04 May Can Horses Swim? Complete Guide
All You Need to Know About Horses Swimming
Since horses are such large animals with legs built for running rather than swimming, you may be wondering whether or not they would make good swimmers. If you have a horse, you may be researching whether or not it’s a good idea to bring your horse along for a swim. In this article, I’ll share all the information I know about whether horses can swim or not.
Can horses swim? Like most other animals, swimming comes naturally to a horse. Even if they have never been in deep water before, they will be able to competently swim once their hooves no longer touch the ground. Horses swim similarly to dogs in that they make doggie-paddle motions with their legs. Having large lungs also contributes to keeping horses afloat while they swim.
As you can see, your horse shouldn’t have any problem if you decide to take them for a swim! However, you should always exercise caution and never exert your horse too much when swimming, as this can lead to drowning. To learn more about how horses swim, keep reading!
How Do Horses Swim?
As such graceful animals on land, you may find it hard to picture a horse gracefully swimming in water; nonetheless, horses are quite competent swimmers. There are a few physical aspects that enable them to swim well, the first being their large lungs. One horse lung can hold 14.5 gallons (55 L) of air. On land, a horse’s large lungs keep oxygen flowing through the body even when the horse is running fast at long distances. In the water, these large lungs act as a floatation device to keep the horse from sinking.
Another important feature of the horse that enables them to swim well is their long strong legs. Horses will kick their legs through the water to propel themselves forward, much like a dog would do with the doggie paddle. When it comes to swimming, the legs do a lot of work!
When a horse swims, the only part of the horse you’ll see is the horse’s head. In deep water, the horse’s body will be completely underwater while its head sits right on top of the surface so the horse can continue to breathe and see and be alert. If you’ve never seen a horse swim before, it’s actually quite cute!
How Long Can Horses Swim For?
Swimming is hard work for horses that will quickly tire them out. Many intensive training programs will have their horses swim in pools to help them build and retain muscle; these programs only swim the horses for a few minutes at a time. That being said, the time a horse is able to swim depends on the horse and how in-shape and capable in the water they are.
Horses can swim for 5 – 10 each session. When I was young, I went to Chincoteague Island off of the Delmarva Peninsula to see the cowboys swim the wild ponies across the channel. The swim took only 3 minutes, but the ponies were exhausted afterward. With all that said, it’s important to be aware of your horse’s behavior to gauge when they are starting to tire. Swimming is strenuous for horses; a 3 minutes swim can be the equivalent of a 3-mile gallop on land.
Precautions to Take When Swimming With Your Horse:
While swimming with your horse can be great fun, there is always a level of risk involved. For this reason, it’s important to take the proper precautions to ensure the safety of you and your horse.
Gradually Introduce Your Horse to Swimming
While swimming comes as an instinct to many horses, there are a few where it just doesn’t click. In all my years of working with horses, I’ve only seen one horse that could not, or would not, figure out how to swim. This was a Tennessee Walking Horse named Rocky. My friend took him out into a pond and as soon as he hit the deep water, he immediately rolled over and started to drown. My friend had to drag him back to shore by the bridle. *facepalm.
After that experience, I will always caution people to gradually introduce their horse to swimming just so they can help them understand the concept. First, take your horse into deep water where they can still touch the bottom. The horse will have the security of the ground beneath them, but could also try and push off and float through the water if they wanted. If the horse is comfortable with that, then take them a little deeper for just a short period of time.
Maybe you have a horse that won’t even step in a puddle. If this is the case, you’ll need to desensitize them to water before you can take them swimming. To learn how to do this, check out my article Getting a Horse Used to Water: Beginner’s Guide.
Float Next to Your Horse Rather Than Trying to Stay on Their Backs As They Swim
When you’re swimming in deep water, it can be difficult to keep your head above the surface if you have extra weight pushing you down; this goes for horses as well. Having a rider on their backs when they are expected to swim can make swimming much more hazardous for horses. While some may be able to stay afloat just fine, other horses may struggle with the weight on their backs.
For this reason, it’s always safer to dismount and float next to your horse as your horse swims. This will remove the extra weight from their backs and allow them to have the freedom they need to properly maneuver themselves in the water. You can grab on to the horse’s mane as you float and they’ll drag you alongside them!
Be sure to swim next to your horse rather than behind or in front of it as you could be accidentally kicked by the horse’s legs as they try to swim.
Never Swim Out Too Far From Shore With Your Horse
While most horses have a high level of stamina and endurance compared to humans, it’s never a good idea to swim too far from shore with your horse. Swimming can quickly tire out anyone, especially an animal who hasn’t ever been introduced to swimming before. While your horse may seem confident and strong going away from shore, remember that you’ll need to swim the same distance back to get to the safety of the beach.
As soon as they hit deep water, most horses will start swimming but naturally circle back to find the shallow water again. Allowing your horse to do this a few times will help them learn to find where the shallow water is and where their feet can touch. This will give the horse a place to focus on if they are looking for shallow water.
Take Off Riding Equipment Before Swimming With Your Horse
Have you ever swam with a full set of clothes on? If so, then you probably know how bogged down the clothes made you feel in the water. It was more difficult to move and to stay afloat. This is one of the reasons I like to take off any tack or riding equipment before taking my horse in deep water. I want swimming to be as easy as it can for them without the constraints of the weight of tack.
Another reason for untacking your horse before going for a swim is to keep your leather riding equipment free from damage. Drenching a saddle in water will easily cause damage to the leather, causing it to dry out, warp, and crack. To me, saddles are too expensive to be risking every time I take my horse for a swim!
How to Notice If Your Horse is Getting Tired of Swimming
Some horses will tire out more quickly than others when it comes to swimming. For this reason, it’s vital that you are able to recognize signs of exhaustion in your horse so that they don’t over-exert themselves or get stuck out in deep water. If your horse is breathing hard, it’s a good idea to go back to shore and take a break.
If a horse’s eyes are wide and they look particularly stressed as they swim, you should call it quits for the day. You don’t want to make your horse keep swimming if they are getting stressed out. If your horse is continuously trying to turn back towards shallow water, this may be a sign that they aren’t comfortable in the deeper water. These are all things to be aware of when swimming with your horse.
Swimming is a fun alternative way to have fun with your horse rather than riding! If you’re looking for more fun things to do with your horse, check out my article 35 Fun Things to Do With Your Horse (Other Than Riding.)
P.S. Save this article to your “Fun Horse Ideas” board!