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Can Horses Swim?

We don’t usually think of horses in relation to water. Mostly we think of them galloping across green fields, weaving their way through forests, or standing sleepily in stables. Horses are not animals that look like natural swimmers, and some people may query whether horses can swim.

Horses can swim, but some are better at it than others. Horses have a large lung capacity making them buoyant. They swim by moving their legs as if they are trotting underwater. Their heads are always held above the water surface to prevent drowning. It is best for horses to swim in calm water.

Many people want to swim with their horses but may be hesitant and unsure of its wisdom. It is helpful to know whether horses can swim, how they swim, and the possible problems.

Can All Horses Swim?

Mother Nature has equipped the majority of animals with the ability to swim, even if water is not their natural habitat. Horses are able to swim, and some even seem to enjoy the experience.

Certain horses may be better swimmers naturally than others. Horses exposed to water may be better at swimming because they can learn about water, and experience makes them confident.

Foals can swim, but they are weaker than adults and can rapidly drown as they tire easily. Their long thin legs may lack the strength to push through the water, making it difficult for them to achieve any progress through a river or dam.

Do Horses Like Swimming?

Most horses seem to enjoy the water, especially in hot climates. It is not uncommon to find horses playing at the edge of a dam or river. They take great delight in splashing with their front feet. If you are standing near them, you will get soaked.

Some horses even play in their water baths. This can be frustrating if they splash all their drinking water out just after filling it.

Some horses may enter the water to submerge themselves entirely, but others like to stay in the shallows. Horses encouraged to swim regularly by their owners will be more likely to swim voluntarily. Swimming allows them to cool down and indulge in play.

Generally, horses choose to wade and splash in the shallows and reserve swimming to cross water bodies to achieve a specific purpose. This is probably because water is not their natural environment. They are not equipped for a speedy getaway in water. Horses in the water are more vulnerable to attack from predators such as crocodiles.

Nervous or highly strung horses are less likely to enjoy swimming as they are constantly alert for danger. Submerging themselves in the water may be too scary, and they will probably resist any attempts to get them in.

A horse is unable to gauge the depth of the water. It is a case of blind trust when the horse puts its first foot in the river, dam or ocean. Many horses will refuse to try this. They will not enjoy swimming as the water movement can also scare them.

Some horses feel that even puddles contain crocodiles. Many unwary riders have been unseated by their horse suddenly leaping a shallow pool. There are a large number of horses that hate getting wet.

How Do Horses Swim?

Horses have deep bodies with relatively fragile legs compared to their body size, making them not ideal for swimming.

Horses have a massive lung capacity – fourteen and a half gallons of air (55 liters). This extraordinary amount of air in the horse makes them buoyant in the water and allows them to float naturally.

Horses always keep their heads above the water when they swim. They have a limited capacity to hold their breaths. A horse that’s head is submerged is in great danger of drowning. Horses are very reliant on their vision and hearing to protect themselves. They need to keep their heads above water to detect threats as soon as possible.

Horses propel themselves forward in the water by moving their legs in a four-beat pattern as if they were trotting.

How Far And Fast Can Horses Swim?

A horse’s legs may look fragile, but they are immensely strong and can push the horse through the water at a pace of up to two and a half miles (4 kilometers) per hour. Strong human swimmers can swim five to six miles per hour.

A horse’s swimming speed is considerably slower than the twenty-seven to fifty-five miles per hour that a horse can run. It explains why horses may feel vulnerable to predators in the water. 

Swimming is very tiring for horses, and they cannot keep it up for very long. The amount of time a horse can swim depends on the horse’s fitness, which affects lung capacity and muscle strength.

Generally, horses can swim for five to ten minutes before they tire. This equates to about half a mile to a mile. Horses are more likely to swim a route they already know as they are familiar with the territory and their ability to cover the distance.

Can Horses Swim In The Ocean?

Horses can swim in the ocean. There are many reports of wild horses making ocean crossings to better grazing areas.

Saltwater is denser than freshwater resulting in better buoyancy, making it easier for horses to swim in the ocean. This advantage is counteracted by tides, waves, and the undertow.

Horses are unhappy swimming in a rough sea with choppy or big waves. It is difficult for them to keep their heads clear of the water when the waves are too large.

Only let your horse swim in the ocean if the sea is calm, has minimal waves, and the current is gentle. Ascertain where rip currents are on the beach and keep out of them as they could easily wash both you and your horse out beyond the breakers.

Do Wild Horses Swim?

Wild horses swim across channels, rivers, or stretches of the ocean to get to places where grazing is better. For many, this becomes a seasonal venture as they move with the growth of grasses.

A famous event that occurs yearly is the Chincoteague Horse or Pony Swim. People travel from all regions of the USA and further afield to watch the swim and attend the auction. The ponies of Chincoteague swim from Assateague Island to Chincoteague Island every year.

People believe the ponies arrived on Assateague Island from a Spanish galleon that sank off the coast. The ship was carrying horses for settlers in America. When it sank, the ponies managed to swim safely to the island. Some historians think the ponies came with settlers who allowed the ponies to become feral and graze on Assateague Island.

They live and reproduce on Assateague Island for the majority of the year. The ponies swim across about half a mile of the ocean to Chincoteague Island. The swim takes them approximately five or six minutes.

The ponies swim during slack tide, which is about thirty minutes between high and low tide. There is a negligible current during this time, making it safer and easier for the horses to complete the swim. This is important as the herd will have foals that must make the swim.

The herd of ponies swims to Chincoteague Island, where the majority of the foals are auctioned. The money raised is allocated for the veterinary care of the herd and equipment for the Chincoteague Volunteer Fire Company.

You can watch a video of wild horses swimming across the Salt River. Wild horses all over the world routinely swim or wade across rivers as they move around their territory.

Can Horses Drown?

Horses can and do drown. The biggest problem is when the water is too rough or powerful, and the horse’s head becomes submerged. As horses cannot hold their breath, they inhale water and drown.

Rocks or debris can strike the horse in a fast-flowing strong river or ocean. Serious injuries may occur, making the horse no longer able to swim, resulting in its death.

Horses cannot swim for lengthy periods. Some people have made the critical mistake of taking their horse too far into the ocean. The horse tires and cannot swim back to the beach, ultimately drowning.

Some horses seem to be unable to swim, sinking like a rock in the water. It is essential to note if your horse is reluctant to enter the water. There have been instances when owners have insisted their horse go into the water, only to discover the horse cannot swim and drowns.

Should You Swim With Your Horse?

Some horse riders like the idea of swimming with their horse. This can be dangerous as water is not a horse’s natural environment. Horses that are uncomfortable or anxious behave unpredictably, resulting in danger for themselves and their rider. Some safety precautions need to be considered to make this pastime safer for both riders and horses.

  • Never insist and pressurize your horse to go into deep water. You need to cautiously check your horse can swim before entering deep water.
  • Do not take your horse swimming if you cannot swim. This could easily end in a fatal accident.
  • The rider should wear appropriate clothing that stays light once wet. Heavy clothing can be a problem if a rider struggles to stay afloat if things have gone awry.
  • Horses swim by paddling vigorously with their legs. If you get in the way of their feet or legs, you may get a nasty injury.
  • You may be pushed up off the horse’s back when you reach deep water. Ensure you do not float forwards and push your horse’s head under the water.
  • Your horse may not cope with the extra weight or may feel frightened by having a rider weighing it down or interfering with its ability to swim. It is best to float next to your horse if it is swimming.
  • Remember that horse’s generally only swim for five to ten minutes. Do not swim for a lengthy period or over a great distance with your horse.
  • Some horses roll when they get to the water. Be very cautious of this, as a horse rolling in even shallow water can easily hurt and drown the rider.

How To Tell If A Horse Is Tiring When Swimming?

Be aware of how your horse is managing the swim. If it seems tired or is struggling, you will need to stay off the horse to give it the best chance of getting to land.

If your horse’s eyes are wide and rolling, its breathing is heavy, or it keeps trying to move to shallow water, you need to help the horse get to land as these are all signs of distress.

Should A Horse Wear Its Tack While Swimming?

Remove any tack or riding gadgets that hold the horse’s head down. Tie-downs, martingales, or side reins can cause your horse to drown if it cannot lift its head high enough.

Tack is usually heavy and is best removed before swimming so that it does not weigh the horse down or restrict its movement.

Drying your tack can be difficult if it gets soaked. Your tack may be damaged and inclined to grow mold after getting wet.

Are There Disadvantages To Swimming A Horse?

It is critical that the horse does not get water in its ears while swimming. This may panic the horse and cause severe guttural pouch infections as horses’ ears do not drain well.

Horses may get injured by sharp stones, debris, or submerged tree trucks while swimming. Some horses may find the experience frightening, giving them a fear of water. It will be challenging to get these horses even to cross a small stream or puddle if they have had a bad water experience.


Most horses can swim with some individuals better at it than others. Certain horses do not seem able to swim, and some just hate getting wet. Swimming is hard work for horses, and they do not usually swim for long periods or distances.


Anrie Diedericks

I've been around horses since I was 6 years old and started competing at the age of 9. Horses are my greatest passion and I am thrilled to be able to share my 23 (and counting) years of experience and knowledge with you.

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