Within days of immobilization muscles can being to atrophy after surgery or
serious injury. To prevent the muscles from wasting away, swimming therapy keeps
the muscles moving. There is also a psychological benefit to swimming especially
since horses need a long stall rest. All pent-up energy can be released in a
low-impact activity that is in a safe and controlled environment. Pain,
inflammation and reliance on pain medicines can be reduced with hydrotherapy
which can help speed natural healing.
Swimming provides horses with a good workout just as it done with humans since
it requires additional cardiovascular exertion from the hydrodynamic pressure
that is placed on the rib cage and lungs. A strengthening of the heart and lungs
occurs when the lungs need to work harder to deliver enough oxygen to the
muscles and this doesnít have the concussive pounding on limbs and joints that
occur with land based forms of training and rehabilitation. For horses, swimming
is actually the only exercise when they take a deep breath, close their nostrils
and forcibly exhale.
However, there are some cautions in order despite the numerous advantages of
good swimming programs.
The intensity of the exercise can exacerbate back problems. After observing the
horses swim patterns a previously undetected problem may become evident. An
indicator of a back problem may be a horse with an altered paddling action with
their hindquarters dropped instead of a good horizontal movement.
A considerable concern is exhaustion since it could lead to drowning. For this
reason swimming therapies should only be offered by professional and experienced
horse swimmers. Another good idea is to make sure the water is crystal clear so
the horses swimming movements can be monitored to make sure the horse is getting
a balanced workout. If a horse is swimming by climbing with their front legs
only, by rolling from side to side or by paddling with only one hind leg then
unbalanced muscle development could result.
If horses are gradually acclimated to the water their natural swimming abilities
will come out and they will become more confident in their abilities. Prepare
the horse for swimming by rinsing them with water that is of a similar
temperature to the pool to accomplish this. Use a lunge line attached to either
one or both sides of the halter to lead the horse to the pool. A horse will
either back in or walk down a non-slip padded ramp to get to water level when
entering the pool. The horse is encouraged to being swimming by having the ramp
drop off abruptly.
To improve heat transfer from the horse during exercise therapy pools are often
kept at a cooler temperature than the surrounding air. Water allows the rapid
removal of heat from an immersed body as a result of the comparative density of
water to air. A therapy pool that is outside should be kept moderately lukewarm
to prevent hypothermia in horses during the winter months.
Water quality and safety features are more important in a hydrotherapy program
than the shape of the pool, although the shape will determine the form swimming
will take. For example a horse will swim around the radius of a pool that is
A counter-current may be produced in these pools to give horses a greater
resistance to movement. In a round pool the experienced horse can swim about two
laps per minute although the amount of swimming in any program isnít dictated by
time or distance.
As the name implies, straight pools are similar to long lap pools. In these
pools the horse swims in a straight line after walking into the pool. Depending
on the horses condition the total time spent swimming will vary including the
factor of medical history and program goals. One or two laps in a pool may be
all that is accomplished with an inexperienced horse while other more
experienced horses may go as may as ten.
Inquire about pool filtration and handling practices before and after swimming
when it comes to finding a professional swimming facility for your horse.
Request a list of references after asking about who is swimming the horse. If
possible it is always a good idea to take a look at the pool and observe another
Pay attention to how the horse acts, are they exhausted or are they ready to go
again. After having completed a swim a horse in a conditioning program will
often look slightly winded although they may also have more spring in their
step. Horse shouldnít have their heads hanging and an exhausted appearance after
swimming. Before starting a swimming regimen it is also important that you
consult with your veterinarian.
You may be tempted to try your own swimming program if you live near an ocean,
lake or pond. You should always swim parallel to shore just beyond the area
where you horse can touch the bottom. This way should the horse become tired
they can quickly reach the ground.
Look for a solid, non-slippery area to enter and exit the water when crossing
bodies of water that require the horse to swim. Stay in the center of balance on
the horse since slipping backwards can hamper the horses hindquarter thrust
which affect their swimming action. To allow for proper breathing and balance in
the water the horses head should always be free.
Avoid natural water sources during flood seasons and always be extremely
cautious when crossing water alone. To prevent exhaustion you should always
remember to keep swimming sessions short. For both you and your horse it should
be a positive experience and not an exhausting one.