How to Get Over Ditches (Literally & Figuratively)

Don’t let a little hole in the ground ruin your day. Lila Gendal shares some tips for successfully navigating this common cross-country obstacle.

Top: Lila and Skybreaker jumping a ditch.

From Lila:

Many event riders would agree that ditches can cause a lot of problems regardless of their shape and form: open ditches, coffins, ditch and walls, trakehners and more. Some horses never have “ditch problems” while others need to be convinced that there are NOT trolls living in them or otherwise find another more suitable career–because at some point all event horses have to jump ditches. How do we introduce ditches to our horses, or get our horses over their ditch fears? Here are some tips to consider:


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1)      Start when they’re young.

Of course an older horse can learn to jump ditches, but introducing ditches at an early age helps tremendously. Just like a child can learn to speak several languages, a horse can learn a lot when they are young as well. Keep things simple. Keep things calm. Don’t be in a hurry and they will eventually catch on.

2)      Stay back.

One of the worst things you can do as a rider when schooling a ditch is lean forward or otherwise freak out because you know a ditch is coming. If you are worried about the ditch, your horse is going to be worried. Sometimes riders can make their horses concerned about ditches because they had difficulties in the past with other horses. When coming to a ditch, think shoulders back, heels down and eyes up. Don’t focus on the giant hole in the ground. Focus on something like a tree, or a hill, or something up and out in the distance.

and another ditch

…And another ditch

3)      If at first you don’t succeed…

If you have a horse that is deathly afraid of a ditch and is young or inexperienced, try getting off and having two people as your wings with lunge whips as encouragement. You lead your horse over the ditch with the reins over their head and have people behind you clucking and “driving” your horse with a whip. Eventually your horse will learn that everything is OK and nothing scary will happen to them. This doesn’t 100% guarantee that your horse will go, but it certainly might help!

4)      Don’t make mountains out of molehills.

Have you ever heard an event rider lament, “My horse is ‘ditchy'” or “My horse ALWAYS stops at ditches.” Sometimes this is true and sometimes it isn’t. For instance, I am currently competing a horse that stops at ditches sometimes. Sometimes he goes and sometimes he is alarmed. I try very hard to NOT say that this particular horse is “ditchy” mainly because by saying that you are deciding in your head that your horse has ditch problems. A better thing to say might be: Sometimes my horse stops at ditches, instead of My horse always stops at ditches. The latter is setting you up for failure, so be positive!

valonia skipping over a ditch at THF

Valonia skipping over a ditch at Tamarack Hill Farm

Every horse is different, as we all know. Some horses may never get over ditches, but many can learn to get over them–and their fear of them.


About the Author

My name is Lila Gendal and I am 27 years old. I am from Vermont and have been riding horses since I was 6 years old. I have been eventing since I was 10. I have been riding and training with Denny Emerson for the last 7 years. My goal is to compete at the upper levels someday. I currently have a 2005 Holsteiner mare, “Valonia” (Contester X Parlona), who is currently going training level, and I am riding one of Denny Emerson’s horses, a 2005 Selle Luxemburg gelding, “Beaulieu’s Cool Skybreaker” (Beaulieu’s Coolman X Une Beaute by Heartbreaker) who will be moving up to training soon! When I am not on a horse or in the barn I am likely working in my office on what I like to call Equine Media… or social media for equestrians and equestrian websites.

V aug jump school!

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