can horses swim

Can Horses Swim?

It’s natural to imagine a horse cantering, jumping, and trotting but swimming usually isn’t the first thing that comes to mind. Right? And I bet the question “Can horses swim?” has popped into your mind several times, especially on a hot day.

The good news is that horses CAN swim!

Now you don’t need equine-sized flippers, swimming caps or goggles. These four-legged beauties have an instinct to swim and do it well too.

In this article, we’ll explain everything there is to know about horse swimming, from how they do it to the benefits it has to offer. So, let’s jump right in!

Natural Ability

As mentioned, horses have a natural ability to swim. It’s not something that is taught by a trainer but rather an instinctual behaviour that’s deeply ingrained in their species. You see, back in the day, wild horses roamed the open plains and often had to cross rivers to reach greener pastures or as a survival mechanism when escaping threats.

But before we head onto the history lesson, let’s take a quick look at what makes horses good swimmers:

  • Horses have large lungs, giving them an advantage over other land mammals. When horses inhale, their lungs fill with air which increases their buoyancy in water. One lung can hold 55 litres of air – this natural ‘floatation device‘ allows them to float higher, reducing the risk of drowning.
  • Many horses swim well thanks to their large muscular bodies. Their powerful muscles give them the strength to paddle through the water with ease and maintain their stamina.
  • A horse will naturally swim with its head above the water, allowing it to breathe freely – even in deep water.
  • When swimming, horses move their legs in a natural coordinated, paddle-like motion – similar to the “doggy paddle” kids use when learning how to swim.

How fast can horses swim?

The maximum swimming speed a horse can swim is about 4 km per hour (2.5 miles per hour). They can usually swim for about 30 minutes – or half a mile – without tiring.


While we won’t be training our horses for the next 100-meter freestyle dash, we can appreciate where their swimming abilities come from. Swimming for horses is most likely an evolutionary adaptation from having to cross rivers which was essential for their survival.

This meant moving around to reach greener pastures or overcoming natural barriers when necessary. Survival mode was probably the biggest driving force, especially when predators were hot on their tails. Crossing large bodies of water often was the difference between life and death.

Can all horses swim?

It’s worth mentioning that many horses can naturally swim while others aren’t too keen. Just like humans, different horse breeds have individual preferences and personalities that can affect their inclination towards water. More cautious or skittish horses may take longer to warm up to the idea, while others may literally ‘jump right in’ without thinking twice.

Top tip: It’s important to gradually expose your horse to water, as how it’s introduced to swimming can have a lasting impression. Gentle training and patience are encouraged to make your horse feel more comfortable.

Benefits Of Swimming

Much like humans, swimming for horses has its benefits. It can be used as a valuable addition to their exercise and rehabilitation routines and is often used for treating tendon injuries and boosting cardiovascular fitness. However, horses can’t breathe underwater and are in greater danger of drowning if their heads become submerged.

But, as long as they stay afloat, swimming offers an amazing experience for both horse and rider. Swimming in deep water, as opposed to shallow water, offers more benefits for horses as their legs can stretch and move more freely.

Saltwater also gives horses more buoyancy due to its higher density of salt when compared to fresh water.

With all that being said, let’s take a deep dive – no pun intended – into the benefits of swimming:

Low impact exercise

Swimming is a low-impact activity. Unlike running or jumping, swimming doesn’t put stress on a horse’s body, joints and tendons. It is an excellent exercise for horses recovering from injury, those with arthritis or for older horses who can no longer withstand rigorous training routines.

Cardiovascular fitness

Swimming is an effective cardiovascular workout for horses. It helps in improving heart and lung function, which is beneficial for overall health and fitness levels. Horses need to work harder when swimming due to the resistance water creates, boosting athletic performance.

Toning muscles

Swimming is like being on an underwater treadmill, toning and strengthening the muscles. Swimming engages muscle groups that horses do not normally use when undergoing ground training. It improves balance, stability and overall conditioning of all the muscles which helps prevent muscle damage or sprains.


Swimming is an excellent rehabilitation exercise. Horses have more buoyancy in water, which allows them to move without bearing their full weight on their joints. As horses stay afloat, it results in faster recovery times and speeds up the healing process.

Weight management

Horse swimming can be a useful weight management tool. It is a low-impact exercise that effectively burns calories without putting strain on the horse’s joints. This is particularly helpful if you have a heavier equine on your hands, who battles with weight-bearing exercise regimens.

Training versatility

Swimming offers a superb break from strenuous equestrian sports and racing. It’s easy on the muscles whilst maintaining your horse’s strength and fitness levels. It’s also a great change of scenery, that’s for sure!


Swimming is not limited to young horses. It’s fantastic for older horses as a form of recreation when they are too old for traditional training programmes or those suffering from other ailments.

Considerations And Precautions

  • Assessing comfort: Before heading off on horse swimming lessons, it’s important to gauge your horse’s comfort around water. Some horses may be naturally more inclined or comfortable with water, while others could be anxious or fearful. Gradually expose your horse to water, taking note of their reactions. Do not be forceful. Patience is key.
  • Ensure a safe environment: The swimming environment needs to be safe for both the horse and rider. This includes choosing a location with calm waters, no strong currents, and a gradual slope for entry and exit.
  • Monitor signs: Swimming can be physically demanding for horses, especially if they’re not used to it. Watch for signs of fatigue, which may include heavy breathing, reduced enthusiasm, or changes in their swimming ability. It’s also important to limit swimming sessions to manageable durations and provide enough breaks for rest and recovery.


Is it safe for horses to swim in the ocean?

Yes, it is safe for horses to swim in the sea. While horses are naturally adept at swimming in both salt and fresh water, there are a few things to consider before heading out in the waves, such as ocean currents and depths to ensure your horse’s safety.

How long can a horse swim for?

Horses exert a lot of energy when swimming. 10 minutes of non-stop swimming is the same as cantering for several miles! Usually, horses can swim longer in calmer waters as opposed to swimming against the current. Over time, regular training will improve their fitness and allow them to swim faster.

Final Thoughts

Just as horses are known for gallops and trots, their natural instinct to swim adds another dimension to their capabilities. Horses enjoy swimming and it offers many benefits in terms of fitness and rehabilitation.

Horses can effortlessly navigate water, benefitting from a form of exercise that improves their strength, endurance, and overall well-being. It’s important to consider your horse’s willingness to swim and be mindful of signs of fatigue.

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