Gravity is the culprit. The only thing keeping a top-heavy, one-thousand pound horse from plopping to the ground are four long, thin legs.
Mother Earth’s gravity is exerting a lot of pressure on those legs, and when a racehorse is on the job, running flat-out with a 120 pound jockey in the saddle, there’s even more stress on its legs and joints.
So it should come as no surprise that the most common problems for thoroughbreds are leg injuries. And the best way to recover from these injuries is equine water therapy – or as we outsiders might say … the horse swimming pool.
In addition to stables and a practice track, one of the services provided by the Thoroughbred Center outside Lexington, Kentucky is an equine pool. Our timing was perfect, and we watched four yearlings going for a dip – some for rehab and others just for exercise.
“What is really great about hydrotherapy in its most extreme form–swimming–is that you can bring a horse who might otherwise not be able to do any conditioning work at all (because of an injury) to almost total fitness. If you have a pool, you can challenge your horse’s musculoskeletal system and cardiovascular system without concussing the injury.” –thehorse.com
Horses aren’t naturally strong swimmers, so a few laps in the pool is a serious workout. Four to six laps was typical for the horses we saw, but some complete as many as 20! In the video, the loud snorts are a good indicator of how hard these yearlings are working, as well as a segue into an interesting piece of trackside trivia: horses can’t breathe through their mouths; all respiration is only through their nostrils. I bet you’d snort and flare your nostrils too.
Another obvious benefit of swimming is getting the horses in shape. In the run-up to Keeneland’s annual yearling sale, many trainers use the pool to, in the words of the manager, “take the baby fat off the yearlings so they look buff.” To get top dollar for your horse, the flab has to go.
My trip to the Thoroughbred Center was a delightful day of firsts. The horse pool provided another glimpse of the hard road that thoroughbreds must travel to achieve success. Everyone into the pool!
James & Terri
1. Bonnie U. Gruenberg via Wikimedia Commons
What a great outing. Thanks for sharing.
Thanks Peggy. I’m glad that others are finding the thouroughbred horse industry interesting as I do. ~James
Such beautiful animals. I haven’t interacted with horses in too long…other than this, which I’m curious about your/people’s thoughts on.
Namely, the Bulgarian restaurant where it was on the menu. (Or Serbia, Switzerland, etc)
Is eating an animal disrespectful of it? Is horse different from cow or pig?
You ask an interesting question, whose answer is likely to light up this comment board. In the truest sense of the word, when any dominant species uses another living creature as food, it’s the ultimate disrespect. In North America, most people (me included) don’t eat horse meat. But that doesn’t stop most of us from enjoying beef burgers, pork sausages, and chicken breasts. Is this hypocritical? Of course it is. I had a beef hamburger for lunch yesterday, so I’m certainly in no position to sit in judgement of someone in Serbia that enjoys the occasional horse steak. Ultimately, it comes down to one’s personal philosophy and their cultural taboos. And BTW, some people would say that keeping a horse captive for the sole purpose of racing for human entertainment is cruel and abusive. That’s blasphemy in these parts, but you make the call. ~James
Thanks Mukul. Thoroughbreds are very photogenic animals for sure. ~James
Indeed, seeing them submerged adds to their majesty.
They’re beautiful animals.
Thanks Yvonne. An unattractive thoroughbred is not something that I’ve seen very often. And of course, the grooms know how to make them look their best as well. ~James
Huh, I didn’t know they couldn’t breath through their mouths either! From the snorting, it sure sounds like quite a workout.
You can’t see it in the video Laura, but in addition to being flared to the max, the inside of the horses’ nostrils were blood red. So yes, they had a serious workout going on. ~James
You might find this related article from Nautilus magazine interesting. From your posts, it’s clear that the world of horse racing is both more complex and more interesting than I’ve realized.
Thanks for the link Linda; I love this stuff. This article reinforces what horse breeders have know for centuries, good breeding makes good horses. But, if it were that easy, the people with the most money and the right breeding stock would always win the Kentucky Derby. But, just ask the bookies; this just doesn’t happen. As the article points out, the difference between a speedy horse, and the speediest horse comes down to the intangibles: qualities programmed into the DNA that no one has figured out yet. ~James
When I first read your title, I was afraid this was a mandate for me. (Wouldn’t hurt to jog in a pool!) But how fascinating that horses, too, benefit from a pool dip. Go figure.
Buoyancy is a wonderful thing Rusha, especially when joints and legs are weak or injured. I’d like to say that these yearlings were having fun, but it looked like very hard work to me. ~James
Swimming is good exercise for man and beast! Horses always look so beautiful when they are swimming, even though it is hard work for them.
Darlene, most of the thoroughbreds that I’ve seen look good doing just about anything. As I’ve said, Kentucky is the horse center of the US for sure, but you must certainly be living in the horse center of Europe. As you know, we can tip our hats to the Spanish for bringing modern horses to the Americas – well and that Italian Christopher Columbus. ~James
The Andalusian horses, in particular, are gorgeous. That Italian seems to be more honoured here in Spain than in Italy. I guess it is all to do with who gives you the money!!
Well James and Terri, you have me totally hooked on this series! Swimming WITH a horse is the next step, you must see if you can give it a try! Probably not allowed in the high end of the industry, but perhaps you know someone who could take you for a ride/swim? Feeling them push off and float under you is magical.
I’m glad that you’re enjoying the series Martha. Swimming with a horse certainly sounds exciting. But honestly, I’m not a great swimmer, and my horse-riding skills border on non-existent, so I would probably manage to drown myself and the horse under me. So I’ll leave this one to you and your noble steed. ~James
Neat that they would use this therapy for the horses. It probably works for us too.
Leslie, it absolutely does work for humans as well as horses. And maybe even better for horses, because proportionally, they have far more weight to be supported by each leg. ~James
Good point, James.
Great to see the video of the swimming in action. It does make good sense for rehab. When we were in Jamaica we did some horse riding that included the horses swimming in the ocean. It did seem like the horses really had to work to swim. I wasn’t so sure it really was a happy thing for the horses at the time.
Sue, I have no experience riding a swimming horse, but the horses I saw at the training center were working hard for sure, and mind you, they were young, strong yearlings. It has to be tough with even the smallest of riders. Imagine all those poor horses in the old westerns that had saddles and cowboys on board when they swam across the Rio Grande. ~James
Watching the video I kept thinking ‘poor horse’. I wonder how hard they have to be coaxed into the water.
When I was training I did my own share of water therapy when I was injured. Ugh. It’s not fun.
Funny you should ask that Joanne, because one of the horses we saw at the pool was a first-timer. And actually, it took a bit of extra encouragement, but it wasn’t too bad. But remember, that these are expensive horses, and they are cared for and watched over by their trainers, grooms, and owners from the minute of their birth. So they are very accustomed to people and following commands. ~James
… unlike us unruly humans 🙂
You can’t have too many horses in your life…xoxo
Thanks for the comment and for dropping by the blog. I see from your bio that you grew up among horses in Denmark. I’ve traveled in Denmark, and know that it has lots of farmland, but somehow I don’t think of it as a place with lots of horses. Did you grow up on a horse farm? BTW, if you’re the horsey type, you might want to check out the other posts in this series on the thoroughbreds of Kentucky. ~James
They don’t look altogether pleased about the dip, do they? I guess horses ford rivers in the wild, so they must be OK with it.
You’re right Lexie. Most of them took a bit of coaxing to get them in the water, but I can’t imagine that it’s something they look forward to. But they do love a water-hose shower. ~James
I am so enjoying your posts on what makes a thoroughbred. What a wonderful experience for you!
Thanks LuAnn. As you and Terry know well from all your moving around, every place has all sorts of aspects that make it interesting and unique: history, architecture, nature, and the list goes on an on. Some places take more digging than others, but I believe that there’s alway something there. Luckily, for me, all I have to do is drive in any direction from Lexington to see beautiful horses grazing in wonderful landscapes. And you’re right, it is a wonderful experience. ~James
I have been DYINGGG to take my pony swimming! 🙂 I love how swimming is awesome for non-weight bearing horses!
Thanks for the comment Madison and for dropping by the blog. There are a number of equine therapy centers around Lexington, and it was fun to visit one, especially since I don’t own a horse. I hope that you can find a pool for your pony. ~James
Totally!!! I hope so too! I’ve seen people stand on docks and take their horses back and forth on them if the water is deep enough, sadly, living in the mountains might make that a bit difficult to find!
That was beyond cool. I love the picture of all the horses swimming. I read a lot of Westerns and that’s the only reason I know horses are strong swimmers. Amazing creatures.
Jacqui, strong swimmers indeed – especially when we remember that muscle sinks and fat floats. And if there’s one thing that thoroughbreds don’t have much of it’s fat. ~James