Last Updated on April 17, 2023
If you were to talk about animals that can swim, horses would not be the first creature to come to mind! But can horses swim, and are they, good swimmers?
You might be surprised to find out that horses can swim, although they do find this activity very strenuous. Let’s find out all you need to know about horse swimming, including what to do if you want to try swimming with your horse!
Can Horses Swim?
You might look at your horse or pony and wonder what would happen if it went into the water. These huge, heavy animals would surely sink into deep water, right? But maybe we’ve got this wrong – are horses, good swimmers, after all?
You’ll be amazed to hear that horses are naturally able to swim! This comes from their ancestry as wild horses. When living wild and free, horses would need to cross rivers and lakes to access grazing land and flee from predators.
How Do Horses Swim?
Horses can wade through pretty deep water, and they won’t start to swim until their hooves no longer touch the bottom. Horses swim by paddling all four legs, with the body submerged just below the level of the water. They cannot breathe underwater, so keep the neck extended upwards and the head above the water.
From above the water, all you will see is the head of the horse, held parallel to the surface of the water. The body of the horse may be visible just underneath the water. Under this, the legs will be paddling away, but this will not be visible unless you are underwater.
Not many of us would ever get the opportunity to see a horse swimming from under the water.
Are horses good swimmers?
Horses are surprisingly good at swimming, although they are not particularly fast. They can swim across large expanses of water at a steady pace, maintaining forward motion with the paddling action of their legs.
Due to their large lung capacity, horses stay afloat easily in water. They can maintain a reasonable swimming pace in calm water.
However, horses are not able to swim or dive underwater. They may also struggle in strong currents or rough water and can become fatigued easily.
Do horses like swimming?
Horses all have the natural instinctive ability to swim, but most horses will not swim unless they have no other choice. Unlike humans, swimming is not a fun recreational activity for horses!
Swimming is very strenuous for horses, and they will not expend such high levels of energy and physical effort unless they really need to. So, you are unlikely to find your horse or pony doing a few laps of your pond just because they feel like it!
Having said that, some horses will wade into the water for fun, splashing and even rolling in the shallower areas. This appears to be a fun activity for horses, particularly on a hot day.
Do horses like water?
Teaching a horse about water is an important part of their education. Horses are naturally wary of water, whether it is water in a pond or stream, or a water hose used to wash them down after a hot ride.
Enabling a young horse to explore and learn about water will reap rewards when you come across watery obstacles later in your ridden career. For example, many cross-country jumping courses include a water element, or you may need to cross a stream or shallow lake on a trail ride.
Making sure your horse is comfortable with being hosed or sponged down with water will also help you keep your mount cool and clean after a long ride. It is important to slowly introduce younger horses to being bathed, to help them learn that it is a pleasant experience. Never force a horse to submit to being washed if they are frightened, as you will only make the situation worse.
When horses learn to enjoy playing with water, they can have a lot of fun with it! Many horses enjoy playing with their water troughs or a hosepipe, splashing the water and blowing bubbles through their nostrils!
Is Swimming Good for Horses?
Swimming is very good for horses, provide it is carried out correctly. There are two reasons why horse owners and trainers might take their horse swimming:
Hydrotherapy is a form of physical therapy that helps horses recover from injury. This is because swimming is a low-impact form of exercise, which places minimal strain on the horse’s joints, muscles, and tendons.
Hydrotherapy is very effective in treating horses who have suffered from musculoskeletal injuries. Horses float easily in water, so swimming allows the body weight to be supported whilst the horse carries out physical exercise. It also means that the legs and hooves will be protected from the impact of hard ground.
There are two ways in which hydrotherapy is carried out in horses. The first of these is in a circular pool, with the horse controlled from the ground by handlers with long lines. The second is a water treadmill in an enclosed tank, in which the horse will walk forward steadily.
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Using hydrotherapy to rehabilitate a horse after injury should only be carried out under the supervision of a qualified professional. Your veterinarian may be able to recommend a hydrotherapy center in your area if your horse would benefit from hydrotherapy treatment.
Swimming is a very physically demanding form of exercise for horses. It increases muscle development and stamina, as well as improves the flexibility of the limbs.
Horses are also less likely to become injured when swimming. Running on hard ground can cause long-term concussion injuries to the limbs and hooves. Swimming greatly reduces this risk as it is a lower-impact workout.
Because swimming exercise is so intense, the horse must be at a certain level of fitness before swimming training is initiated. Otherwise, the horse may sustain an injury or become fatigued.
It has been estimated that a swim of a third of a mile is the same level of exercise as a one-mile gallop! It is important to bear this in mind if you want to swim with your horse and start with very short swims initially.
How to Swim With a Horse
If you want to start swimming exercises with your horse, the best place to begin is at a local equine training pool. Here you will have the assistance of qualified professionals to help you get your horse started. Hiring a session at a training pool is a great option if the high equine swimming pool cost means that building one of your own is an unlikely prospect.
Once you are more confident with how to swim with a horse, you may want to try swimming in open water such as rivers, lakes, and the sea. Many horses enjoy this exercise, but you must start slowly to avoid them panicking in deep water. Make sure your horse is confident with walking through shallow water before you attempt to take them swimming in deeper water.
Remember that horses have to make strong, vigorous movements with their limbs to stay afloat when swimming, so keep yourself in a safe position where you will not be injured. A long lunge line will enable you to keep your horse safely restrained from a distance while they learn to swim for the first time.
Can You Ride a Horse When It is Swimming?
If you want to try open water swimming with your horse, the best way to stay in control is by riding your horse. This is not a suitable exercise for a novice or inexperienced rider, as it can be very dangerous.
To swim safely, the horse needs the freedom to move. This means you need to trust your horse and avoid hindering his movements at all. To do this, you will need to ride him without a saddle, as this will restrict his ability to swim.
When riding a horse that is swimming, your horse will need to extend his head upwards out of the water. Keep a loose rein to allow him to do this. If you need something to keep you stable on the horse’s back, use a loose neck strap.
If you should come into difficulties whilst swimming with your horse, you must keep away from the horse’s limbs. Remember how hard they need to paddle to stay afloat – a blow from a hoof could be very dangerous! Swim a good distance in front of your horse, and if you have hold of the reins use them to guide him ashore.
Never attempt a hazardous riding activity such as this alone, particularly the first few times you do it. Make sure to wear all your standard protective equipment, such as a hard hat and body protector, in case of accidental blows from your horse’s hooves.
So, as we’ve learned, horses are strong swimmers who can float easily in water. They can maintain a steady pace in calm water, and most horses have good natural swimming abilities. However, horses cannot swim underwater or dive, and they may struggle to swim in strong currents or rough water.
We’d love to hear about your experiences – have you ever taken your horse swimming? Perhaps you’ve got some questions about swimming with horses? Add a comment below and we’ll get back to you!
For how long can a horse swim?
Horses can swim for up to ten minutes at a time if they are at peak levels of fitness. Swimming takes a lot of energy for horses – a brief three-minute swim can be the equivalent of a three-mile gallop! It is very important to pay attention and be aware of your horse’s reactions and responses, so you can recognize when he is starting to tire and get him out of the water before he starts to get into difficulties.
Can horses swim in the ocean?
Horses can swim in the ocean when the water is calm and there are no big waves. They are very competent swimmers thanks to their big lungs, which enable them to naturally float and provide sufficient oxygen for this intense physical activity.
The instinct for swimming comes naturally to horses. Once in deep water, they automatically perform a paddle-like action with all four limbs that mimics a trotting action. However, swimming will tire the horse out pretty fast so it’s best to not push them to swim too far away from the shore.
Can horses drown in water?
Horses can’t hold their breath underwater like we can and they get into difficulties very quickly if their head gets submerged in the water. In calm water, the horse swims with its head and neck extended, holding the nostrils above the surface of the water.
If water enters the horse’s nostrils, this can cause panic and breathing difficulties. Therefore, it’s not a good idea to take your horse out for a swim in the ocean or lake if it is windy and there are big waves. This can be very dangerous for your horse, and the risk of drowning in these kind of conditions is quite high.
Can you ride a horse when it is swimming?
Yes, you can ride a horse while it swims, but this is a high-risk activity and you need to be very cautious. Swimming with a horse is a very exciting experience, but you need to be extremely careful to not restrict your horse’s movements in any way.
When swimming with a horse, it is common to ride without a saddle, as this can hinder the horse’s movement. If you need something to help you balance, use a neckstrap for extra support. Allow the horse to have a loose rein to enable them to stretch their head and neck, and sit calmly and quietly in place to avoid unbalancing the horse.
Is swimming hard for horses?
Swimming is incredibly hard work for horses and will tire the horse out very quickly. Horses can only swim for a short period of time, and the time a horse can spend swimming strongly depends on the individual animal, its fitness levels, and how well-suited it is to swimming. Some horses have a swimming program that includes the pool as part of their fitness routine. However, just a few minutes of swimming each day is sufficient for these horses.
If your horse has been swimming regularly for some time and feels comfortable in the water, you can begin increasing the length and frequency of his swimming sessions. As with any exercise program, it is important to gradually increase the duration and intensity of swimming sessions.
Kate Chalmers is a qualified veterinary nurse who has specialized in horse care for the vast majority of her career. She has been around horses since she was a child, starting out riding ponies and helping out at the local stables before going on to college to study Horse Care & Management. She has backed and trained many horses during her lifetime and competed in various equestrian sports at different levels.
After Kate qualified as a veterinary nurse, she provided nursing care to the patients of a large equine veterinary hospital for many years. She then went on to teach horse care and veterinary nursing at one of the top colleges in the country. This has led to an in-depth knowledge of the care needs of horses and their various medical ailments, as well as a life-long passion for educating horse owners on how to provide the best possible care for their four-legged friends.
Kate Chalmers BSc (Hons) CVN, Dip AVN (Equine) Dip HE CVN EVN VN A1 PGCE