Some people have had the wonderful opportunity to go on vacation and ride horses along the beach. Others have gone to tropical islands and went swimming with the dolphins.
What about swimming with horses…? Can something that big even swim? Could they do it with someone on their back?
Some horses will go swimming with a rider, but not every horse will do this. Before attempting a swim, you should first be aware of the different horse breeds and their respective attitudes to water, and also research whether your individual horse has any previous experience.
There is a lot that should be “checked off” before you take your horse swimming and before you decide to hitch a ride. Continue reading for some things to think about before you and your horse take a dive.
Can Horses Swim?
Horses can absolutely swim. They have the ability despite lacking gills and fins to swim in the water.
It’s possible that horses instinctually know how to swim based on deeply rooted evolutionary requirements for them to be able to cross deep water to find better resources or to evade predators.
Horses being naturally large and tall (mostly), may not feel the need to swim especially if the water isn’t deep enough. If they do swim, it’s similar to trotting on land and to the untrained eye it would resemble a “doggie paddle” style.
The most famous swimming ponies are the well-known Chincoteague ponies of Chincoteague Island, Virginia.
Every year the herd swims from their year-round home on Assateague Island to Chincoteague Island. The sole purpose of this swim is to auction off foals to maintain and limit the herd size that occupies Assateague, which can run sparse if the herd over-populates.
The auction also acts as a fundraiser for the Chincoteague Volunteer Fire Company – which is responsible for maintaining the herd. When horse people think of horses swimming, they most commonly think of these ponies [Source].
Will My Horse Swim?
Growing up as a kid I had a golden retriever who didn’t seem interested in swimming despite her breed’s claim to fame as being fun water-loving dogs.
When this golden decided that she didn’t have an interest in our backyard pool we chalked it up to not having the appropriate steps for her to feel confident to come join us for a swim. So what was the logical thing to do…?
Like most crazy dog lovers, we re-did our pool to have steps to accommodate our dog. Thousands of dollars later, our dog’s aversion to the pool went unchanged.
The moral of this story..?
Just because hoses can swim, doesn’t mean they will.
Horses that are not used to seeing open water can be very alarmed. Water has a completely different look, sound, and smell than regular arena footing or grassy trails.
Some water can be very rough and some could be so still you can see your reflection in it.
Additionally water can be crystal clear so you can see right through it, and some water can be so murky that you can’t tell if it’s 1 inch deep or 1 yard deep. This can be very concerning for a horse and without proper desensitization, some horses may spook, rear, run away, or simply refuse to step their toe into this liquid boogie monster.
If this is a horse you’ve known for a while, you’re probably well aware of their previous water exposure. If this is a new horse to you, it may be worth investigating their previous encounters with water before trying to test out their sea legs.
Is Swimming With Your Horse Dangerous?
There’s a lot of factors that go into taking your horse for a swim with you on its back.
To start with, there’s always a potential risk when getting on horses – period.
If you’re taking your horse to a different environment that they are not used to and you’re not sure how they will react – that adds an extra element of the unknown.
Also if you’re swimming in an area that’s unfamiliar to you, there may be some potential safety hazards you’re not aware of.
To begin with – sometimes it’s hard to see what lies underneath the surface of the water.
Are there very jagged rocks that your horse could hit their legs on or slip and fall onto – with you on their back ?!
Is the water deep or shallow and does it gradually become deeper or does it suddenly drop off?
Lastly, you should consider the quality of the water. Is it salt water or fresh water? There are certain harmful bacteria that could potentially be fatal to your horse if they are even just exposed to enough of it on their skin – so it’s important to do your research! [Source]
Should I Ride My Horse into the Water – Or Get On When They are Already In?
This is a question I thought about a lot. I think there are both pros and cons to each option.
Being on foot may help your horse with their confidence if they are wary about getting into the water. If they see you moving into the water, they may be more inclined to trust you and take a step in. Bribing with treats can also help.
The downside to being on the ground is that if your horse becomes frightened they may kick out or suddenly charge forward, sideways, backwards and you could be caught in the crossfire.
It may be easy to avoid being stepped on when you’re on solid land, but it may be harder to move fast and get out of the way if you’re already in the water.
If you were able to lead your horse into the water, now comes the challenge of getting back on.
I would be amazed if there was a perfect rock edge to use as a mounting block which means you’re either climbing up your horse or sacrificing your saddle.
If your horse isn’t used to you ground mounting – this could also cause your horse to become uneasy and decide that they’d rather be back on land and head off in the opposite direction. If you use a saddle… you’d better hope it’s made of something besides leather.
I think both riding them into the water and mounting in the water has its pros and cons and it may come down to your horse’s general temperament and their experience with water which will guide your decision making.
Riding Your Horse As They Are Swimming
Eventually, your day will go one of two ways – your horse will get in the water – or it won’t. The next thing you need to figure out is the logistics of staying on your horse while they are swimming.
To begin with, leather and water do NOT mix.
Some people choose to go completely bareback and invest in a good synthetic bridle – or go for a halter and lead rope.
This solely depends on your horse and your comfort level. If you don’t have the cash laying around to invest in a good synthetic saddle – you may want to consider a bareback pad that can be thrown in the wash.
You can even buy a bareback saddle and throw some synthetic or old stirrup leathers and irons on it for added support.
If you choose to ride on top of your horse as they are swimming – it’s important to give them the flexibility and freedom to move their entire body.
Swimming for horses is very energy consuming and they use a lot of their muscles simultaneously. It’s important to give your horse the full range and use of its neck, barrel, and legs to navigate the water.
You can absolutely guide them in one direction or the other with your reins, but allow them to go at their own speed and turn back to land when they are ready.
They could be tired, cold or have simply had enough. You want to make this a positive and enjoyable experience and part of that is giving them an escape if they feel they need to be back on land.
Forcing them to stay in the water longer than they want could be dangerous leading to fatigue and decreased ability to swim and it will also give them that thought to think about next time your try to have them swim again.
Will I Be Riding or Floating?
If your horse is in deep enough water that they are swimming – chances are you will be half floating and half riding your horse through the water.
This sounds like somewhat of a dream-like experience, but it could be slightly unsettling if you’re not used to it.
Having a bareback pad or saddle to sit in may give you a better sense of security or that you’re “with” your horse.
If you’re opting for bareback – you may consider a martingale loop or simply a lead rope tied around your horse’s neck to give yourself something to hold onto and to keep you centered in the area of your horse’s back you want to stay in.
Holding onto your horse with your legs may be tough in the water – so you may want a backup strap.
If your horse’s mane is long enough, that can also be a good thing to hang onto as long as you don’t impede your horse from holding up its head and neck to navigate in the water.
Care After Swimming
So let’s just say you did it – you made it into the water. Congrats! Now what?
If you took your tack off your horse to go swimming – try to have your horse as dry as possible before saddling up again.
Tack rubbing on a wet horse can be uncomfortable for your horse, lead to skin irritation, and your tack may not fit the same with a slick horse – leading to an unsteady ride. If you wore your tack into the water, it may also be worthwhile to take everything off and allow your equipment and your horse to dry off a bit before you head back home.
If this is your horse’s first time swimming or 100th time swimming, it is still a lot of work and you may want to give your horse a few minutes to catch their breath and relax before heading home.
If it’s a long way back home, you may consider giving them a break by hand walking them home, or just make sure they’ve had adequate time to rest.
Once you get home you should give your horse a good scrub down with shampoo and water to rinse them off. This is regardless if you were in salt water or fresh water.
This will wash off anything that could irritate their skin and it will be a good opportunity if you’d like to add liniment as a way to relax and soothe their muscles after a strenuous activity.
This is also a good time to check your horse over for any bumps or cuts they could have sustained in the water from things below the surface you could not see.
Lastly, take care of your equipment! Wash and clean everything you used and make sure that everything is completely dry before placing it back into storage or a tack locker or trunk.
To Swim or Not to Swim
Swimming with your horse can be a wonderful experience and is an awesome way to cool off in the summer or add something different to your horse’s normal routine [Source].
Before you take a dive into swimming with your horse, you should do plenty of research on the place you plan to swim, the supplies you may need and the safest and easiest route to get to the water.
Always let someone know where you’re going, and never swim alone!
Not every horse will love swimming, and after all is said and done you may want to borrow a seasoned sea horse and leave your own horse on dry land. It may also not be a bad idea to have your horse go swimming for the first time with another horse who is experienced with the water and will happily lead by example.
As they say – you can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make them swim! Good luck and stay safe!
Chincoteague island, VA. Welcome to the Chincoteague Island, Virginia Official Tourist Web Site. (n.d.). https://www.chincoteague.com/.
Staff, K. E. R. (2017, December 6). Avoid risks to horses from blue-green algae. Kentucky Equine Research. https://ker.com/equinews/avoid-risks-horses-blue-green-algae/.
Staff, K. E. R. (2019, April 22). Swimming for horses: Yea or whoa? Kentucky Equine Research. https://ker.com/equinews/swimming-for-horses-yea-or-whoa/.