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Can Horses Swim?

Horses are great swimmers. Some horses even love playing in the water. However, other horses find the water unsettling, especially if they can’t see the bottom. If your horse is a bit scared of the water, don’t worry, there are a few ways you can help reduce their anxiety.

In this article, you will discover:

Horses Can Swim

Horses can swim very well. Because horses have large lungs that fill with oxygen, they naturally float in deep water. But they don’t just float. Horses that find themselves in water too deep to walk in will instinctively start swimming.

When a horse starts to swim, it will begin to paddle in a motion similar to a trot. It is not necessarily fast (no more than 2.5 mph). But it is effective and allows horses to survive quite well in the water if needed. Swimming is sometimes used as a tool to help injured horses recover and rehabilitate muscles. 1

Horses swim well enough that you can even ride them while they swim. However, if you ride them while swimming, keep a loose grip on the reins so they can move their head freely. You also need to ensure you don’t get in the way of their movements. For example, a saddle may restrict their back movement, so you may want to remove it before going for a swim.

Remember, even though a horse can swim well, it is hard work. So, keep an eye on your horse and give them enough breaks from swimming to ensure they don’t become exhausted and injure themselves.

Many Horse Owners Want Their Horses To Be Able To Swim

The main reason owners like their horses to be able to swim is because swimming is great exercise. When a horse swims, they use many muscles that help build strength. It also alleviates a lot of the pressure on their joints. Because it is easier on a horse’s joints, water therapy is great for horses with leg injuries. It allows the horse to use their injured leg without the risk of further injury.

Why Are Some Horses Afraid of the Water

There are several reasons that your horse may not like getting into the water.

  1. Horses have poor depth perception, which means that they can’t always tell how deep the water is
  2. If the water is dark or muddy, they may not like that they can’t see if there is danger below the surface
  3. They may have had a bad experience in the past and developed a fear of water
  4. They don’t like getting wet. Just like people, horses have things they do and don’t like. For example, some people hate going to the beach because they don’t like to get their hair wet. Horses are the same, and some just don’t like the feel of being wet.
Wild Horse crossing the Salt River by swimming in Arizona
Wild horses, like this one photographed in Arizona, are often seen swimming when food scarcity prompts the herd to move from one area to another.

How Can You Help Your Horse Overcome Their Fear of Water?

In most cases, giving them a very slow introduction to water is best. However, if you choose to (re)introduce your horse to water, you need to:

  • Make sure you use a loose grip on the reins so that they can move their head.
  • Don’t force them to get into the water.
  • Let them stop and get comfortable before asking them to continue if they take two or three steps in and don’t want to go further.
  • Stay calm. If you get angry or frustrated with your horse for not getting in the water, your horse will feel your tension and become more scared of entering the water. Avoid taking a hot horse near water, as they might be more unpredictable.
  •  Don’t make them stay in the water if they get spooked. If your horse feels like they cannot escape, they will be more unwilling to enter the water in the future.
  • If you have a friend with a horse that loves to swim, have them come over and swim with you and your horse. Your horse may be more comfortable entering the water if they see another horse having fun.

Remember that different bodies of water can evoke different levels of fear for your horse. For example, the pond up the road may have crystal clear water that is more inviting than one with dark water. Your horse will tell you if they are scared, so always make sure you are listening.

Final Thoughts on Horses Swimming

Horses are capable swimmers, and it can be a lot of fun to see them enjoy the water. However, if you haven’t seen your horse swim before, remember that they may find the experience scary. So, take it slow and make sure that your horse has as much fun as you!

Research sources used for this article:

  1. Rattenhuber, S., Benz, H., Gajewski, Z., & Carstanjen, B. (2012). Swim training as therapy of neurogenic induced unilateral shoulder instability in three horsesPferdeheilkunde28(6), 665-7. []

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