Horses often enjoy a cool swim

Posted Aug. 10, 2012, at 4:16 p.m.

Horses are athletic animals. They race, jump and travel marathon distances, all while carrying 200 pounds or more on their backs, can pull many times their own weight in vehicles and equipment, and they swim.

Not competitively, but they are excellent swimmers.

The feral ponies that live on Assateague Island in Virginia are rounded up every July and swim across the Chincoteague Channel to Chincoteague Island for an annual auction which keeps the pony herd size down to a sustainable level.

The event was made famous in the book “Misty of Chincoteague” by Marguerite Henry. It is not just the Chincoteague ponies that swim,

however. All horses are capable of swimming and most enjoy it.

In my first riding lessons, my instructor would occasionally let me ride his horse, Peach, as it swam across the farm pond. It is an incredible experience. Horses are powerful swimmers and swim much like a dog with only their heads above water and legs churning beneath.

The motion of the horse combined with the force of the water would sweep my legs right off Peach’s back so I was staying in contact merely with my vise-like grip on his mane, and he would drag me through the water. It was just like a person swimming with dolphins by hanging onto the dorsal fin, but much hairier. As Peach breached the water at the shore, my legs would settle back down around him and we’d climb out as one unit again.

Later on, with my own horse, I made an effort to find places where I could take her swimming.

Our favorite place to go was a beach off Route 3 near Hadley Point. I would ride Ivy and either my cousin, Summer, or my friend, Andrea, would ride Lady, one of our other horses.

We, in our bathing suits, sneakers and helmets, would ride the horses bareback down Route 3 to the beach.

On the first trip, Ivy was nervous about the waves in the ocean water as we had only been swimming before in fresh water. She snorted and rolled her eyes saying she was pretty sure there were alligators and sharks lurking in the seaweed. To get her to realize it was safe, I backed her in.

Once she was in the water, she began to play, splashing the water with her front legs and nose. This never failed to set me off in a fit of giggles which nearly caused me to part company with my horse. Horses are hairy, but they get pretty slick when wet, and giggling is not conducive to a secure seat.

Not every horse likes swimming, or even stepping into puddles — where there could be very small alligators. Usually, with persistent, gentle encouragement, they can learn to accept going in the water. Some horses do not. A few horses in my barn will do anything possible to avoid getting their feet wet and caution has to be taken when leading them to their paddocks on rainy days, lest they decide to use their leaders as bridges. Other horses, like our Lady, love the water and care had to be taken on rainy days, that she didn’t lie down in a puddle and roll in it.

Horses are true all-terrain vehicles, barring alligators, and it can be a thrill to ford a stream on the trail or take a horse for a swim on a hot summer day. Bathing suits are not required.

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