Yes, You Actually Can Swim with (Some) Horses!
Horses walk, trot, canter, gallop, jump, piaffe, and slide. But can they swim?
Horses may swim for a variety of reasons including rehabilitation, traveling to better food sources in the wild, and even for fun with their riders!
Equine Behavior: The Basics
Horses, in the wild, are nomads. They are always looking for better food sources, and sometimes that would involve crossing water.
Horses have a natural instinct to swim.
Purposes of Swimming
Horses swim for a variety of reasons. Some horses wade into lakes or ponds to cool off on a hot summer day. You may also see a horse swim through a river on a trail ride or in the wild.
The Chincateague ponies swim from Assateague Island to Chincoteague Island each summer as a way to control the horse population on Assateague.
You can read more about this tradition in the novel, Misty of Chincateauge, or you can visit the islands for the Pony Swim each summer!
Swim therapy is also very popular in the equine industry. It is a great way to get a horse back in shape after an injury without the extra stress of impact on their joints, tendons, and ligaments.
Equine Swimming Logistics
Horses are not naturally buoyant, which means they cannot just take a relaxing float in a lake. Their large lungs, however, do help them stay afloat.
They must always be in motion in water to swim. Since they cannot breathe underwater, they will always keep their heads above water.
Horses cannot swim under the water, but they are able to swim through varying depths on the surface! Here is a really cool video of what it looks like when a horse swims in deeper water.
While a horse can move quickly on the ground, they are not as agile and quick in the water. In fact, they only average 2.5 miles per hour in the water. Though horses are strong, due to their muscular build and leg anatomy, swimming is a very physical activity for them.
For horses doing rehabilitation or to stay in shape in training, it is recommended that horses only be in the water between 10 and 20 minutes. Of course, every horse is different.
Fun Fact: If a horse is in saltwater, they have more buoyancy due to the salt content.
Riding A Horse in the Water
If you’ve ever dreamed of cantering a horse on the beach and then wading into the ocean for a dip on horseback, I’ve got good news—swimming on horseback is possible, as long as you have the knowledge and experience to stay safe.
Can horses swim with a rider?
Horses are able to carry the weight of a rider in water, because technically, you are lighter in water and float a bit yourself.
That said, it can be extremely dangerous to ride a horse in deep water as the chance of you “falling off” and getting struck by a horse’s leg is very high. An injury of this sort carries a high risk of being knocked unconscious and drowning.
A few things to remember before going swimming with your horse:
- Can you swim? If the answer is no—do not pass go, do not collect $200, do NOT go swimming with your horse! The risk is too great.
- Make sure the water is safe—avoid blue-green algae that’s toxic, as blooms can occur in both standing and moving water.
- Make sure horses are allowed in that body of water—some places require permits or will have signs posted in regards to horses in water.
- Take it slow—never force or frighten a horse into water. Make sure your horse has a good experience.
- Never swim alone!
Frequently Asked Questions
Q: Do horses like to swim in water?
Some do! Many horses like to swim in water and also to paw at water. Other horses may even swim for the fun of it.
Q: Can horses hold their breath underwater?
No, horses cannot hold their breath underwater—they must always keep their heads above water or they risk drowning.
Q: Can horses swim faster than humans?
No, the fastest swimmer averages 5 miles an hour while a horse can only swim 2.5 miles an hour.
Q: Can horses swim with someone on their back?
Under good conditions, horses may be able to swim with someone on their back. Check out this amazing video of swimming horses in Grand Cayman.
Swimming with your horse is a great way to bond and have a new riding experience, just make sure you follow safety protocols and have a friend with you. Happy Trails, er, I mean—Seas the Day!
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