You can lead a horse to water...
Swim Lane Part 2
Everyone knows the old saying, you can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make them drink. The same is true for swimming, but surprisingly, we have learned that most horses WILL drink when you try to make them swim! This article aims to give you a basic understanding of how we train a horse to get in the swim lane for the first time. We will go over step by step how we approach a new horse from the start.
First things first, it is incredibly important that we discuss the horse’s current and past health or soundness issues with the owner. Like we said in part 1, there are several instances where a horse may not be a good candidate for the swim lane, so we always want to make sure that we have as much information as possible to make the experience safe for the horse, as well as the handlers. Next, spa technicians take starting vitals, which is heart rate and respiration. We do this for two reasons; the first being that is gives us a baseline for comparison as the horse progresses throughout the exercise. Additionally, this gives us a chance to listen for any abnormalities like a heart murmur or irregular breathing that could also prevent them from swimming safely. If everything passes, the horse is then hosed off, and they have their feet picked out as to keep the swim lane as clean and free of debris as possible.
The next step is introducing the horse to the water. It’s very important that we keep this as easy as possible for the horse, so they don’t feel pressured or fearful, which will make the overall experience for them unpleasant. Occasionally, owners will tell us things like, “just got ahead and whack him with that whip, he’ll respond better that way”. While we understand that every horse is different, it is important that we have a clear and concise plan that we use with each horse that has been proven successful when it comes to our swim lane training. We start off by allowing the horse to stand calming in the entrance to the swim lane, and encouraging them to sniff the water.
Once they have become comfortable with that, we do start to apply slight pressure to help encourage them to move forward. It’s important that they feel like it is their idea rather than forced into the swim lane. We want to make sure we reward correct responses in this phase of the training by releasing the pressure when the horse does what we are looking for, such a sniffing the water, or placing a front foot in. Many times you will notice that we focus on moving on horse’s forelegs primarily. This is because we don’t want the horse to become “locked up” or, move their hind feet to where they are under themselves too deep. This typically causes them to then leap into the pool, rather than taking it one step at a time going down the ramp. A horse jumping into the pool not only makes it harder on themselves by creating a wave affect that sucks them down slightly, they can also risk hurting themselves though strain, or hitting the sides of the swim lane.
After the horse enters the water and successfully completes their first lap, they are led out of the swim lane, and we again take vitals. This will determine if we need to let the horse walk to catch their air, calm their nerves or, if it didn’t seem to affect them much at all. This is a great factor in deciding what type of program to ultimately make for each horse. Rarely do the horses do more than three laps on their first visit. This is to help prevent overexertion or soreness that comes from exercise a horse is not accustomed to. Once they have completed their laps for the day, the horse is hosed down again to rinse off the water from the swim lane and vitals are checked a final time after the horse has rested for about 10 minutes. Monitoring how quickly their vitals return to normal is just as important as knowing how high they get during activity.
Occasionally, we may find the need to do things a little differently, depending on the circumstances, but the majority of the time, this is a pretty standard version of a “First Time Swim”. When done correctly, you have an increased chance of success, and the horse gets the opportunity to enjoy their time in the swim lane and will be a willing participant when you return for their next swim!
Thank you for taking the time to visit the Equine Aqua Spa page and be sure to check back on a weekly basis as we add new articles! We will cover more on swimming in the upcoming weeks, so don’t miss it! You can also subscribe to our mailing lists to get notifications on new articles, specials we are having at the spa and much more!