Swimming as therapy for your horse

Swimming can help your equine recover faster and with less stress.

Swimming is the only aerobic exercise that engages all the body’s systems without requiring the limbs to bear weight. But did you know it’s as good for your horse as it is for yourself?

Horses and humans are not as dissimilar in their body structure as you might think. Our musculoskeletal systems, joints, tendons, ligaments and dynamics of locomotion are all very similar. Just as a doctor might prescribe swimming as a form of rehabilitation exercise for a human, a veterinarian may prescribe the same treatment for a horse. Swimming benefits multiple systems in the horse’s body. Let’s take a look!

Muscles and tendons

A typical exercise routine for horses has them utilizing only 60% to 70% of their maximum muscle length. This is often due to the demands we make on them in order to achieve a desirable performance (e.g. collection, speed control). Repeated workouts that do not allow the muscles to fully lengthen cause contractures, spasms and general stiffness.

When a horse is swimming, the length of the stride increases in order to keep his body afloat. This elongation of the muscles allows for a lengthened stride in the water. So by swimming, the horse’s muscles are stretching freely, thereby increasing the range of motion of his limbs, preventing muscle contractures and spasms, and at the same time promoting muscle symmetry, flexibility and core balance.

A horse that is exercised in a swimming pool will gain muscle strength, tone and endurance more quickly than one working on the ground. This is partly because water resistance is greater than air resistance.

Tendons are made of strong, fibrous tissue, which connect muscles to bones. They act like springs within the body as they transmit mechanical force from muscle contractions to the bones during movement. Their role is to absorb energy and provide suspension for the horse in motion. Because tendons carry the weight of the horse, they are prone to injury. Swimming is one treatment option for a tendon injury. It allows the horse to maintain his muscle tone and flexibility, due to the absence of concussive forces, while the injured structure rehabilitates.

Cardiovascular and respiratory systems

why you can't go swimming

Swimming is an aerobic exercise, meaning that it requires a lot of oxygen to meet the energy demands of the body. Under normal circumstances, the only way to build cardiovascular fitness in a horse is with regular exercise.

Swimming has been proven to increase the contractility of the heart, meaning that the heart is able to contract and relax more efficiently. By increasing the efficiency of the heart, you are increasing systemic circulation. When the heart is being exercised via “cardio” workouts such as swimming, the lungs are required to take in more oxygen. This is achieved by increasing the rate of respiration. When systemic circulation improves, so does oxygen supply to the tissues.

The presence of lactic acid in the muscles is what causes the painful sensation you experience following excessive exercise, and is the primary cause of muscle fatigue. Horses produce lactic acid in the same manner as humans. Lactic acid forms as a by-product when the body is working anaerobically, meaning without oxygen. Under normal circumstances, the body can deal with the lactic acid build-up by slowly ridding itself of the waste product via the kidneys. By increasing oxygen supply to the tissues, we can decrease lactic acid production, reducing muscle fatigue more quickly and efficiently. This decreases recovery time following strenuous exercise.

The respiratory and cardiovascular systems compliment each other. By increasing the efficiency of one system, you increase the efficiency of the other. At rest, the body has enough oxygen to adequately supply the tissues. When the horse starts to exercise, the heart rate goes from a resting rate of 25 to 40 beats per minute to 150 to 200 beats per minute, and he will inhale in as much as 90 liters of oxygen per minute to meet the tissue demands.

Swimming allows the horse to build a strong heart and lungs, without the upward concussive forces applied to soft tissues, bones and joints while exercising in the traditional manner.

Psychological benefits of swimming

Following injury, the prescribed treatment is often medication and limited movement (stall rest). Plenty of performance horses are conditioned to life in a stall, but are exercised daily to compensate for the time spent inside. Horses recovering from an injury are typically only allowed to leave their stalls for brief periods of hand-walking.

During the recovery period, the horse is confined to a stall, all the while losing muscle tone and often developing undesirable vices and going a little stir crazy. Horses require movement and stimulation for the health of both body and mind. Swimming a horse on lay-up is a great way to provide him with the stimulation he needs, while still allowing the body to heal from injury.

Of course, no one treatment works for all ailments. Careful consideration and veterinary consultation must be done prior to constructing an exercise or rehabilitation regime involving swimming. There are instances when swimming is not the best mode of exercise or rehabilitation (see sidebar).

For the healthy horse, a well-balanced, diverse exercise regime that includes swimming is a fabulous way to condition him and build overall muscle strength and stamina while developing a healthy heart and lungs. For horses recovering from an injury, swimming is a beneficial treatment option. Again, in all cases, a veterinarian must be consulted before swimming is added to the horse’s exercise program.