What better way to beat the heat than riding your horse into a refreshing oasis? Be it the ocean, a lake, or even the local creek, here are some tips to remain safe while on horseback in the water.
- Know the area. This is perhaps the single most important factor in equine water safety. What you don’t know can hurt you and your horse. For ocean rides, be aware of tides and local currents. Be familiar with the beach and its footing—are there areas of sudden drop offs? How deep is the sand?
Be aware that footing can be deceiving. Mud along the edge of a river or lake can be deep and horses have been known to panic when stepping through thick mud. Lakes and rivers can have hidden debris such as rocks or even large pieces of dangerous junk like old cars. Resist the urge to explore murky unknown bodies of water.
- Know your horse’s ability. If this is your horse’s first trip to the beach, let him get used to the scene before getting him into water that requires swimming. Even if your horse is reasonably fit, churning through water with a rider is extremely demanding, so be mindful of your horse’s exertion. If swimming in deep water, let your horse have his head—there’s no need to hold a proper head carriage when swimming! If you’re visiting the ocean during hot weather, also remember to keep your horse’s hydration in mind since he can’t drink the salt water.
- Don’t take risks. The old adage of trusting your gut is a good one to remember in the water. If you’re not sure how strong the current is or you think a river may be a little too deep and too fast to cross, don’t try it.
- Use the buddy system. Always ride in the water with someone else and make sure someone at the barn or at home knows where you are and has an idea of your expected return.
- Know your equipment. Don’t ride into water with your horse wearing a tie-down or martingale. While it may be a good idea in some cases to have your horse wear a halter and have a lead in case you have to lead him, make sure all leads and reins are not long enough to provide a possibility of getting legs tangled when in the water. If you drive your horse, never take a cart into unknown water; the weight of a cart can be enough to drown a horse if the water is deep or the current strong.
- Know how to swim. This seems simple, but can easily be overlooked. Do not ride into deep water if you can’t swim and enforce this rule for everyone in your riding group. If you have to come off your horse in deep water, stay well away from churning hooves. If you come off your horse in the water, the safest place is to the side—do not get directly in front of a swimming horse.
- Watch out for a roll. This may be one of the oldest horse tricks in the book: riding into a shallow stream, your horse begins to paw at the water and before you know it, down he goes for a good, refreshing roll without a thought about you still on his back! To prevent inadvertent soaking, don’t let your horse paw at the water.
Anna O’Brien, DVM, is a large animal veterinarian in Maryland and a regular contributor to Horse Illustrated magazine and HorseChannel.com. Follow Dr. O’Brien on Twitter: @annaobriendvm.