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SWIMMING HORSES: why don’t we build pools anymore?



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SWIMMING HORSES

Why don’t we build pools anymore?

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In the high-stakes world of horse racing, every edge counts. Trainers and owners constantly seek innovative methods to enhance their equine athletes' fitness, strength, and overall performance. One such method is swimming, which offers a unique blend of cardiovascular conditioning, muscle strengthening, and low-impact performance enhancement or rehabilitation. Swimming has been used with racehorses for over 50 years and remains popular in the racing industry. However, it can also be a game-changer for performance horses, providing numerous benefits that traditional land-based training alone cannot achieve.  Here we explore the science behind swimming for performance horses, its advantages, and why it could potentially be an essential component of modern training regimes. We also consider why we don’t build pools anymore and what the alternatives are.


Swimming is an excellent cardiovascular workout. The effort required to swim enhances heart and lung function, increasing stamina and overall cardiovascular health. For performance horses, improved cardiovascular fitness translates into better performance during competition, as they can sustain high speeds for longer periods.


Water resistance helps develop muscle strength and endurance more effectively than some traditional exercises. Stronger muscles contribute to improved speed and power on the track or in the arena, developed without fully weight-bearing or repetitive concussion. Additionally, the even resistance stabilises muscles, enhancing a horse's balance and agility. Swimming significantly enhances both muscle aerobic capacity and strength. It is also exceptional for cardiovascular fitness. Recent research indicates that just 5 to 8 minutes of swimming can elevate a horse's heart rate from 34 to 175 beats per minute, nearly matching the 200 beats per minute that horses reach when breezing over 4 furlongs on the track.


Hydrostatic pressure, the force exerted by a fluid, plays a crucial role in the benefits of swimming. When a racehorse is submerged, this pressure supports the horse's body, reducing the strain on joints and ligaments. Buoyancy further lessens the weight bearing on the horse's limbs, making swimming a safe and effective exercise for horses recovering from injuries or those with joint issues. Water provides approximately 12 times the resistance of air. This resistance means that as a horse swims, it must exert significantly more effort to move through the water. This resistance training helps build muscle strength and endurance efficiently. The even resistance in all directions ensures balanced muscle development, particularly in the core, which is essential for maintaining speed and stability on the racetrack.

 

Benefits of Swimming for Performance Horses

  • Performance horses are prone to various injuries due to the high-impact nature of their training and competition. Swimming offers a low-impact alternative that can help prevent injuries by reducing the stress on joints and tendons. For horses already injured, swimming can provide a safe way to maintain fitness and promote healing without the risk of further damage.


  • From a conditioning standpoint, a 15-minute swim is equivalent to galloping a horse for 5 miles without a rider.


  • Swimming allows for a greater range of motion than many land-based exercises. This improved flexibility is crucial for performance horses, as it enhances their stride length and efficiency, contributing to better overall performance.


  • Many modern equestrian training facilities now feature state-of-the-art equine swimming pools. Trainers report significant improvements in their horses' fitness levels, recovery times, and overall performance. These facilities are becoming increasingly popular among top-tier trainers and owners looking to give their horses a competitive edge, but they are not being utilised optimally due to their scarcity for the everyday owner in the UK. Racing yards understandably can’t allow others to hire their pools due to biosecurity risks (amongst many other risks!), and with the implementation of pools being so permanent, livery and competition yards owners are moving towards underwater treadmills and spas that can be relocated or sold in future. 

 

  • While the benefits of swimming are clear, logistical challenges such as the availability of facilities and the cost of maintenance can be barriers. Having the space to house the pool, pumps, filtration systems and prep areas is difficult, and the installation is costly and complex. However, investing in equine swimming pools can yield long-term benefits that outweigh the initial costs. Shared facilities are emerging solutions that can make this practice more accessible, however, the significantly more popular underwater treadmills are proliferating for dressage horses especially.


  • Increasing awareness about the benefits of swimming for performance horses is crucial. Veterinarians, trainers, and owners need to be educated on how to integrate swimming into their training programs effectively. Workshops, seminars, and demonstration events can help spread knowledge and encourage more widespread adoption if we want to prevent their demise.


  • Ensuring the safety of horses while swimming is paramount. Proper training for handlers and the gradual introduction of horses to water can mitigate risks. Safety protocols and monitoring can ensure that swimming remains a beneficial and injury-free activity.




Swimming as a Training Tool for Performance Horses: Insights from Research

Swimming has increasingly become a staple in the training regime of performance horses. To understand its impact and effectiveness, a 2014 study aimed to determine if a standardised swimming test could be conducted on performance horses and whether the exercise variables from this test correlated with racetrack performance.


The study involved 52 Thoroughbred performance horses (average age 4.6 years; 50 geldings and 2 stallions) racing at the Hong Kong Jockey Club (HKJC). Each horse underwent a swimming test, which consisted of two laps around an oval-shaped swimming pool, with each lap measuring approximately 60 meters. During the test, researchers monitored the horses' heart rate (HR) and speed (V). Additionally, 10 of these horses were retested within a period of 1 to 21 days to assess the repeatability of the swimming test, and their plasma lactate concentration (LA) was measured after the second test.


Performance ratings for the horses were based on scores determined by the HKJC, which reflected their race performance. Horses were also categorised into "good performers" (those who placed 1st to 5th in competitions within one month before or after the swimming test) and "average performers" (those who placed lower).



The results were as follows:

  • The mean heart rate during the first swimming test was 178±14 beats per minute (bpm), and the mean speed was 1.06±0.10 meters per second (m/s).

  • There was a significant correlation between heart rate and speed

  • Heart rate was not repeatable between tests

  • No significant correlation was found between racing performance and heart rate, speed, or plasma lactate concentration.


The study concluded that under the current conditions, it was not possible to perform a repeatable standardised swimming test. Additionally, the results of the swimming test did not serve as a useful predictor of either performance rating or performance category.


Interestingly, some horses reached high heart rates during the swimming test, and one horse even showed a plasma lactate concentration above the anaerobic threshold. This indicates that swimming may not always be as mild an exercise as some trainers believe.


Despite these findings, swimming remains a valuable component of racehorse training, offering benefits such as enhanced muscle strength, cardiovascular fitness, and mental relaxation. However, this study highlights the need for further research to optimise swimming protocols and better understand their impact on racehorse performance.


Research on water treadmills has revealed significant kinematic changes in horses' limbs and back depending on water depth. These changes include an increased range of motion (ROM) in several joints, reduced segmental accelerations, and increased angular velocities.


Despite the empirical use of swimming for equine rehabilitation, there are concerns about the potential risks associated with excessive extension of the spine and limbs. Understanding the kinematics of the equine hindlimb during swimming will provide crucial insights into the swimming patterns and motions used by horses, contributing to the optimisation of swimming rehabilitation protocols.


The degree of joint flexion observed during swimming surpasses what has been previously reported for horses walking (in Spanish horses) or trotting (in various breeds). Additionally, the range of motion (ROM) in the stifle and tarsus joints during swimming exceeds that recorded during walking and trotting.


These findings align with studies in dogs, where healthy dogs exhibit greater hindlimb ROM during swimming compared to walking. In canine rehabilitation, particularly for dogs recovering from cranial cruciate ligament ruptures, the increased stifle ROM during swimming has proven beneficial. This suggests similar advantages for equine rehabilitation.


For instance, swimming, being a non-weight-bearing exercise, could be advantageous for horses with meniscal pathology or stifle joint osteoarthritis. Horses with upward fixation of the patella might benefit from swimming as it helps build quadriceps muscle mass without reaching the stifle's full extension, which is the fixation point. Additionally, horses with stifle fibrosis resulting from large periarticular hematomas or seromas may find swimming useful for stretching periarticular tissue and restoring near-normal ROM more quickly.


Future research is needed to evaluate the rehabilitation benefits of swimming for these specific conditions before making definitive recommendations. Further studies are also needed to assess the kinematics of the back and limbs during swimming comprehensively. Although the benefits of swimming for neurological and orthopaedic conditions in both horses and dogs are recognised, additional research is required to provide solid evidence for incorporating swimming into rehabilitation programs.



So how could this affect you?

If you are looking to improve the performance of your horse for competition, consider the use of equine swimming pools. It is always advised you speak to your veterinarian first to ensure your horse has no known contraindications or additional precautions required in the first instance. When considering which pool to use, go along without your horse first and have a look at the setup and ask yourself; what is the water quality like, and can they show you water management records? Is the area kept safe, are the handlers experienced, and what are their protocols for introducing new horses? Ideally, watch a few horses swim and ask plenty of questions. For further advice, you can visit the Institute of Equine Hydrother





 


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