonka will be far more confident and calm when we travel and he is asked to leave his companions. This will be useful both at a show and on the trail. Also, you never know when a situation will arise that for your safety you have to leave now. You can’t train when there’s an emergency, but you can instill confidence and trust every time you get on.

10 thoughts on “Water Play

  • Jan

    Wonderful Blogs. There is something special about the trust you get from animals, magical
    even. Sorry to hear your drought situation, we have had/got very hot weather and no rain but it wont last and because we have had 18 months off rain our water tables are very high so no restriction on using hoses, hope you get some steady rain soon. How do you keep Phoebe’s, the Girls and the Boys cool ?…:)

    • Terry Golson Post author

      Phoebe has cool shade and damp grass in her run. She’s been fine. The chickens are fine with shade and water (I’ve got a FAQ at HenCam about taking care of chickens in extreme heat.) The goats don’t mind the heat. Tonka also has shade and a fan in his stall. Fall is around the corner!

  • Emily

    We are working on crossing a small wooden bridge. It is simply an obstacle we’ve never faced and Apenitar is understandably concerned.
    Fortunately, for access to this trail, we are in the midst of a drought as well so we an simply go through the dry creek bed a ways downstream.
    In the meantime, we are working on calmly crossing a fake bridge in the indoor ring. It’s coming and his confidence is growing. 🙂

    • Terry Golson Post author

      Good for you! Even walking through a creek bed is an accomplishment. Excellent that you have a bridge in the ring, but think about breaking it down even further. Will he walk on a sheet of plywood? On a rubber mat? Over a 2×4? The more he’s exposed to, the more he’ll “generalize” and accept novel things on the trail. It’s not the bridge, per se, that he is worried about – it might be the hollow sound, or the slope, or how his hooves slip a bit. One last hint – the more worried he gets, the more you relax. Sit deep, sit quiet, breathe and give him his head. Maybe you’re already doing these things 🙂 Oh, and one last thing – something I’ve talked quite a bit with Karen Pryor about – many animals, including horses, intrinsically feel rewarded by a sense of accomplishment. They do feel pride in overcoming fear and in learning new things. Challenges are a good thing to have in life 🙂

  • Tracy

    One of my littlest students, Gracie, had muscular dystrophy and very limited use of her legs. She began riding my 9 hh Shetland pony Boo Boo at age 8, and rode him pretty well, to be honest. Gracie could not use her lower body at all, so she communicated with Boo Boo solely with her hands and her voice. And boy, was Gracie a talker. Gracie couldn’t post to a trot and did not have stable enough balance to canter, so she could not compete in any classes at the local, small time shows, or the little schooling shows I would organize at my farm. Until…she saw an obstacle class.

    A light went on. She was determined. Her mother was alarmed. I was a bit nervous myself. Boo Boo was an incredibly small pony, agreeable, but unfamiliar with little bridges, opening gates, walking through dangly things, over tarps and through water. Gracie, however, was undeterred.

    We decided to let her try. She and Boo Boo would approach each obstacle slowly and she would allow him to sniff every inch. Then the negotiation would begin. Chattering nonstop, she would gently encourage Boo Boo to move forward and he would ever so slowly place his teeny tiny hooves, one in front of the other until he was on the other side. Gracie would immediately reward Boo Boo with a peppermint after each accomplishment. Water was the toughest. Gracie never forced him, but eventually I saw him sidle up to a shallow water obstacle and literally turn sideways and put his hind hoof in first, then back in, turn slowly and walk out. Gracie refused to try to make him go in front hooves first, “he’s little and it makes him feel more secure this way, so that’s how we’re going to do it.” They had decided.

    One summer I entered little Gracie and the even littler Boo Boo into a local 4H sponsored show, in the obstacle class. I left it all up to Gracie. The event was timed, of course, but Gracie had decided the time didn’t matter. Gracie’s mother and I clutched each other as she and Boo Boo entered the arena. Both were wearing matching sparkly tiaras, I might add, and slowly but purposefully made their way around the obstacles. Boo Boo never lost momentum, albeit at about 2 miles per hour, but I was almost brought to tears watching his one ear pricked forward and the other, cocked way back, listening to Gracie’s ever encouraging words, all caution but no anxiety. The small crowd all laughed in surprise after the first obstacle, because Gracie stopped Boo Boo to a complete halt, reached into her pink Barbie fanny pack and pulled out a peppermint with much crinkling of wrapper. Boo Boo craned his head around, took it gently, chewed it thoroughly with much lip smacking, and only after he was done did Gracie “walk on” to the next obstacle. By the third obstacle, the crowd applauded every completion and laughed even harder at the halts, peppermint chewing and lip smacking. Gracie and Boo Boo completed every obstacle; there must have been ten or so of them. When I saw the time clock run out only three obstacles in, I quietly sidled up to the show organizer, whom I knew, and laughingly whispered “if you disqualify her I’ll kill you right here.” She thought for a moment and said, “don’t worry, I think the crowd would kill me first.”

    She and Boo Boo received an honorary fifth place ribbon and a standing ovation. I don’t know who was more chuffed by this, Gracie, her mother, me, or Boo Boo, who left the arena walking smartly, ribbon flapping and tiara only slightly crooked, Gracie waving modestly at the spectators. You’re spot on about horses feeling accomplishment. (Little girls, too.)

    • Terry Golson Post author

      If someone gave me the choice of Valegro or Boo Boo, I’d take the pony. Really.
      BTW, for you clicker training geeks out there – that crinkling peppermint wrapper is the equivalent of a marker signal. So, Gracie was intuitively using behavior science and positive reinforcement. But with training, I disagree with Bob Bailey (training geeks will know who I’m talking about). It’s not ALL about the “technology.” It requires a relationship and love, too, to get this sort of partnership.

  • R. Geu

    Looks like Colorado School of Mines – Good Choice!
    I grew up near there, took driving test in Golden (which was a challenge with all the narrow streets and hills, in a pickup that needed shifting.) Jefferson county is now too full of people to pull me back – was all truck farms in my day. I am now old enough to have purchased your first cookbook (1990)

    • Terry Golson Post author

      Yes! It’s Mines.
      For others wondering what this commenter is commenting on – follow me on FB and Instagram and you’ll see a photo of a sculpture of 2 burros.

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