Swimming with Horses

There are few things that equal the exhilaration of taking a horse swimming on a hot summer day. We like it, too!! The power that you experience as we surge forward, paddling strongly through the water is fun but it can be dangerous. This article will draw attention to a few safety points, so that you and your horse can enjoy the thrill of swimming this summer in a fun and relaxed manner. Maybe you will start looking for an opportunity to take your horse to the beach for a new experience? My mom takes me to the beach at Lake Hartwell once a week at least during the summer, I love it!

Going swimming with horses is nothing new, although the idea of doing it purely for fun and enjoyment is usually left to unsupervised children with their ponies (my favorite! Kids know how to have FUN!). There are numerous professional horse training facilities that swim horses for fitness and rehabilitation from injuries. The Chincoteague ponies are world-famous for their annual forced swim across the bay in Virginia. In the early part of the 20th century there was even a couple of “diving horses” that were trained to run and jump off of a platform and fall into a pool of water. But if you are like most people, you would just enjoy taking your horse for a dip after working or during a trail-ride or campout.

Swimming horses is best attempted with no entanglements (saddles, bridles, girths, reins, martingales or breast collars). Although we have all seen the movies where the heroic cowboys ride their horses across swollen rivers fully tacked, those are usually professional riggers and they still occasionally lose an animal to drowning. Tragic true stories are retold of horses ridden into water with a tie-down or martingale and drowning in only a couple of feet of water because the animal can’t get its head up. (There have been over 20 horses drowned in the Chattooga River in the last 20 years!) Find a dry spot to place your saddle and tack, perhaps on a log or low branch above the swimming area. Stay on the ground at first to encourage him to go willingly into the water. Your safest equipment will be to use a good rope halter with lead-rope, taking special care to ensure that the rope does not get tangled around the horse’s feet, head and neck, or YOU.

Set yourself up for success by waiting until you and the horse are itchy, warm and sweaty from exertion, then find a safe swimming spot. Before hand you should make sure there are no obstacles in or under the water such as trees, boulders, branches, pilings, submerged cars or other garbage. Make sure there is not a steep drop-off into deep water. Also check for deep mud – sandy or rocky bottoms are best, and a LOT of room for the horse to swim. Since a horse’s legs are so long, you may have to use a stick to probe the bottom before taking your horse into the water. Plan to get wet and muddy when you participate in this activity with your horse, particularly the first couple of times when training him to go into the water. Anticipate being satisfied with any effort on his part to go into the water, maybe not taking him to swimming depth the first few times until his confidence is gained. (Some horses are not as brave as me – I go out to swimming depth on my OWN!)

Many horses, including me, are fascinated by water, they may want to paw at the water, roll in the shallows, or even blow bubbles! Very few horses will refuse to go into water if a buddy goes in first. Go to the end of your lead-rope and let the horse look, smell, paw and convince himself that it is not going to eat him. Use care to stay out of the way of pawing hooves as he explores this new environment, don’t stand in front of the horse in case he launches himself forward, it is safer by his shoulder. If you have chosen a safe, shallow place to enter the water, with patience and time he will get his feet into the water. If you are getting your horse into the ocean, let him spend a lot of time getting used to the movement of the waves and sounds of the beach before trying to get him in the water. (I haven’t been to the ocean yet but I hope we will go this summer!)

Once the horse is in to his carpals (knees) you can start gently sponging or splashing him with water on his belly, legs, and chest. Most horses quickly realize how good that feels, and may let you splash even onto their backs. Take a cup and/or sponge and basically give the horse a bath with the lake water, taking your time to show him how good it feels. If your horse has a positive experience, it will translate to an even better attitude later on. Use the ideas of approach and retreat to teach the horse that being in the lake is not a permanent condition! You might ask him to go in deeper, then retreat to the beach, then ask him to back in or side- pass into the water. Will he circle around you as though longing through the water? Build his confidence by asking for a trot thru the water, either leading or riding.

At some point with your patience, the horse will get into deeper water and become buoyant enough that his feet will come off the bottom. If your horse is surprised at this, he may panic a bit at the new sensation of floating. Allow the horse to swim back into where he can touch bottom, praise him for the effort, allow him to rest, then try again. Try not to let him go all the way out onto the beach when he retreats, but if he does just start over again asking him to move his feet into deeper water.

Swimming horses use a trotting or pacing gait under water and are extremely powerful swimmers once they get the idea. Normally, horses breathe very loudly when swimming, probably due to the amount of pressure of the water on their lungs, and they should swim with their ears, eyes and nose above the water’s surface. Some horses will act as though they cannot swim. They may drop their bodies to the floor of the lake and then push off with their hind legs, surging up like a submarine coming out of the water. Others get a little water in their ears and start shaking their heads while swimming – making them uncoordinated in their movements. Occasionally a horse will really panic and start frantically paddling, sometimes with the head under water. You have to keep calm and encourage them back to shallow water by guiding their head with the leadrope. Once they get the hang of it, most horses will go in by themselves, even at liberty.

When the horse is comfortable with actually swimming around you, you can use the mane to support yourself and ride the horse into the deeper water. It is difficult to steer with only one rein, but steering is unimportant for having fun. Let your body float while holding onto the mane – do not pull on the rein unless it appears that the horse is confused and going towards the center of the lake! To avoid a serious kick in the face, do not be tempted to grab the tail of your horse to be pulled thru the water.

Bear in mind that swimming is one of the most aerobic activities that animals can do; a 10 minute swim is equivalent to a several mile canter! Don’t overdo it. After just a few attempts your horse will probably be breathing pretty hard, as will you. Let him catch his breath. It is supposed to be fun for both of you, perhaps come back another afternoon to let him get in shape for longer swims. It is a fun activity for all of us horses!