Ever seen a horse swim?

4 January 2023 Written by VRC

Equine pools are a great way to exercise and rehabilitate horses and are now a practice integrated into most trainers’ routines. Flemington’s pool facility is a hub of activity all year round, but when the weather warms up, its popularity goes up another notch.

Integrating swimming into a thoroughbred’s conditioning and recovery routines is becoming common practice in horse training. For animals and humans alike, the benefits of cross-training for athletic performance, cardiovascular conditioning, and endurance are well known. When you combine training across swimming facilities, trackwork, horse walker, and other methods, the results can be great.

Flemington-based trainer Nick Ryan is a regular at the equine pool we have at Headquarters. He can be seen there with his horses pretty much every day.

90% of my horses swim morning and afternoon. It's just a great tool for fitness and good aerobics to keep them ticking over. I haven't come across a horse that doesn't enjoy swimming... There's nothing better... It's very beneficial.

Swimming horses has many benefits – it promotes aerobic fitness, lowers lactate levels, and elevates heart rate recovery. It can be a valuable tool in building up and maintaining a horse’s fitness with minimum shock impact on its legs. It allows a horse to regain or maintain its condition without causing undue impact or pressure on the hooves, legs, or abdomen, and it is an ideal exercise tool for those that have undergone leg or abdominal surgery, or who are recovering from laminitis. It’s also a useful way to build up strength and coordination.

When walking in water, muscles are used differently than in track work. For example, to overcome drag in the water the quadricep muscles in the front of the thigh that accelerate the limb in the direction of movement must work harder. The hamstrings at the back of the thigh that normally decelerate the limb are used minimally. All of these things are taken into account by a trainer and the team.

There are a few different ways to introduce water into a thoroughbred’s routine – beach (for wading, swimming, and surging), a water walker, an underwater treadmill, and of course, the pool. As horses differ in fitness levels and swimming techniques, it is difficult to apply a one-size-fits-all approach to swimming a horse. However, depending on whether a horse is swimming as a refresher or to supplement track work, most will walk several straight laps in a pool increasing to longer or more continuous laps in a circular pool.

Equine pools are typically 50-55m long, and rectangular in size. The walls of equine pools are engineered to arc outwards below the waterline to ensure a horse’s legs won’t accidentally touch the sides of the pool as they swim. For the same reason, these pools are built very deep, about 4m.

Another important feature of an equine pool is the cleaning system designed to remove waste from a horse where it enters the water. Filtration is designed to match the volume of horses that use the facility per day.

For a healthy horse, a well-balanced and diverse exercise regime that includes swimming is a great way to condition and build muscle as well as develop the heart and lungs. If they are recovering from injury, it is a beneficial rehabilitation tool.

And another added bonus is the psychological effects, for, just like humans, who doesn’t enjoy the freedom and buoyancy of water at times? On a warm spring or summer’s day, a light swim is a refreshing way to break up the routine and diminish mental fatigue.