Can Horses Swim?

Katie Navarra Bradley

Katie Navarra Bradley

. Reviewed by Courtnee Morton, DVM
Updated Mar. 16, 2024
Horse swimming

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In This Article

Can All Horses Swim?

Have you ever seen beach vacations offering the chance to swim in the ocean with horses and wondered, can horses really swim? Yes, they can!

Swimming is not just for tropical beach vacations—it can be a great way to help a horse:

  • Regain strength after an injury

  • Get fit for competition

  • Have fun on a hot summer day

Can All Horses Swim?

All horses instinctually know how to swim, but some horses are afraid of water, explains Shawna Karrasch, an expert in positive reinforcement training and owner of Shawna Karrasch Equine, based in Williamsport, Pennsylvania.

“Horses tend to be neophobic,” says Karrasch. “So new sights, sounds, smells, etc., tell them to be on guard. If they have never been exposed to water, they’ll question it until they’re sure it’s safe.”

Summer Terry, an equine rehab therapy specialist who owns Superior Therapy LLC, which operates out of Binger, Oklahoma, and Cottonwood, Arizona, says horses raised on a farm or those that have access to water will be more confident around water than horses raised in a barn environment.

“I have ridden horses that couldn’t or wouldn’t swim because they didn’t have natural experience with different environments before I purchased them,” she says.

The good news is that most horses can be taught to swim and can swim with a rider.

“Playing in the water can be really fun for horses once they understand what to expect,” Karrasch adds.

How Do You Teach a Horse to Swim?

Some horses walk right into the water without hesitation. Others will follow a confident buddy. When using the buddy technique, choose a horse that willingly and quietly walks into water, to avoid having two frightened horses. Often, horses will investigate or play in the water first, splashing around by pawing at it with their front leg. Some may even try to roll!

But horses that are scared of water need help from you.

“With positive reinforcement, we can teach them not to be terrified of water and, even better, help them make a good association with water,” Karrasch says.

If your horse needs encouragement, try these steps:

1. Approach the Water

With your horse outfitted with a halter and lead rope, lead them to the water’s edge and let them get used to the sensation of standing there. The lapping movement of water can be a lot for horses to process, Karrasch says.

“Use positive reinforcement to create a good strong reinforcement history and good association, so that they can look at water later and think, ‘Well, that wasn't all bad,’” Karrasch says. “I recommend to go in a little bit, reinforce them, give them a moment, and then lead them away for a little bit and let their adrenaline go back down. Walk around, do other things, and then come back to it.”

Karrasch recommends using food as the motivator for the behavior you want to reinforce (stepping toward the water) and pairing it with a bridge signal, which can be a sound, a word, or a whistle.  She emphasizes the importance of reinforcing any “try” or effort your horse makes—even simply putting their nose down to investigate or taking a tiny step toward it.

“Be sure not to force them into the water; we want to let them take their time and go at their own pace,” she adds.

2. Stay on Solid Footing

 “I do not encourage horses to move out to the point where they can't touch the bottom until they are physically fit and relaxed enough to swim,” Terry says. “Then you can ride out until they can't touch.”

When your horse is comfortable standing in water, you can allow them to venture into deeper water by giving them more length on the lunge line. Let them swim for a few moments and then have them return to where they can touch. Gradually increase the distance and duration as their confidence and fitness improves. For your safety, stay on solid footing in a shallow area so that if your horse pulls, the water does not knock you off balance.

“When using a lunge line or lead, be aware of your horse’s legs so they cannot strike you as they begin to swim,” Terry says, “especially when they are new to it and might not be balanced in the water.”

While it may be tempting to wear flip flops or water shoes, choose footwear that will protect your feet in the event your horse spooks and steps on your foot. Leave your best boots at home— an older pair or a pair of waterproof muck boots are better options.

3. Mount Up

Once your horse willingly walks into the water while you are leading them, have a friend walk alongside your horse while you ride them into the water for the first time. Once your horse demonstrates they are relaxed, you can confidently ride in without a person leading your horse.

Teaching a horse to swim can also help prepare them for crossing streams, rivers, and creeks on trail rides. Most of the time, those are shallow enough that your tack will remain dry or only parts of the saddle— girth, stirrups and potentially stirrup leathers or fenders—will get wet. When you get into deep enough water for a horse to swim, you’ll want to do so bareback to avoid ruining your gear.

4. Keep Yourself Comfortable

“If you’re feeling worried about it, don’t proceed until you feel comfortable moving forward,” Karrasch says, “Walk with them a bit until you can count on each other. It’s a partnership.”

Benefits of Horse Swimming

Horse swimming is a type of cardio and strength training that can increase a horse’s mobility, muscle mass, and endurance.

Also called aqua or hydrotherapy, it can be used as part of a training program or as injury rehabilitation. Swimming for rehabilitation should only be used after a veterinarian has determined the horse is ready for activity. Hydrotherapy should only be done by a professional therapist, regardless of if the horse is coming off an injury or it is used as part of strength-building training. Hydrotherapy can be utilized for:

  • Lung and respiratory  training

  • Horses coming back off a long layoff related to a fracture or tendon and ligament injuries

  • Horses that need conditioning but have navicular syndrome or arthritis in the legs and tendons

Swimming is a low-impact exercise, so there is less strain on a horse’s joints than typical rehabilitation on the ground. Moving in the water creates resistance and makes the horse work harder, helping build the horse’s lung capacity and stamina. Swimming also helps reduce inflammation and fluid buildup in the legs.

Most horses can be taught to swim and can swim with a rider.

“Horses can benefit from swimming. [It] encourages hoof growth, mobilizes scar tissue and fascia, and improves cardio and lung capacity,” Terry says, “But not every horse should swim. Horses with back problems and stifle issues [shouldn’t swim] because the movement inverts the spine and can cause excess pressure on the vertebrae.”

In addition to the physical benefits, Terry says swimming builds a horse’s confidence and deepens the bond between horse and rider. A dip in cool water can also offer relief on hot summer days and a break from pesky flies.

Water Safety Tips for Horses

1. Don’t Let Water Get Into Your Horse’s Ears or Airway

While horses can swim, they can’t swim underwater. If water gets into a horse's ears, it can interfere with their equilibrium, Terry explains.

“If I had a fear that the horse might get their head under water, I would keep that horse in water where they could touch and not swim, or I would not attempt water exercise with that horse,” Terry says. “Horses instinctively know how to protect themselves, so chances are they will not willingly  get into a harmful situation unless a person pushes them past their limits.”

2. Watch For Signs Your Horse Is Tired

Even though swimming is low-impact, it is physically demanding, so a horse can tire faster than riding under saddle. Watch for signs that your horse is tiring and bring them back to solid footing. These signs might include slowed or shortened paddling, a stretched-out neck and fearful eyes, or increased respiratory effort.

3. Research Locations

It’s also important to do some homework. Before loading your horse in the trailer, confirm the swimming hole hasn’t posted any toxin alerts, such as algal blooms, sewage or chemical spills, or excessive rainwater that forces pollution from storm drains into the area, which might be harmful to you or your horse. Find out if the swimming hole has any big drop-offs, and how close those are to shore. You want to be sure your horse isn’t startled by an abrupt change.

“Ponds, rivers, or lakes can have boggy areas that will act like quicksand,” Terry says. “Your horse could fall, become ‘bogged down’ and get stuck, panic, or injure soft tissue. Ponds might also have rocks or sandstone beds that can be covered with algae and will be slick. Ocean currents can quickly knock horses off balance.”

Despite these precautions, with a little preparation and planning, swimming is a fun way to enjoy time with your horse.

Katie Navarra Bradley


Katie Navarra Bradley

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