Are Horses Good at Swimming and Can We Swim With Them?

horse swimming
Image Credit: Willyam Bradberry

Swimming with a horse – now that’s something you probably don’t think about every day. Still, horses are large and imposing animals and not the kind that we’re used to seeing about in rivers or lakes. The thought of a horse swimming just seems out of its element somewhat. Are horses good at swimming, though, and can we actually swim alongside them if we want to?

Horses have a natural ability to swim, which means they don’t need any training to splash around in the water. They advance through the ripples by performing a movement similar to a trot. Some of them will enjoy swimming more than others. It all depends on the horse’s personality, if it swam before, and if its handler is nearby to provide reassurance and encouragement.

Remember that horses are not in their element while swimming, and some might feel a bit anxious about it. As long as the water is calm and not too deep, the horse should be able to swim from point A to point B without any issues. Actually, swimming represents a very good aerobic exercise for horses. We’ll touch on this a bit later.

How do horses swim?

A horse that sits stationary in a body of water will perform a paddling movement in order to maintain its position and balance. When moving forward, the horse will switch to a trotting movement in order to advance. If you’ve ever seen a horse swimming, you’ll have noticed that it will keep its head above water at all times. This is for two reasons:

The anatomy of a horse’s ear does not have a secondary drainage channel that allows water to escape. This means that if a horse gets water in its ears, it will cause quite a bit of discomfort. It might even lead to an ear infection in some cases.

Secondly, horses can’t hold their breath as we can. If a horse’s head goes underwater, there’s a very real risk of drowning. To make sure that your horse swims properly, give it time to adjust to the water. Try swimming with your horse in smaller bodies of water, for shorter periods of time before moving on to larger pools or lakes.

A horse that is used to swimming will perform much better than a horse that never swam before and it suddenly finds itself in the water. A panicking horse might duck its head underwater and drown quickly.

How long can horses swim for?

Horses are known for their stamina, but that’s on the ground where they feel comfortable and are familiar with the rules. How far can a horse swim depends largely on its training and fitness level, but it’s not uncommon to see a horse swim for around 10 minutes without too many issues.

It’s worth noting that even then, a 10-minute swim is roughly the equivalent of several miles on the ground at a canter. One horse, in particular, proved that they can spend much more time in the water, though. An Australian racehorse named Rebel Rover swam 6.8 miles or 11km off the coast of Brisbane back in 2016. Apparently, the horse just decided to ditch its rider at some point and just went on into the waves.

It might have swum even further, but the authorities managed to apprehend him and bring him back on solid ground. The water police needed around 90 minutes to perform this rescue operation. Apparently, Rebel Rover was a bit tired when he was caught. Keep in mind that this is a racehorse we’re talking about. A draft horse would not be able to swim for this long, not even close.

Can horses swim in the ocean or sea?

Horses can swim in the ocean, but doing so can prove considerably more dangerous than doing it in a small lake or large swimming pool. If you do decide to take your horse swimming in the ocean or sea, make sure to bring other riders along, so that you may provide assistance to each other if something goes wrong.

There are quite a few things that can go wrong, too. As long as you take precautions and are well-informed beforehand, you should be fine. Here’s what you need to keep in mind before going on a swim with your horse in the ocean:

  • Make sure that the water is safe to swim in. That there are no jellyfish, large fish, crabs, or harmful algae that might disturb your swimming sessions. Horses spook easily, and even the smallest pinch might cause them to panic and try to bolt.
  • Find out if you’re allowed to swim with your horse in that area. Swimming with horses is not permitted in all areas.
  • If there’s a strong current or particularly large waves, perhaps it’s best to postpone your swimming sessions.
  • You don’t want to disturb other beachgoers. Swim with your horse in a quiet, secluded area if you can.
  • Find out how deep the water is, and how suddenly it drops.
  • Hard and uneven ocean floors can damage your horse’s legs. Make sure that the surface is comfortable for swimming.

Do horses enjoy swimming?

We now know that horses can swim if they have to. They have the ability, but do they actually enjoy doing it? A quick comparison that just came to mind is this: horses can also jump over obstacles, but if they can help it, they will simply go around them in nature. Is it the same with swimming, or do they actually enjoy the exercise to some extent?

Some horses don’t mind the water, and they will swim happily for a few minutes before going back on land. Others don’t even like getting wet at all, which makes swimming much more challenging. You can trick your horse into ignoring the wetness by giving him treats, but this distraction won’t last forever.

There are a few good reasons why horses wouldn’t like to swim at all. There’s the danger of drowning, sure, and the unfamiliarity of it all as well. They also can’t perceive depth very well, which makes swimming scary and intimidating for horses. Moreover, if the horse has had a bad experience while in the water (maybe it was attacked), then it will definitely be harder to get him to swim again.

So to answer your question quickly, some horses don’t mind swimming, and some do. It’s not a particularly comfortable thing for them to do, nor is it very relaxing in the long run. Then again, it’s not natural for them to be ridden and pull carts either, and they cope just fine.

Is swimming a good aerobic exercise for equines?

Not only is it a good aerobic exercise, but swimming can also help injured horses recover quicker. Since the horse doesn’t have to carry its own weight, there’s less strain on the body. Some exercises were devised to tone specific muscle groups – aiding recovery. Furthermore, a horse that swims regularly will develop a stronger heart and lungs.

Many racehorses go through hydrotherapy. This type of therapy allows them to strengthen their muscles and tendons while expanding the horse’s natural range of motion. Fitness levels and stamina levels increase significantly in horses that swim on a regular basis.

Can you ride your horse while it’s swimming?

Riding a horse while it’s swimming can be challenging, but it’s definitely doable. As long as you don’t overstay your welcome in the water and you pay close attention to your horse’s stamina levels, you should be fine.

I would recommend doing this in shallow waters at first, just to see how well your horse copes with the extra weight on its back while swimming. Have the horse swim for short periods, on-and-off, and make sure to stay out of its way as it does its best to stay afloat. Ideally, you shouldn’t use a girdle, and you should just hold on to the horse’s mane as it swims around.

Don’t get in the way of its head movements, and don’t panic even if things seem to be going in the wrong direction. Horses pick up on your state of mind, and they become influenced by it.

I would advise riding your horse while swimming only if you already have a tight bond with that specific horse.

To summarize.

Horses can swim – some are better at it than others, but they all have a natural ability to move around in a body of water. Some horses enjoy swimming, and others are spooked by it. It’s always important to know your horse, its limitations, and its ability to adapt to new experiences before you introduce it to swimming.

You can ride a horse while it’s swimming, just not for too long. Horses that swim often end up in very good shape, and they perform better in racing or other competitions.

Have you ever taken your horse swimming? If so, let me know everything about its reaction and performance!