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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 the horses swim?
Horses can swim, and a number are quite proficient. But just like humans, some are better than others, and then there 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, 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?
Of course, the apparent reason horses swim is to cross to the other side of a waterway. Wild horses migrated vast continents to sustain themselves, and sometimes they had cross water.
Horses swam to survive.
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, improved 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 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 fitness level needs to be evaluated before starting a training regime. Typically trainers that condition horses in 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.
Horses swim to rehab after an injury.
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 hooked to a guideline to ensure their heads above water and encourage them to move. Once horses become accustomed to the facility, they typically enjoy the experience.
Hydro-therapy pools can be circular or straight; trainers also use underwater treadmills, saltwater spas, and whirlpools to help a horse rehab from an injury.
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, 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 paddling around in the deep cool water.
How long and how far can a horse swim?
We watched a horse work in a pool for about thirty minutes in the racing barn’s narrow pool. Afterward, we spoke to the trainer and asked him if this was the typical length of time a horse spends swimming.
He informed us that this particular horse has been training in the pool for over three months and was in good condition. 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.
A horse in calm water moving slowly can swim for an extended period. But one swimming against a current will tire much sooner and travel a shorter distance.
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.
Horses can swim and float. Aqua-therapy is useful for conditioning horses and rehabbing after an injury. And finally most horses enjoy being in the water.
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