What is a ditch, anyway? At eventing's entry levels, it's no more than three feet wide and 12 inches deep. It doesn't need to be huge, however, to pose an enormous psychological barrier for you and your horse.
In this exercise, you'll trot and canter an "imitation ditch" (nothing more than a swale, or low spot, in the terrain) until you have the feeling of staying balanced across it, and until your horse understands that he must cross it, come what may.
As you trot and canter this unmarked low spot, you'll start coping with the unexpected, and you'll safely and reassuringly introduce your horse to the idea that he can cross narrow depressions in the terrain.
Find a natural, gently sloping swale: about two to three feet wide and no more than six to nine inches deep in the middle, with level, solid footing on both sides. Walk through the swale until your horse is relaxed about it. Then approach it in a brisk, forward, posting trot, your hands low on the withers. Encourage him to keep moving forward: Leave his mouth alone and do nothing with the reins unless he changes direction. Let your secure position and light contact tell him, "I won't make you go faster because I'm happy with the pace I put you in a split second ago."
A stride or two before your horse arrives at the edge of the slope, give your eye something to focus on at or beyond the far edge of the swale--and be ready for any response. He may trot through (which is what you want), slam on the brakes or leap 20 feet in the air. If he sucks back, close your leg. If he sucks back and almost comes to a halt, give a tap of your stick behind your leg. If you know he might lug off in the direction of your weak leg, carry your stick on that side and use it as a reinforcement. And if he keeps trying to slide back toward your trailer and home, keep your stick on the trailer side and close that leg strongly.
However your horse gets through the swale this first time, let him trot or canter straight for several strides after. (Either gait is fine--what's important is that he keep coming forward while staying relaxed.) Then quietly halt him, turn around and trot the swale again. He may leap over it a second time, but he should settle down and trot it calmly after that. Trot the swale at least three times each way, or until you both feel confident, relaxed and balanced.
Then check (and reinforce) your position by trotting back and forth a couple of times in two-point. Next, pick up a balanced show-ring canter (no galloping, please), and come to the swale in a secure, light three-point position, your breeches just resting on the saddle. Fix your eyes on the far side, stay off his mouth and keep your leg on; he may canter down into the depression and right back out again, or he may take it in stride. Allow him to make that decision; your focus needs to be on keeping yourself calm and balanced. When he's gone over or through the swale two or three timer, staying balanced and relaxed, you're ready to move on to a ditch that requires a little jumping effort.
Photos by Mandy Lorraine
Excerpted from "Dealing With Ditches" in the September 1994 issue of Practical Horseman magazine.