Ocean Swimming

If you've dreamed of swimming with your horse, follow these safety tips.
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If you've dreamed of swimming with your horse, follow these safety tips.

Most horses see no reason to enter the
ocean--there's nothing to eat, they can't drink the water, and they'd have a
hard time escaping predators. However, in warm areas with small waves, some
horses can actually enjoy ocean swimming. If you've dreamed of swimming with
your horse, follow these safety tips. (For tips on riding on the beach, see
"Trailwise," Horseman's Handbook, Horse & Rider, August '02.)

RIGHT TIME, RIGHT PLACE

Approach ocean swimming as thoughtfully as you would any performance endeavor. Choose a warm day with calm surf. Big waves
may cause your horse to stagger and sway to keep his balance. Very strong
swells, riptides, and back flow can literally sweep him off his feet.

Ask
locals or area rangers for recommendations. Beware of submerged rocks,
driftwood, or seaweed forests, and be sure your chosen spot offers solid
footing. Avoid areas with shallow shelves that drop off precipitously into deep
water.

If available, ride with a mellow equine companion
ridden by a friend experienced with ocean swimming. Your horse can look to his
buddy for assurance. For safety, ride bareback and barefoot--soaked saddles and
boots can weigh down both of you.

SWIMMING LESSONS

To begin, stay in shallow water, on firm sand footing.
Allow your horse to get used to the waves washing over his legs and belly. Ride
parallel to the beach in both directions to acclimate him to ocean and land
views. Then practice riding into and out of the surf perpendicular to the
shore, so he knows which way to head for dry land. Be aware he's likely to
exhibit exaggerated leg action when he first trots in shallow water.

When
your horse is in belly-deep water parallel to shore, there will come a moment
when the next wave floats him. Steer him toward shore, so just a few "dog
paddles" will get him back onto firm footing. If he seems relaxed, take
another diagonal track back into deeper water, and let him swim for 15 to 20
seconds. Keep him aimed toward the shore, so back flow won't carry him too far
out.

SEA HORSE

Once
your horse is swimming, float above or beside him, holding his mane. If you get
in front of or under him, his paddling hooves could gravely injure you. Avoid
using your reins as a tow rope, which would create undue bit pressure on his
mouth. Don't allow the reins to wind around your arms or neck, where they could
pull you under water.

Note
that your horse will probably tire after 5 or 10 minutes in the ocean, due to the
pull of the tide and action of the waves. Return to shore within this time
frame. Add 1 minute each time out, on separate days, to build his swimming
stamina.

Lari Shea operates Ricochet
Ridge Ranch Riding Vacations in Fort Bragg, California (horse-vacation.com), hosting rides on the beach and through the
redwoods. As the College of the Redwoods Horsemanship Program director, she
lectured in all aspects of equine science. An accomplished endurance racing
competitor with a Tevis Cup victory to her credit, Lari has also taught riding
for 30 years.