It's summer time and 900 degrees in the shade. You are thinking about the river/lake/beach down the road, and wouldn't it be fun to take your horse in swimming! I agree, it is a lot of fun, and most horses seem to enjoy it too, but there are real hazards there, and if you aren't aware and cautious, it can mean disaster for your horse, and you.
Lets go step by step.
- Is it safe to approach the water? Boat ramps into lakes can be slippery. Banks that are masses of reeds are probably boggy. Tall grass and brush can hide tires, other debris. Steep banks with faint deer trails are not a safe access. Deer weigh about 100 pounds, can climb vertical surfaces and can jump if they slip. Your 1200 pound horse plus you, plus tack, plus you pulling on their head to guide them will not be able to go down the same trail. Remember head room. You on your horse is a lot taller than you think, make sure you don't get scrapped off on a branch on your way down.
- Is there a way back up? Just because you can get down, doesn't mean you can get back up. Esp after several horses have turned the bank into a mud pit. If you want to cross, make sure there is a way to get up on the other side.
- What kind of floor does the water have? What looks like a clear, safe passage can actually be bog, quicksand, or a lot deeper than you anticipate. Rocky mountain streams seldom have this problem, but streams near lakes, bays, or swamps can be deadly deep bogs. Water in arid areas can create quicksand, just as deadly as the bog. Both can suck you down, causing strains, injury, and drowning. Ending up a lot deeper than you expect can also be deadly. Not all horses can swim. Remember rocks are slippery, and hard for a horse, esp with shoes to walk on. think about that before you ask your horse to pick their way through boulders and shale.
- Is the crossing clear? If you can't see the bottom, be very cautious. Bodies of water often are dumping ground for all kinds of hazardous trash, as well as stumps and branches. The tire, or scrap metal you don't see can catch or cut your horses legs. Stumps and branches can catch legs, or hook on shoes pulling tendons and causing both of you to fall. Remember, it's not just what could be dumped here, it's what washes down stream. you may be in what looks like a pristine wilderness, but if a road or town crosses the river upstream, anything could be washed down.
- Is your tack appropriate? Even if you only plan on going knee deep, you never know what could happen. Never ride a horse into water with a tie down, martingale, draw reins, or anything that would restrict their heads. It only has to be deeper than your horses chest for them to drown, if they can't raise their head. (Or if they don't have the experience or instinct to raise their head.) Remember when you go in water, things float, so make sure you don't have a lot of loose things (ropes, water bottles, etc) dangling off your saddle. They can float around and spook or tangle your horse. Make sure your tack is water appropriate. Leather stretches when it gets wet. If you have leather latigos you can find yourself with a loose girth, leather bridles can stretch, if it is salt water remember to thoroughly clean all your tack after the ride.
- Is your horse prepared? Crossing a belly deep rushing river is not the time to find out if your horse crosses water! Prepare yourself and your horse by starting with small streams in the company of experienced confident horses. If you think the water will be deep enough to swim, make sure your horse is comfortable with that. Step them in slowly, or better, lead them in on a lunge line, and let them experience it without the weight of a rider. Some horses panic when they can't touch the ground. They can freeze, go into the prey animal shock, or thrash around. Be careful! Also, if you are going to the beach for the first time, even the most seasoned water horse will be unnerved by waves crashing down, and the foam chasing them. Be ready to do some desensitizing work.
- Get good advance knowledge. If it is a known trail, talk to the locals, or better yet, get a knowledgeable guide. Even if you do though, remember, water is tricky, one good storm can change the entire geography of a crossing.
When I lived in Annapolis, one of our regular trails crossed a creek. this creek was proably 1/2 mile from the bay. Muddy, but never too deep. We were riding in the winter and crossing it as normal. My friend on her trim little Arab trotted across, hopped the log on the other side, and went on down the trail. My 16 h TWH mare however, got halfway across and bogged down to her belly. She panicked, not because we were bogged in mud, but because her FRIEND LEFT HER! She reared up and in a move worthy of a Lipizzaner, leaped out of the creek and over the log on the bank. Doing this her 15 pound bone head slammed into mine and shattered my glasses. As she frantically charged after her friend, I put my glasses in a pocket, decided my nose had gotten hit too, then went on with the ride. Later I found out she had broken my nose. This was a known crossing, we had been through it many times.
Another time I was riding with a club (in the winter again). When we came to a stream, the person who was leading couldn't get their horse to cross. I was elected to lead the way, because my horse (again, my TWH horse Shadow) would always cross. I asked the host of the ride if the crossing was ok, because the water was muddy and I couldn't see the bottom. She said yes, they had gone through it on foot. Fine, I asked Shadow to cross and she hesitated. This should have told me something, but I pushed on. We crossed the creek, and just as we got to the other side, Shadow fell in a hole next to the other bank. I rolled off, and Shadow was hanging there, front legs folded up on the bank, the rest of her handing straight down into the muddy water. The hole was so deep my 16 hand horse couldn't touch the bottom. We eventually got her out by taking her front legs, and rolling her over in the water to solid ground. Then I got to ride in a wet saddle with wet clothes for another hour. Remember, even with a local guide, be cautious.
For a few years I boarded my horses near the Bay Bridge. At that time, we were allowed to ride our horses in Quiet Waters park, and take them in the water at a little side beach. (no, this is not allowed any more) We were careful, because the shipping channel was close, so never took our horses more than chest deep in the water. One time after one of the hurricanes had been through, we took our horses to our little beach, and were riding them in the waves, about knee to belly deep. I didn't want to go deeper because had my cell phone in my saddle bag. As we waded out a bit further, suddenly nothing was above the water but my head and Shadow's ears! It seems because of the storm, the channel had shifted (the channel at the Bay Bridge is 300 ft deep) and we were in it! Shadow came up snorting, and started swimming for the shore. She completely ignored me until we are on the beach, and then stood there refusing to go back in the water. She made it plain that this was not funny, and she wasn't happy about it. Fortunately for both of us, she figured out how to swim, and later would come to enjoy it a lot. But it could have ended very badly for us. We had been riding there for over 2 years, and thought we knew the safe places to ride. The cell phone did not survive the encounter.
This is the same place I encountered a pony who couldn't figure out water. Another time we rode there, I loaned my 13.2 pony gelding to a friend, and we rode down into the water. I looked back at my pony, and while he was willing to go in the water, the waves were breaking over his nose, and he couldn't figure out to raise his head. He was snorting water and getting panicked, his rider had no clue. I told her to take him out and we didn't take him there again.
Another winter ride, this time in the Avalon section of Patapsco. Again with my horse Shadow (yes, this horse is a saint). According to the map I had, there was a crossing below the dam. I was trying to ride different trails, so we decided to go for that crossing. I get there, and there are no markings. Since this was a popular area, there was no obvious trail. We had two options, a very rocky crossing, or across smooth sand. I looked at the water, which was very clear, and thought the sand crossing was quite shallow. I didn't like the rocks, so we headed across where it was sandy. Halfway over, suddenly I am wet to the waist, and Shadow is smoothly swimming across. She wasn't bothered, as we had been swimming for years by then, but this was Feb, and again, I had an hour long wet ride back home. My friend crossed at the rocks, and laughed pretty much the whole way home.
Be cautious, and think ahead! Many thanks to the MDHorseperson list for contributions to this discussion!
How not to dress for the beach...