The horse approaches the water cautiously. He puts this nose down and investigates, slowing wading into the water. You urge the horse to move forward into deeper water. It is a beautiful day for a swim. But do horses like to swim? Read on to learn more.
How Do Horses Swim?
Swimming comes naturally to horses. However, not all horses are crazy about swimming. Horses will move their legs in a pattern similar to trotting when they are swimming. Holding their breath is not an option for horses. Therefore, they will keep their heads and nostrils above the water. A horse mustn't get water in their ears. In our article Should I Cover My Horse's Ears, we discuss the anatomy of the ear and why it is crucial not to let any water get into the ear canal.
Are Horses Afraid of Water?
Horses don't see the world in the same way humans do. You can read more in this article HORSE VISION: A BREAKDOWN OF HOW HORSES SEE THE WORLD. Therefore, water can be very intimidating for horses. Most horses can get over this fear if they have some basic ground training, and you are patient. The horse needs to trust you won't put them in danger. We have several articles on developing a relationship based on trust, leadership, and love.
Ground Training Before Water
There is some basic ground training that needs to be accomplished before you introduce your horse to water. This training is necessary to keep you safe.
- Moving away from pressure – If you swim alongside your horse, you will want your horse to move away from you, staying out of your bubble. This is a safety precaution against accidentally getting kicked as the horse is swimming. If the horse moves too close to you, use your hand on his shoulder to push him away.
- Responding to the reins and leg pressure – If you are riding your horse while it swims, it will need to respond quickly to neck reining. You want to leave his head alone as much as possible. Remember, they need their head up above the water to breathe. The water pressure may or may not interfere with leg cues. It will depend on how responsive your horse is to yielding to leg pressure.
- Understand Whoa – As your horse gains solid ground, it might bolt forward. If you are not prepared for it, and your horse does not respond to you saying whoa, it could mean problems.
Introducing a Horse to Water
Take baby steps when introducing a horse to water. Check your surroundings for dangerous objects, then start in shallow water. Let the horse walk to the edge and sniff around. Once the horse relaxes, ask for a couple of steps forward into the water. If the horse bolts, then start over. After the horse relaxes, take a couple more steps. Once, I had a horse start into the water, then bolt onto a beaver dam (yes, a beaver dam) to get out. It was a memorable experience. With some patience and persistence, she was crossing creeks and swimming with no problem by the end of the day.
It is common for horses to paw the water. There are several ideas as to why, but no real scientific reasons. If your horse starts to paw, try to get them to move a step or two because pawing is often followed by lying down. This is not good for you or your tack.
The first time a horse reaches water deep enough to swim, it might panic. It can be advantageous to have an experienced horse lead the other horse. Ride the experienced horse and have the other horse on a long line. Make sure there is plenty of room between the horses to be safe.
Swimming with Your Horse
There are two ways to swim with a horse: on their back or in the water with them.
Riding on a horse's back is harder for the horse. Good balance is needed if you are riding bareback. You do not want to fall off next to the horse and get caught up in his legs. Riding with a saddle is easier for the rider but requires work to take care of your tack. Leather and water do not get along very well. Water can cause irreparable damage to the leather. Don't forget pads and girths will need to be cleaned.
Swimming beside the horse and letting it pull you is easier for the horse but more dangerous for you. You will want to hold onto the horse's mane by the withers. Kick your feet and try to stay at the top of the water while your horse pulls you along. Be ready to move quickly when the horse reaches a depth they can touch. The horse is likely to speed up and possibly lurch out of the water.
Why Do Horses Swim?
There are multiple reasons horses might swim. Wild horses might have to travel across creeks and rivers to get to the best grazing. Just like a doctor might order water therapy for people, a veterinarian might order an injured horse water therapy.
Then, of course, there are the Chincoteague ponies of Assateague Island. These ponies were made famous by the Misty of Chincoteague series of novels written by Marguerite Henry. According to the Chincoteague Chamber of Commerce website, this herd of wild horses is rounded up and swam across the Assateague Channel annually. Here is what they have to say.
For 94 years now, we have held our Pony Penning and Carnival to the delight of visitors from around the world. At "slack tide" on the last Wednesday before the last Thursday of every July, Chincoteague's "Saltwater Cowboys" herd the wild Chincoteague ponies from Assateague Island, across the Assateague Channel, to neighboring Chincoteague Island. After the swim, the ponies "parade" to the carnival grounds where the foals are auctioned on the last Thursday of July. On Friday, the adult ponies will make the return swim to Assateague Island where they will live in the wild for another year.
Swimming comes naturally to horses. But they are like humans, some like to swim and others don't. Not wanting to swim originates in fear and can be overcome with proper training and patience. Swimming is an excellent way to rehabilitate horses with leg injuries. Do horses like to swim? The answer is, it depends on the horse.