The water is 13 feet deep but the horse's head is bobbing above the surface as his legs move rhythmically below. His eyes are fixed on a woman in jeans who is standing on a small, carpeted island in the middle of the circular pool, tugging at his lead rope. He seems to be enjoying himself.
Sights such as this are not as unusual as you would think. Considered a fad when the idea was conceived in the 1970s, equine aquatics is now recognized by most of the racing community as a beneficial form of workout. There are pools (nonbetting) at racetracks, at fancy horse-therapy complexes and at some of the larger horse farms.
According to trainers and veterinarians, swimming is an excellent exercise for horses. Although it alone cannot build a horse to competitive condition, it can keep him close to the level of fitness that his stablemate who gallops on the track maintains. And while track workouts can cause wear and tear on a horse's legs, swimming provides a weightless workout.
"A racehorse is constantly pounding a hard track," says Dr. Gary Priest, a Versailles, Ky., equine practitioner. "His feet get sore and bruised. You can take a horse like that, exercise him in the pool for three or four weeks and give the bruises a chance to heal. Swimming offers horses a little time off without letting them lose their fitness."
As Dave Elliott, an East Coast trainer of standardbreds, puts it, "It enables you to get more races out of a horse. Say you are going to get only five races out of a horse before he breaks down. With swimming, you might get 10 or 15. It makes a big difference economically."
Swimming also works wonders for horses recovering from arthroscopic and other orthopedic surgeries. The exercise a horse receives in the pool breaks down scar tissue but doesn't put weight on newly grown cartilage. Because the cardiovascular system stays fit while the knees and legs are healing, having a horse swim regularly after surgery—as opposed to letting him recover in a pasture or stall—eliminates months of reconditioning. With training bills what they are, it saves thousands of dollars.
Spend a Buck won the 1985 Kentucky Derby five months after undergoing arthroscopic surgery for a bone chip in his right knee. His operation was done on Nov. 26, and by March, after a recuperation period that included about 50 days of swimming, the colt was back in action, winding up as 1985 Horse of the Year. Owner Dennis Diaz says, "It's wonderful therapy, particularly when you can't afford to give the horse a lot of time off. From all indications, it really helped Spend a Buck."
Here's how horse swimming works. Observe a therapist at Castleview Equine Center in Versailles as she leads a thoroughbred down a sloping ramp into the heated, filtered pool. As the horse enters the water, the therapist moves across a metal catwalk to an island in the center of the pool. From there, still holding the lead, she can pivot as the horse swims. Many horses are good swimmers, but some labor. A small percentage of horses—maybe one in a hundred—are terrified of the water, even though their tremendous lung capacity makes them natural swimmers. And some are downright lazy; they do just enough to stay afloat. That seems to be the case with the sluggish one currently in the poof. The therapist yells for assistance, and a second employee grabs a pole and begins to slap the water near the horse's rump. The horse picks up a little steam. "Floaters," horses who react poorly to the water, don't benefit from the workout as much as those who enjoy it.
The unhurried gelding in the Cast view pool is finally finished, and the next horse is ready for his swim. Yesterday was this one's first day in the pool, and just to be on the safe side and to ensure stability, the horse is rigged with double lead ropes. The therapist controls him from the island and a second handler controls him from the perimeter of the pool. The horse is tentative for half a lap and doesn't know whether to gallop or dog-paddle (actually most horses, once they get the hang of it, prefer a diagonal gait), but other than that, he does fine. In about two minutes he is out of the pool, exhausted.
"Horses require some time to become accustomed to swimming because they are using muscles they don't normally use," says Dr. John Johnson, an equine specialist whose clients race at the Meadowlands in East Rutherford, N.J. "Even a horse that is physically fit and racing might become quite tired after only a minute." Standard pool procedure calls for a horse's workouts to increase every day until a norm of 6 to 10 minutes is reached.