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Can Horses Swim? Discovering Equine Swimming Secrets

Last updated: December 4, 2023

By: Miles HenryFact Checked

On a recent trail ride through swamps and bayous, a question from my grandson arose as we encountered some deep water: “Can horses swim?” I assured him horses can swim, and many swim very well.

Similar to humans, horse’s ability to swim varies; some excel naturally, while others may find it challenging. The key to their swimming lies in their anatomy – particularly their large lungs, which act as natural flotation aids.

While swimming can be an enjoyable part of trail riding, it also serves therapeutic purposes for horses. In this article, we’ll explore the various aspects of equine swimming, delving into the reasons behind their ability to swim and the benefits it offers.

Picture of a rider on a horse swimming.
Horse swimming with a rider.

Practical Advice for Swimming with Horses

Introducing your horse to swimming requires patience and a step-by-step approach. Here’s how to get started:

  1. Start with Shallow Water: Begin in a shallow area where your horse can comfortably stand. This helps them get used to the sensation of water around their legs and body.
  2. Gradual Immersion: Slowly lead your horse into deeper water over several sessions. Encourage them, but never force them to go beyond their comfort zone.
  3. Use a Familiar Location: If possible, start in a familiar body of water where your horse feels safe. This familiarity can reduce anxiety associated with new environments.
  4. Consistency is Key: Regular, short sessions are more effective than occasional long ones. Consistency helps build confidence and familiarity with water.
  5. Swimming Training Techniques:
    • Lead from the Ground: Initially, lead your horse from the ground alongside the water. This provides them with a sense of security.
    • Riding into Water: Once comfortable, you can ride them into shallow water, gradually increasing depth as they become more confident.
    • Encouragement and Rewards: Use positive reinforcement. Praise and treats can be effective motivators for your horse.

Potential Dangers for Horses When Swimming

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.

horse swim

Insights and Unique Behaviors When Horses Swim

Swimming with horses isn’t just an activity; it’s an experience filled with unique moments and personal connections. Here are a couple of anecdotes that highlight the special bond and memorable experiences shared between horses and their riders in the water.

When I started writing this article, I was taken back to the first time I introduced my horse, Bud, to the water. There was a noticeable initial hesitation from him as we approached the water’s edge. However, as we ventured deeper, a transformation occurred.

Bud began to relax, finding his stride in the new environment. His movements in the water became more fluid and confident, a stark contrast to his initial trepidation. Even though I couldn’t see his face, I felt the change in his demeanor. He carried himself with ease and was clearly enjoying himself.

Another time, I took Bella, a spirited mare, into the water. Bella’s approach to swimming was markedly different from Bud’s. She embraced the water with enthusiasm, splashing around and thoroughly enjoying the coolness on a hot summer day. Her infectious joy was a reminder to me that for horses, swimming can be more than just exercise. It’s an opportunity for them to experience the pleasure of the moment.

Observations from Watching Horses Swim

Observing horses in the water can reveal fascinating aspects of their behavior and physical capabilities:

  1. Adaptability: One striking observation is the adaptability of horses in water. Even those initially apprehensive can learn to enjoy swimming. It’s a testament to their trust in their handlers and their innate ability to overcome challenges.
  2. Communication: Horses communicate their comfort or discomfort quite clearly in the water. Ears perked forward usually indicate curiosity and enjoyment, while pinned ears can signal unease. Understanding these subtle cues is crucial for a safe and enjoyable swimming experience.
  3. Physical Grace: In the water, the powerful and graceful movements of horses are accentuated. Their strong limbs create smooth, rhythmic motions, showcasing their muscular build and agility in a different element.
  4. Relaxation Response: Many horses exhibit a noticeable relaxation response after swimming. The water not only provides a physical workout but also seems to have a calming effect, reducing stress and promoting mental well-being.
Picture of a horse in aqua therapy, this answers the question, can horses swim.
Horse Swimming

Why Do Horses Swim?

Horses, much like many other animals, are naturally capable of swimming, and they do so for a variety of reasons. In the wild, swimming is often a survival skill, enabling horses to cross rivers or lakes in search of food or new grazing areas. This instinctual behavior underscores their adaptability and has been crucial in their evolution and migration, such as the ancient horses in North America crossing the Bering Strait.

Beyond survival, swimming offers significant health benefits for horses. It’s a low-impact exercise that’s gentle on their joints, making it particularly beneficial for horses recovering from injuries or those in need of improved fitness and conditioning.

The physical benefits include enhanced muscle development, increased joint range of motion, and improved endurance. Regular aqua-therapy sessions can lead to a stronger, more balanced horse, with the added advantage of being a low-risk exercise compared to traditional ground training.

Moreover, swimming can be a pleasurable activity for horses, especially in warmer weather, allowing them to cool off while exercising. Many trainers incorporate swimming into their horses’ routines, not just for the physical benefits but also for the enjoyment it brings to the animals.

In summary, horses swim for a range of reasons, from essential survival skills in the wild to modern-day health and conditioning benefits, highlighting their versatility and strength as a species.

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


Rehabilitation and Therapeutic Uses of Equine Swimming

Swimming is not just a recreational activity for horses; it’s a powerful tool for rehabilitation and therapy. Here’s how swimming aids in the rehabilitation process:

  1. Low-Impact Exercise: Swimming provides a low-impact workout, which is crucial for horses recovering from injuries, especially those involving joints, tendons, or muscles. The buoyancy of water reduces stress on the body, allowing for exercise without the harsh impact of ground work.
  2. Improved Circulation and Muscle Tone: The resistance of water during swimming helps in building muscle strength and tone without straining injured parts. It also promotes better blood circulation, aiding in faster recovery.
  3. Enhanced Flexibility and Range of Motion: The natural swimming motion encourages a full range of joint movement, improving flexibility and reducing the risk of stiffness or adhesions in injured areas.
  4. Reduced Swelling and Inflammation: The hydrostatic pressure of water can help reduce swelling and inflammation in injured limbs, a key component in the rehabilitation process.
  5. Psychological Benefits: Swimming can be a stress-relieving activity for horses, helping to maintain a positive mental state during the often challenging rehabilitation period.

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.

Case Studies and Success Stories

Several case studies and success stories highlight the effectiveness of swim therapy in horse rehabilitation:

  1. Case Study: Post-Surgery Recovery
    A study mentioned by Equine Performance Innovative Center detailed the recovery of a horse post-surgery using swim therapy. The horse, which had undergone surgery for a tendon injury, showed significant improvement in muscle tone and joint flexibility after a six-week swimming program.
  2. Success Story: Overcoming Lameness
    In a notable case, a dressage horse suffering from chronic lameness underwent a swim therapy program. The horse, initially struggling with basic movements, regained significant mobility and strength, as documented in a report by Equine Veterinary Education.
  3. Racehorse Rehabilitation
    A racehorse, after sustaining tendon damage in its leg, was subjected to a controlled swimming regimen as part of its rehabilitation. The horse not only recovered but returned to racing, performing at its previous levels, as reported in a study by the American Association of Equine Practitioners (Link to the study).

These cases underscore the potential of swimming as a rehabilitative therapy for horses, offering a blend of physical and psychological benefits. By incorporating swim therapy into rehabilitation programs, horses can experience a more holistic and effective recovery process.

Picture of horses in a field
Horses in a field

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.

Below is a YouTube video showing horses swimming.

Learning to ride and swim

How Long and How Far Can a Horse Swim?

In exploring the swimming capabilities of horses, it’s important to recognize that their performance in water is influenced by several factors. The breed of the horse, for instance, plays a significant role. Some breeds, like Arabians and Mustangs, are naturally adept swimmers, known for their endurance and ability to cover longer distances in water.

On the other hand, the physical condition of the horse is equally crucial. A healthy and well-conditioned horse can sustain swimming for longer periods, typically managing about 30 minutes or more before showing signs of fatigue.

The swimming environment also impacts their ability to swim effectively. Horses swimming in colder waters or against strong currents may tire more quickly than those in calmer, warmer waters. Generally, horses can swim for about half a mile before needing to rest, but this distance can vary based on their conditioning and the specific breed’s characteristics.

Observations from training centers, like the one at Folsom, where thoroughbreds undergo swimming sessions, further illustrate these points. Trainers there note the importance of individualized attention to each horse’s limits and capabilities, emphasizing that while horses are natural swimmers, their endurance and distance in water can vary greatly. This understanding is crucial for anyone considering swimming as part of their horse’s exercise or rehabilitation program.

Latest Research and Developments

Staying updated with the latest research and findings is crucial for providing accurate and current information. Here are some recent developments in the field of equine swimming:

  1. Study on Cardiovascular Benefits
    A recent study conducted by Louisiana State University Agricultural Center focused on the cardiovascular benefits of swimming for racehorses. The research found that swimming can significantly improve heart health in horses, enhancing their performance and endurance.
  2. Research on Rehabilitation Techniques
    The National Library of Medicine published a paper detailing advanced rehabilitation techniques involving swimming. This study highlights the accelerated recovery in horses with tendon injuries when swimming is included in their rehabilitation program.
  3. Impact of Swimming on Young Horses
    A study titled Principles and Application of Hydrotherapy for Equine Athletes explored the impact of swimming on the musculoskeletal development of young horses. It concluded that controlled swimming sessions contribute positively to the development of bone density and muscle strength in young equines.
horse swimming

The Famous Swimming Horses

Among the various examples of equine swimming, the Chincoteague pony swim stands out as a particularly notable event. Held annually since 1925, this event attracts thousands of visitors who come to witness feral horses swimming across the Assateague Channel. The purpose of the swim is both practical and cultural, serving to control the pony population as per federal regulations and as a cherished tradition.

The Chincoteague pony swim is more than just a spectacle; it’s a crucial management tool for the herd, which is limited to 150 horses under federal guidelines. After swimming across the channel, some of the ponies are auctioned to manage the herd size and support the local fire department, while the rest return to Assateague Island.

These small feral horses, often referred to as Chincoteague ponies, are believed to be descendants of Spanish horses from shipwrecks dating back to the 1500s. Standing between 12 and 13 hands tall, they are a registered breed, known for their hardiness and swimming ability.

Today, the event not only serves a practical purpose but also celebrates the heritage and resilience of these remarkable animals, drawing a significant crowd and highlighting a unique aspect of equine swimming.

Conclusion: Can Horses Swim?

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.