Can horses swim? Yes! But sometimes the answer isn’t quite as simple as that. Similar to humans, some horses are better swimmers than others, and some have anxiety in the water, also like humans. Many equestrians dream of swimming with their horse or want to use it as a workout and with a little preparation, this is possible.
Swimming is extolled as a great natural workout because it’s easy on the joints, exercises the full body, keeps the heart rate up, and builds endurance. Horses receive the same benefits from swimming that humans do, and in recent years, more equestrians at the highest levels of the sport have started using it as a training regimen.
Can Horses Swim and Why
History and the movies have led us to believe that yes, horses can swim. They are right. If you watched The Black Stallion, Misty of Chincoteague, Wild Hearts Can’t Be Broken, or heard about horses swimming to land from a shipwreck, you probably already knew the answer to the question, can horses swim?
In fact, one bucket list vacation for many people is to go to Chincoteague’s Annual Pony Swim. This is when the Chincoteague ponies are herded up on Assateague Island and swim across the bay. The excess ponies are sold, to ensure there is enough food and space for those on the island. The herd that remains swims back after their vet checks and younger ponies are sold. 2023 is the 97th year the swim, made famous by the Misty of Chincoteague book and movie, has occurred. Thousands of people attend each year.
But let’s dig a little deeper into the question of whether can horses swim because real answers are rarely as simple as a yes or no. Horses can swim but often require some training. Some horses do panic or become irritated by water in their ears (this can also disorient them). In worst-case scenarios, the horse can either injure itself or their rider or even drown. Horses that get scared will often try and climb on or over their handler to get out of the water.
Horses can swim because of their structure. A horse’s lungs hold 29 gallons of air, and this helps them stay afloat. Their long legs help them easily glide through the water (who doesn’t love the underwater shots of horses swimming in the movies). In deep water, only the head of the horse will be visible.
The Benefits of Swimming
Equine athletes receive physical and therapeutic benefits from swimming. It’s increased in popularity in recent years and there are benefits to the muscles and tendons, cardiovascular system, respiratory functions, and psychologically.
Specific uses for swimming include injury rehabilitation, fitness training, improving glucose and insulin metabolism, reducing the risk of injury, and providing an activity.
Time spent swimming is significantly less than riding time though, because it’s a strenuous exercise for the horse. Most sessions only last five to 10 minutes, and horses work up to that length over time. Research shows that a three-minute swim is an equivalent workload to a three-mile gallop. What’s fun for the rider is a lot of work for the horse. Horses are also slower at swimming than they are on land.
A Bucket List Activity
For many people, this is a bucket list activity. Swimming with horses needs to be treated with the same respect that we give the sport for humans though. Training before visiting the water, having a plan, and making sure both horse and rider are ready are essential parts of the process too. Remember, the movies make it look easy, but there is a whole lot of preparation and a large crew that went into making that scene.
Finally, just because a horse can swim, doesn’t mean they enjoy it. Some horses, like some people, would really just rather not swim, and that’s okay too. If this is the case for your horse, pick a different activity.
There are a lot of outfitters and equestrian centers that make it possible to check this one off the bucket list though. These horses are trained to swim, are fit for the activity, and enjoy it. Riding on vacation, or with one of these stables, takes the pressure off you as the rider, and allows you to fully enjoy the experience as well.
So yes, horses can swim. Perhaps one day, you’ll find yourself swimming with them too.