Texas Summer Fun

I recently had an author friend ask about swimming horses. She needed to get her riders across a river and questioned me about the depth and how well and easily horses swim.

Well, of course everyone knows Misty of Chincoteague and the annual pony penning where the ponies are swam across the channel. And The Black swam through the storm and pulled Alex to the Island. Swimming is also a popular rehabilitation therapy for performance horses and specialized facilities are available across the country.

But - in all my life with horses, it's not something I've done. And in talking to a few of my horseman friends, it's simply not that simple. Many of the anecdotal tales were like mine ...

"I tried it once...",

"...finally made it to shore...",

"...sank like a rock...",

"Swim? Sure, three times.... Well, never on purpose..."

If you're writing horses crossing the river, there are a couple of things to think about. First - think about all you've read about how many miles out of their way travelers would go to find a crossing. There is a reason for that, I think - that horses have to be taught that they can swim.

Sure, they can learn, and some love it. But it's very intense exercise, as much as a full-out gallop, and dangerous to the rider for that reason, because the legs (hoofs) are really churning.

I went to u-tube and spent much too much time browsing the selection of swimming horses videos. I found very few of horses actually *swimming*. The vast majority were of horses *wading*. In this photo of me and BERI, she isn't swimming, she's walking (jogging) on the bottom of the pond. Look at the top photo - see the surge and wake ahead and streaming back from her? She's doing something like an extended trot, which is extremely hard to sit for all but really top riders (not me!! LOL! Look at how tightly I'm gripped on to her mane!) So you have a LOT of 'action' *and* an incredible amount of force of water blowing your legs back, not just the force on the front of your shins and thighs, but the water forces itself under your legs and conspires to lift you off the horse.

I had started out with a saddle, but the pressure under water was trying to flip the stirrups up over my ankles!!!!!!!!!!! Very scary stuff.

Check u-tube again, I didn't save the link, but there is a horrific video of a horse that panics and flips in the water. This is, unfortunately, more common then the fun, splashy, trot-across. In my unofficial poll, in combination with going back over past memories. I think I know as many people who have, or known someone who has, drowned a horse as have actually been on one swimming. There is a wonderful video of a 17.2 warmblood stallion swimming in the ocean. Look at the riders feet as the horse swims, they are streaming out behind, over the horse's rump.

Another contrast of the ocean swim is the gentle bank and shore. In a pond, or more likely a river crossing, if the bank is steep, there is a chance the horse will slip and scramble (and maybe go down) in the mud. And that can be (very) bad news for the rider if they get caught underneath.

So, whatever you're writing, if you have to cross the river, spend a couple minutes of research on it, and give us at least a hint of tension and conflict. Remember that unless the water's more than six or eight feet deep, the horses probably aren't going to swim - and if you do swim them, remember that they may not all make it, and that they'll likely be heaving and gasping for breath once they get to the far side.

And no. BERI and I didn't actually swim. We may, over the next few weeks... or we may not. We'll be back down to the pond, but it will be more for fun and less for research.


L.A. Mitchell said...

Great information, Sue. I think because we've seen Black do it, we assumed they all could.

Val said...

Heh heh - I wish I had gotten video of my Shawna-doodle swimming...
[in her case it was more like diving, she mostly wanted to wallow!]
Mebbe I will take Quig out into my pond - yes, bareback, absolutely!

Leah Braemel said...

I've read stories of cowboys who are riding herd and have to force the cows across a river at its highest. And wondered about the saddles - wouldn't the water wreck them?

When Gizmo Guy was a kid, they stayed at a cottage where there was a farm on the other side of the lake. The guy who owned the farm raised horses and a couple times a week would make them swim across the lake and back. Said he was exercising them. Of course they didn't have riders or saddles, and how he forced them to swim I have no idea - I'll have to ask. But I take it a horse wouldn't 'go swimming' of its own choice.

Becky Burkheart said...

LA. You're exactly right - we've all seen it in the movies and think it's easy as pie. Lots of kids get in trouble with it each summer.

Val - LOL about the Doodle. If get get a video, let me know and I'll link to it.

Leah - yep, the water is bad for the saddles. They need to be cleaned and oiled afterward.

Aelfleah Farm said...

1st swimming experience: Big tropical storm down south dumped rain for days. No riding. Finally rain stops, jump on horse (bareback) and get in a ride. Cross creek (maybe 3 foot deep). Ride a bunch. Start home. Creek now over banks (over 12 feet deep) and rushing FAST. Horse game, I'm game, in we go. Scramble out 150 yards down stream before we got tangled in a brush dam and drowned. I wasn't mounted when we got out, just death clutch on mane.

2nd and 3rd swimming experience: Nice lake, shallow entry. Bareback again. Horse game, I'm game, in we go. Finally get horse turned back to shore. Again, not mounted, dragging along by mane, floating above back, until slipped over side near the end.

Later swimming experiences: Nope, none. I'll stay with wading now. All 4 feet on the ground!

It's damn near impossible to stay mounted on a swimming horse. It's even hard to stay mounted on a horse that's simply wading in water near the level of their backs!

Free swimming is not even that great of exercise for horse. Causes them to hyper-extend their knees. Much better to wade, good resistance workout that way. Water up to near back level great, as provides bouyancy and resistance.