Swimming Made Simple for Your Horse

It's fun to go swimming with your horse during the hot months, as long as you prepare both him and you for the experience.
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It's fun to go swimming with your horse during the hot months, as long as you prepare both him and you for the experience.
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Few things equal the exhilaration of taking a horse swimming on a hot summer day. The power that we experience as the horse surges forward, paddling strongly through the water, is fun, but can be dangerous. However, if you apply John Lyons' methods to teaching your horse to swim, he can learn to have fun with you in the lake, the river or the ocean. You'll find that you can build on cues you've already taught your horse to keep both of you safe.

Going swimming with horses is nothing new. Numerous professional horse-training facilities swim horses for fitness and rehabilitation from injuries. The Chincoteague ponies are world famous for their annual supervised swim across the bay in Virginia. In the early part of the 20th century, some "diving horses" were trained to jump off a platform and fall into a pool of water. But if you are like most people, you will just enjoy taking your horse for a dip after working or during a trail ride or campout.

You may think that swimming horses begins with bringing your horse to the edge of the water, but it really begins at home on firm ground. Your horse will have to know how to respond to a few basic rein cues because once you're in the water, you won't be able to see the horse's body and he won't be able to see yours. Body language will be no help. Beyond that, if your horse gets scared, he'll tend to try to get on top of you and out of the water.

Teach Water Safety

  • Use a bridle and lead rope, and be sure you can move your horse's shoulder away on cue.
  • Be sure the swimming area is free of obstacles in or under the water and that there are no steep drop-offs.
  • Ask your horse to enter a short ways into the water, and to come out before he becomes nervous.
  • "Lunge him" in a circle that is mostly on the shore but is partly in the water.
  • Stay forward of the horse's withers when he swims, so that he doesn't accidentally strike you with his legs

So review the cues with your horse on the ground. Be sure you can use the lead rope to cue him to move his shoulders away from you and to move his hips away from you. Next, review the "go forward" cue, so that he will move forward into the water when you ask - the same first step you would use when teaching him to load into a trailer or asking him to step forward into a washrack. Remember to repeat these lessons in a more excitable situation, to be sure that he will respond to your cues despite distractions.

One distraction that works well is to practice the go forward cue over a tarp. Ask him to step forward onto a tarp, stopping with just his two front feet on it. Don't release the lead rope as he stops. Wait until he relaxes his neck. Be sure his nose is slightly toward you to make it easier for you to ask him to move his shoulders away from you if needed. Teach the horse to back off of the tarp when you pull the rope toward the horse's shoulder. Release the tension when he steps back.

After you can get the horse to move his front feet onto the tarp and back off of it, ask him to move completely onto the tarp with all four feet and then back off. Work on this until his neck stays consistently relaxed and his shoulder doesn't crowd you. Then ask him to make a small circle around you, with part of the circle on the tarp and part of it off the tarp. Increase the size of the circles until he is out at the end of the lead rope.

You have one last thing to consider before heading for the swimming hole. Does your horse easily cross streams when you're on the trail? If he fusses and hesitates, then you need to work with him on the trail using these cues. Better he learn about a little bit of water before you ask him to swim.

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Readying the Swimming Area
Make sure your horse doesn't have any entanglements (saddles, reins, girths, martingales or breast collars). Although we have all seen the movies where the heroic cowboys ride their horses fully tacked across swollen rivers, those are usually professional riggers and they still occasionally lose an animal to drowning. Tragic, true stories are retold of horses ridden into water with a tie-down or martingale and drowning in only a couple of feet of water because the animal can't get his head up.

Find a safe swimming spot. Beforehand, you should check to see that there are no obstacles in or under the water, such as trees, boulders, branches, pilings, or other garbage. Make sure there is not a steep drop-off into deep water. Also check for deep mud. Sandy or gravel-type bottoms are best, and you'll need a lot of room for the horse to swim. You'll want relatively firm ground and a shoreline that extends gradually into the water.

Since a horse's legs are so long, you may have to use a stick to probe the bottom before taking your horse into the water. Plan to get wet and muddy when you participate in this activity with your horse, particularly the first couple of times.

Find a dry spot to place your saddle and tack, perhaps on a log or low branch above the swimming area. Your safest equipment will be to use a snaffle bridle with lead rope, instead of reins, taking special care to ensure that the rope does not get tangled around the horse's feet, head and neck, or you.

Time to Get Wet
Many horses are fascinated by water. They may want to paw at the water, roll in the shallows or even blow bubbles. You may find that your horse will lead well until he gets to the water's edge and then crowd between you and the water so that he doesn't have to go into the water. That's why reviewing your ground lessons are important, so that you can tell him to move his shoulder away from you. If he crowds you at water's edge, practice the shoulder exercise at varying distances from the water. Don't head into the water until you're confident that you have excellent control.

Then use the loading lessons you practiced on the tarp. "Load" the horse into the water, just one or two hooves at a time. Ask him to back out before he gets nervous about being in the water. Not only will you have to judge how long he can stand before getting nervous (and you always want to ask him to back out before that happens), you'll have to judge how far into the water to ask him to go. He may just be comfortable with his hooves wet at first, or he may be ready to step in to his ankles.

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Give your horse time to look, smell, paw and convince himself that the water is not going to eat him. But if he paws excessively or backs up, treat it as you would any basic training situation. At home, when your horse backs up and you don't want him to, you give him the go forward cue. That should work going in the water as well. If it doesn't and your horse is scared, take him away from the water and practice the cues. Don't try to force him into the water, and don't allow him to just follow another horse into the water. That's unsafe, as it means he's not under your control.

Once you've gotten your horse comfortable walking into the water with two feet, you can begin "lungeing" him, as you did with the tarp. Keep your left hand on the lead rope and focus on the horse's left shoulder.

Standing on the shore, tell the horse to go forward and to circle around you. Make only a small part of the circle in the water. Be sure that he is walking with his nose toward you and his neck bent. As the horse gets more comfortable, you can let the rope slide through your hand slightly, until the horse is "lungeing" farther away from you out toward the end of the lead rope.

At some point when the horse is in the water to his knees, you can start gently sponging or splashing him with water on his belly, legs and chest. Most horses quickly realize how good that feels, and may let you splash even onto their backs. Take a cup and/or sponge and basically give the horse a bath with the water, taking your time to show him how good it feels.

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From Walking to Swimming
You can use these leading and lungeing exercises to gradually move your horse farther into the water, first up to his ankles, then knees and so forth, making small circles in and out of the water. Eventually, your horse will begin to swim part of the circle.

Once the horse is no longer just walking, it is absolutely critical to stay forward of his withers, but not in front of him. When he begins to swim, the horse will bring his hind legs way up under his belly, then stretch them to the side, then way out behind him. It's easy to get kicked by a hind leg stretching in a motion you don't expect.

Continue making larger circles, entering the water at one spot, moving down the shoreline and coming out at another spot. Occasionally, have him walk into the water, stand and relax, then back out.

Horses are extremely powerful swimmers once they get the idea. Normally, horses breathe very loudly when swimming, probably due to the amount of pressure of the water on their lungs. They should swim with their ears, eyes and nose above the water's surface.

Some horses will act as though they cannot swim, and in fact, they can't, at least not yet. They may drop their bodies to the floor of the lake and then push off with their hind legs, surging up like a submarine coming out of the water. Others get a little water in their ears and start shaking their heads while swimming - making them uncoordinated in their movements. Others may try to run over you, the way a panicky foal comes crashing into his mom.

Occasionally, a horse will really panic and start frantically paddling, sometimes with his head under water. You have to keep calm and encourage them back to shallow water by guiding their head with the lead rope.

When you've taken every precaution you know to take and you feel sure that it's OK to get into water deep enough that you and the horse can swim safely, you can begin swimming alongside him. Stay up by his head but out to the side, because both his front and hind feet will be swimming. Just like you did as a kid, horses have to learn to swim, so make sure that you don't encourage your horse into deep water until he has become an accomplished, confident swimmer.

You should do your own swimming. Don't expect to hang onto your horse in order to stay afloat. A remarkably small amount of pressure can push your horse's head under water. Watch that you do not pull him under with the lead rope, either.

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Riding Into the Water
When you and your horse are old swimming pros, you might want to ride him into the water bareback. When he gets deep enough that he'll have to swim, slip off him and swim up by his head. Don't ride him as he swims. Stay ahead of his withers on the left side and hold the lead rope with one hand. You'll "steer" the horse by pushing his nose in the desired direction.

If the horse swims faster than you do, or he gets so far out ahead of you that you are about to lose control of him, let the lead rope go. Do the same if he panics or gets scared and starts bobbing around. He will likely be able to get himself out of the water, but you don't want to risk getting injured by a flailing hoof while he does so.

Be particularly careful if you and a friend are both swimming your horses. Stay a reasonable distance from them because a horse's hind legs can stretch quite a ways behind him.

Swimming is one of the most aerobic activities that animals can do. A 10-minute swim is equivalent to a several-mile canter, so don't overdo it. After just a few attempts, your horse will probably be breathing pretty hard, as will you. Go to shore and let him catch his breath. It is supposed to be fun for both of you. You can always come back another afternoon to let him get in shape for longer swims.