All horses are born with a natural instinct to swim which its believed evolved from a time when, living in the wild, they needed to be able to cross deep water in order to either escape danger or reach new grazing, similar to zebras today its part of the natural movement of the herd. This behavior is evident today in the annual Chincoteague Pony Swim which sees the Chincoteague swim the short stretch from Assateague Island (where they live) to Chincoteague Island (where the foals are sold at auction.
If you go to most beaches today though chances are you won’t see horses swimming but that doesn’t mean to say that they can’t, or shouldn’t. In fact, swimming with horses is becoming more and more popular these days, not just for the medical benefits it can have but also because it’s just darn good fun!
Do horses like to swim?
Just like us, all horses are different and while some like swimming there are also plenty that don’t, after all, we can all eat Brussels sprouts but that doesn’t mean to say that we all like them (personally I hate them, but that’s just me!).
There’s often a reason why horses don’t like to swim and if you can identify that you can, in most cases you can help your horse to overcome his dislike of water.
- Limited depth perception – Like all predated animals, horse have their eyes on the side of the head but this means that they’re not able to judge distances. This can make going into the water a scary experience but if you’re patient with your horse and gradually introduce him to the water there’s no reason why he won’t grow in confidence.
- Bad experience – If your horse has had a bad experience around water (in particular open water) in the past this can make him very wary of swimming. Like horses that are scared of going into the water, you can help your horse to overcome this by being patient and giving him time to learn that the water isn’t going to hurt him.
- Don’t like getting wet – Believe it or not, there are some horses that simply just don’t like getting wet! This can be harder to overcome but you can help to distract your horse from the fact that he’s wet by giving him lots of treats – believe me, horses will do anything for a mint or cinnamon cookie.
How do horses swim?
When in the water horses will paddle to keep their balance as well as their stability but when it comes to actually swimming they move by ‘trotting’ through the water, moving their legs in a similar fashion to how they would do if trotting on dry land. They will instinctively keep their head above the water in order to breathe but you have to be careful they don’t get any water in their ears because, due to the anatomy of the ear, there’s no lower passage for the water to drain away which means the horse is likely to suffer discomfort and possibly even ear infections.
One thing that horses can’t do though is hold their breath, this means that if their head goes under the water they can be in real danger of drowning. This is one of the reasons why it’s so important to get a horse used to (and happy with) the water beforehand, otherwise they could drop their head below the water in a panic.
How long can horses swim for?
The resistance of the water can make swimming quite tiring for horses which is why they shouldn’t swim for too long at any one time. After all, the effort they exert during a 10 minute swim can be equivalent to cantering for several miles.
That said though they can swim for much longer as Rebel Rover demonstrated back in 2016. The Australian racehorse decided to unseat his rider before swimming 6.8 miles (11km) off of the Brisbane coast. It took a team of water police and volunteers around 90 minutes to ‘rescue’ the five-year-old who was a little tired. Apparently, before that event, he’d only had a few short 5 to 10 minute swimming sessions.
Is swimming good exercise for horses?
Any doctor or vet will tell you how good swimming is for all living creatures and horses are by no means many different. The natural buoyancy of water means that the horse’s body weight is supported and that the muscles and tendons are able to move freely without any restrictions. This is why hydrotherapy is widely used as part of the training regime of many top competition horses.
Swimming is an excellent form of aerobic and cardiovascular exercise for horses and as such can be used to improve the fitness of a horse as well as for rehabilitation.
- Fitness – Swimming is often used to improve and maintain a horse’s level of fitness, endurance and stamina but it can also be used to help increase a horse’s flexibility and stride. The resistance of the water means that the horse has to work harder (albeit without any physical opposition) which in turn helps to increase the capacity of the heart and lungs as well as the tone of the horse’s muscles.
- Rehabilitation – Many veterinarians will recommend hydrotherapy for leg and tendon injuries as well as for muscle damage. The reason that this sort of treatment is so effective is that the horse isn’t putting any unnecessary strain on the injury but at the same time is exercising it which will aid the healing and recovery process.
Then, of course, they’re the fun aspect of swimming which shouldn’t be underestimated, just because its fun it doesn’t mean to say that it can’t help or benefit horses. As well as being a good bonding exercise for the two of you it will help to improve your horse’s confidence but, as discussed above, will also help your horse’s fitness.
Can you ride your horse while it’s swimming?
With modern technology being as sophisticated as it is today it’s often difficult to tell the difference between reality and CGI in movies which is why, despite seeing people riding horses in deep water in the movies, we still wonder if it’s really possible. The simple answer to that question though is yes you absolutely can ride your horse while he’s swimming, I’d even go so far as to say, if you can, you should definitely do so. I would add though that it’s important you don’t get in your horse’s way at all and that you’re not hindering his movements. This is especially true of his head, he needs to be able to move it freely so that he can lift it above the waves.
Most horses will roll after they come out of the water so if your horse starts to paw at the ground you know its time to jump off quickly.
Can horses swim in the open ocean?
There’s no reason why horses can’t swim in the open sea or ocean but it can be dangerous if you’re not careful and aren’t prepared. If you can’t swim then you shouldn’t take your horse into the water, you’re asking for trouble if you do, instead consider learning to swim first. It’s also advisable to go with other riders too, horses are herd animals so will be happier entering the water with other horses but also if something does happen you’ll be glad of the help that the other riders can offer.
If you decide to ride your horse in the ocean then its important you consider the following:
- How deep is the water? Are you able to get to shallower water quickly if you need to?
- Does it get deep slowly or is there a sudden drop? If the ground suddenly dips away your horse may struggle at first to find his footing.
- What’s the ocean bed made of? Is it sand, rocks, coral, etc? Harder and more uneven the ground may hurt your horse’s legs.
- Are there any obstacles in the water? While motorboats can obviously unnerve horses even something as benign as driftwood can appear scary to a horse.
- What are the waves like? If the waves are too big don’t enter the water because your horse may not be able to keep his head above them.
- What’s the current like? While horses can easily swim they can also tire quickly and if the current is strong their energy levels will drop far quicker. If there’s a strong current then you shouldn’t go any further than knee height (the horse’s knee not the rider’s).
- Will you disturb other people? The ocean and beach are for everybody to enjoy so make sure you’re not disturbing other swimmers or bathers.
- What are the rules of the area? Not all areas allow horses (or any other animal for that matter) in the water or on the shoreline so check before you set off, after all, you don’t want to turn up somewhere only to find you’re not allowed to swim there.
- Is the water safe? There have been a number of cases of organisms, such as cyanobacteria (or blue-green algae as its also known), that can be very toxic to people and animals.
- Do you need to be particularly careful of anything? Unless your horse is swimming in a specialist pool there will always be things you need to look out for, such as jellyfish and turtles, or even leeches if you’re swimming in still water.
When it comes to tack you should remove the saddle before you enter the water, this will not only prevent it from being damaged by the saltwater but will also allow your horse to move without restriction. If you can you should ride in a hackamore (or another bitless bridle) so that you’re not preventing your horse from lifting his head. Under no circumstances should you ride with a tie-down or martingale, these will stop your horse from lifting his head and have sadly been the cause of horses drowning.
Most importantly though don’t overdo it, swimming can be tiring for horses so don’t stay in the water for too long.