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Can Horses Swim? Discovering Equine Swimming Secrets

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On a recent trail ride, we took our horses through some swamps and bayous. The water’s increasing depth worried my grandson, and he asked if the water keeps getting deeper, can our horses swim.

Horses can swim, and a number are quite proficient. But just like humans, some are better than others, and then there are a few that can’t get the hang of it. But it’s not too difficult for horses to swim because they have natural floatation devices inside their bodies, their huge lungs.

Swimming horses can be fun on a trail ride, but it also has therapeutic benefits. There is a lot to learn about why and how horses swim.

Why do horses swim?

You might be surprised to learn that horses are naturally capable of swimming, much like many other animals. There are several reasons why a horse might swim, and I’ll share a few of them with you.

First, horses may swim as a means of finding food or crossing bodies of water in their natural habitats. In the wild, horses often need to travel across rivers or lakes, and swimming is a necessary skill for their survival.

Second, swimming can be incredibly beneficial for a horse’s health. Just like humans, horses can experience physical and mental health benefits from regular exercise, and swimming is a low-impact form of exercise that’s easy on their joints. This makes it especially helpful for horses recovering from injuries or those looking to improve their overall fitness and conditioning.

Picture of a horse in aqua therapy, this answers the question, can horses swim.
Horse swimming

Lastly, swimming can also be a fun and enjoyable activity for horses, particularly when the weather is hot. Many horse owners and trainers encourage their horses to swim as part of their regular exercise routine, allowing the horses to cool off while also building muscle and improving their cardiovascular health.

Horses swim for a variety of reasons, ranging from survival in the wild to health benefits and enjoyment. It’s a fascinating aspect of equine behavior that highlights their adaptability and strength.

Wild horses swam for survival.

Horses have existed for thousands of years because of their ability to adapt and travel. When food sources deplete in one region, they move to other, more fertile areas.

Ancient horses in North America migrated across the Bering Strait when forage became scarce. Their competency in moving from place to place was an essential factor in the survival of the equine species, and the horse’s ability to cross waterways was vital to their journey.

But modern horses no longer need to swim to survive, so why would one swim?

Swimming is used for conditioning horses.

Aqua-therapy is an excellent low-impact exercise for humans and horses. If done regularly and in combination with groundwork, most horses show marked improvement in athletic performance.

Exercising in water increases muscle development and improves joint range of motion and endurance. Once a horse becomes accustomed to an aqua-therapy plan, most relax in the water and actually seem to enjoy the session.

Because aqua-therapy is low impact, horses are less likely to get injured than if they trained traditionally over the ground. There is more than just low impact workout that attracts trainers to work their horses in the water.

Working a horse in water exercises muscles in a new way and hits them from different angles, increasing muscle mass, flexibility, and endurance. It’s a whole-body workout that results in a stronger, more explosive, and balanced horse.

However, like any good training program, each horse’s fitness level needs to be evaluated before starting a regime. Typically trainers that condition horses in the water begin slowly and build the horses up to three swim sessions per week.

As the animal’s fitness increases, so do the duration and length of the intervals. It’s estimated that working a horse in a pool a third of a mile is equivalent to the exertion required to gallop one-mile gallop.

Here is a good YouTube video showing horses swimming to rehab.


The Role of Water and Swimming in Rehabilitating Horses with Injuries

Next to one of the barns at the horse racing training center is a long narrow trench filled with water and has a guidewire running from end to end. We passed it many times, but today was the first time my grandson asked me what it was.

The trench is a narrow rehab pool used for equine hydrotherapy. Hydrotherapy conditions a horse after injury or surgery, or sometimes it’s used to exercise horses that need low-impact training.

Aquatic therapy is especially useful for horses prone to foot injuries or has sustained an injury to their lower legs. Most pools used for equine hydrotherapy have a gradual sloping entry.

Horses walk into the water and are hooked to a guideline to ensure their heads stay above the water and encourage them to move. Once horses become accustomed to the facility, they typically enjoy the experience.

Hydrotherapy pools can be circular or straight; trainers also use underwater treadmills, saltwater spas, and whirlpools to help a horse rehab from an injury.

Underwater treadmills

Horse rehabilitation therapy uses advanced engineering to provide safe and effective treatment for our equine friends. One such modality is the underwater treadmill. An underwater treadmill can be above-ground or inground.

Inground models are typically designed to be used with multiple horses at the same time. They are handy for horses that have injured a limb or other weight-bearing structures. Because horses are semi-buoyant, they can walk the treadmill without bearing the full weight of their body.

The above-ground underwater treadmills adjust the depth of water for each horse based on the amount of pressure they need to walk and remain pain-free. These units also provide various temperatures and water flow for increased resistance and better muscle development.

The downside to above-ground units is that they typically hold less water and are used for single horses.

Aqua-therapy isn’t for all horses.

Horses with respiratory disease, surgical incisions, draining wounds, and joint inflammation are some of the conditions that disqualify an animal from aqua-therapy.

Submersion in water increases hydrostatic pressure and decreases lung volume, causing problems for horses suffering from respiratory disease. Before embarking on a hydro-therapy routine for your horse, always consult a vet.

Some horses enjoy swimming.

Growing up, we often rode our horses to a pond to spend the day. When we would get near, my horse would pick up speed and lunge in the water, and swim to the opposite side.

He enjoyed being in the water immensely, and over the years, we’ve owned other horses that similarly took to the water. To my daughter’s displeasure, she rode such a horse.

Each time we rode near a bayou, her horse coaxed her to get in the water. My daughter wanted to stay dry but always relented because her companion got so much pleasure from paddling around in the deep cool water.

Picture of a rider on a horse swimming.
Rider and horse swimming

Anatomy of a Swimming Horse

Horses have some fascinating physical adaptations that enable them to swim effectively. One of the most notable features is their powerful limbs. Their strong muscles and flexible joints allow horses to move their legs in a coordinated, paddling motion that propels them through the water.

As I mentioned earlier, their legs provide the primary source of propulsion. Horses use a combination of their front and hind legs in a motion similar to dog paddling. Their front legs reach out and pull water towards their bodies while their hind legs push water away, generating forward movement.

The horse’s tail is also an essential part of the swimming process. The tail acts as a rudder, helping the horse steer and maintain balance in the water. By moving the tail from side to side, the horse can make turns and adjust its direction as needed.

Finally, let’s discuss buoyancy and breathing mechanisms in horses. Horses have a unique ability to regulate their buoyancy while swimming. Their large lungs and strong ribcage allow them to take in more air, which helps them stay afloat.

Horses can also control their buoyancy by adjusting the amount of air in their lungs. To swim higher in the water, a horse will inhale more air, and to swim lower, it will exhale some of the air. As for breathing, horses have an impressive ability to keep their nostrils above the water’s surface while swimming.

Their long necks help with this, as they can stretch their heads upward to ensure their nostrils remain clear of the water. This adaptation allows them to breathe comfortably and efficiently, even when fully immersed in water.

How long and how far can a horse swim?

While horses are generally good swimmers, there are several factors that can affect how long and how far they can swim. For example, the breed of horse can play a role in their swimming ability, with some breeds being better swimmers than others.

Additionally, the condition of the horse also matters. A horse that is healthy and in good shape will be able to swim for longer than a horse that is unhealthy or out of shape. Finally, the environment also has an impact on how long and how far a horse can swim.

If the water is cold or the current is strong, it will be more difficult for the horse to swim. On average, a horse can swim for about 30 minutes before tiring. However, if a horse is fit and in good condition, it can swim for substantially longer.

As for distance, horses can usually swim for about half a mile before needing a rest. However, once again, this varies depending on the horse’s conditioning and breed. Endurance breeds, such as the Arabian and the Mustang, are particularly good swimmers and could potentially swim much farther than half a mile.

So, while there is no definitive answer to how long and how far a horse can swim, it is safe to say that most horses can swim for at least 30 minutes and half a mile. We watched a Thoroughbred work in a pool for about thirty minutes at the Folsom training center. Afterward, we spoke to the horse’s trainer and asked him if this was the typical length of time a horse spends swimming.

He conveyed that this particular horse has been training in the pool for over three months and was in good condition. He further stated that each horse is different, so you need to watch for fatigue signs when they are in the water.

In open water, there are many factors to consider that make estimating the length of time a horse can swim extremely difficult. For example, horses float pretty well, so they don’t spend a lot of energy keeping their bodies on top of the water; the energy is spent propelling forward.

Below is a YouTube video showing horses swimming.

Learning to ride and swim

Teaching Horses to Swim

If you’re planning to take your horse swimming, there are a few things to keep in mind to ensure a smooth ride. Here are some tips:

  1. Start Slow: If it’s your horse’s first time swimming, it’s important to take things slow. Begin by introducing your horse to the water gradually, allowing them to get comfortable with the sensation of the water on their legs and body. Start with shallow water and work your way deeper as your horse becomes more confident.
  2. Use Proper Equipment: Make sure that your horse is wearing a properly fitted swimming aid, such as a life jacket or floatation device. This will help to keep them buoyant and prevent them from getting tired too quickly. Additionally, a well-fitted bridle and reins will help you maintain control over your horse as they swim.
  3. Stay Balanced: When your horse starts to swim, it’s important to maintain a balanced position in the saddle. Keep your weight centered over your horse’s center of gravity to help them stay balanced in the water. Try to keep your hands low and your elbows relaxed, as this will help you stay in sync with your horse’s movements.
  4. Encourage and Praise: As your horse becomes more confident in the water, be sure to offer plenty of encouragement and praise. This will help to build your horse’s confidence and create positive associations with swimming. If your horse becomes hesitant or anxious, take a break and allow them to rest before continuing.
  5. Be Aware of Hazards: When swimming with your horse, it’s important to be aware of potential hazards in the water, such as rocks, currents, or debris. Always scout the area before you swim and avoid any areas that may pose a danger to you or your horse.

By following these tips, you and your horse can enjoy a safe and enjoyable ride in the water. Swimming can be a wonderful way to bond with your equine companion and provide a refreshing change of pace from your regular riding routine. So, grab your swimsuit, saddle up, and take the plunge.

Potential Dangers of Swimming for Horses

While swimming can be a beneficial activity for horses, there are potential dangers we should be aware of. One risk is the possibility of a horse becoming fatigued or disoriented while swimming, which could lead to drowning. Additionally, horses may be at risk of injury from sharp rocks, debris, or other hazards in the water.

It’s crucial to monitor water quality and temperature when allowing horses to swim. Poor water quality, such as water contaminated with harmful bacteria or algae, can lead to illness or skin irritations. Always ensure the swimming area is clean and free of hazards.

Temperature is another important factor to consider. Swimming in water that is too cold can cause muscle cramping or hypothermia, while water that is too warm may lead to overheating or dehydration. As a general rule, it’s best to avoid swimming in temperatures below 60°F (15°C) or above 85°F (29°C).

To ensure a safe swimming experience for horses, follow these steps:

  1. Gradual Introduction: Introduce the horse to water gradually, allowing them to become familiar and comfortable with the environment.
  2. Check for Hazards: Before allowing a horse to swim, carefully inspect the area for any potential hazards, such as sharp rocks, debris, or sudden drop-offs.
  3. Use a Handler or Trainer: When teaching a horse to swim, it’s important to have an experienced handler or trainer present who can provide guidance and assistance as needed.
  4. Use Proper Equipment: Use a well-fitted halter or bridle with a lead rope or lunge line, allowing the handler to maintain control of the horse while swimming.
  5. Monitor Fatigue: Keep a close eye on the horse’s energy levels, and do not push them to swim for extended periods if they show signs of fatigue or distress.
  6. Post-Swim Care: After swimming, thoroughly rinse the horse with fresh water to remove any debris or contaminants and ensure they are adequately cooled down and dried off.

By following these precautions, we can help ensure that swimming remains a safe and enjoyable activity for horses while minimizing the risk of accidents and injuries.

Famous swimming horses

The annual Chincoteague pony swim is probably the most famous horse swim event in the world. Since it began in 1925, visitors travel from all over to see feral horses make a brief swim across the Assateague Channel.

The swim is organized to control the animals’ population because the herd can not exceed 150 horses per their federal permit. In 1947 the horses were moved to Assateague, and the Chincoteague National Wildlife Refuge was established.

The government has restrictions on the number of wild horses that can graze at the Federal Refuge. So once the ponies arrive, some horses are auctioned to reduce their population and raise money for the fire department. The ponies that don’t sell swim back to Assateague Island.

Although the event is called the Chincoteague pony swim, the animals are small feral horses. They are a registered breed and typically stand between 12 and 13 hands tall. They are believed to be descendants of the Spanish Conquistadors that shipwrecked in the 1500s.

Today the event draws over 40,000 visitors and includes approximately 150 horses.


So, there you have it! Who knew horses could swim, right? Turns out, they’re pretty darn good at it, too. Whether you’re looking for a new way to bond with your equine friend or need to rehab an injury, equine swimming could be just the ticket. And, with the right equipment, training, and encouragement, your horse can become a confident and capable swimmer.

Just remember to take it slow and steady, use proper gear, and be mindful of any hazards in the water. And don’t forget to offer plenty of praise and encouragement along the way. Before you know it, you and your horse will be splashing and paddling like pros.

So, why not give it a try? It might just be the refreshing change of pace you and your horse have been looking for. And who knows, you might even discover a new passion for equine aquatics!


Can a horse swim with a rider?

Yes, a horse can swim with a rider. However, it’s important to use proper equipment, start slow, and stay balanced in the saddle. With proper training and conditioning, horses can become confident and capable swimmers with riders.

Do horses like to swim?

Some horses enjoy swimming, while others may not be as fond of it. Like humans, horses have their own individual preferences and personalities. It’s important to introduce horses to swimming gradually and in a positive way and to always be mindful of their comfort and safety in the water.

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