When it comes to getting thoroughbreds back on-track, there’s a particular practice among horsemen that continues to go quite swimmingly.
Training racehorses in water has been around for decades. It remains a popular and dominant method of conditioning or rehabilitating a runner in Japan, Europe and Australia.
In the United States, there are accounts of it that date back to the 1940s, an option utilized by of some of the most high-profile thoroughbred conditioners. There are stories of Charlie Whittingham riding thoroughbreds along the surf of the Pacific Ocean, within walking distance of his barn area at Del Mar racetrack in California.
Several of the larger thoroughbred operations in Florida, California and Kentucky also have swimming pools for horses.
In Canada, swimming is most prevalent in the standardbred industry, as many training facilities for the breed have equine pools, while others, such as those in eastern Canada, have been known to swim their racers in the harbours of Prince Edward Island. In Alberta, hydrotherapy in the form of exercising on an underwater treadmill, is popular.
Currently, there are more frequent examples of trainers in Ontario searching out and using swimming to aid in the training of thoroughbreds, whether it’s a horse coming off an injury or for maintaining fitness.
Ontario-based trainer Pat Parente, who has a stable of 30 horses, has utilized swimming as a complement to on-track work for years.
He extols the virtues of swimming horses, but cautions it isn’t for all in his barn. “When I found out about it years ago, I looked at the benefits of what it could do for certain horses and that’s what attracted me to it,” offers Parente. “It can’t be the only thing you do when it comes to fitness, therapy and maintenance, but it can be very beneficial.”
Although swimming thoroughbreds will never replace track training and there are some cautions such as possible susceptibility to colic to note before introducing swimming to your horse, the benefits of leading your horse to water to can be invaluable.
When trainer Renee Kierans welcomed the handsome grey colt Who Dat Ambush into her stable at Woodbine in the spring of 2013, she knew the four-year-old was coming to her with some physical issues, having not raced since March of 2012 at Fair Grounds in New Orleans.
“The horse came to me with condylar bone bruising,” recalls Kierans, a former amateur jockey and past television host for Woodbine Entertainment Group. “As he went along in early training [at the track], he then developed some hip issues.”
Who Dat Ambush had shown plenty of promise early in his career as a winner at high claiming levels and starter allowances. He began his 2013 campaign with a pair of third-place finishes on the Woodbine Polytrack in early summer before he relocated to Fort Erie. After a few starts at that track, he started to slide off form.
“Regular galloping was too hard on him,” offers Kierans, a co-owner of the colt with Brewer Racing and Arnold Hill.
Kierans decided to incorporate a swimming routine into Who Dat Ambush’s training and sent her charge to Classy Lane Stables in Guelph.
At Classy Lane, the pool is the size of approximately four horse-box stalls. The horse is led down a ramp into gradually deeper water to the point where the horse must start swimming. The water is also pushed out from the front of the area to offer some resistance.
The horse’s tail is tied to the back and there is a person on each side of the horse with a lead shank as the horse swims.
The colt took to the business of swimming quickly and was doing 15-20 minutes a day for several days before returning to the track for some on-track training.
“The swimming helped him lose some weight,” says Kierans. “That helped because he was carrying a bit of a belly and [losing the weight] made him sounder, he could use his hips and legs better much like people with arthritis.”
When Kierans, who gallops her own horses, would get him back to the track after several swimming sessions, she noticed the horse traveling better during his gallops.
He soon parlayed that training into a trip to the winner’s circle, taking a claiming race in November with a strong, off-the-pace rally.
Parente, who has approximately two-thirds of his horses in Calder (Florida) for the winter, prefers to use swimming for more seasoned thoroughbreds.
“As horses get older, more issues surface and I found that swimming can really help them,” says Parente. “Most really do take it, but the odd one will balk at it. The key is to be slow and steady when you introduce them to it, build them up. It’s been a good alternative, especially for the older horses.”
Carolyn Costigan had plenty of exposure to training horses in pools when studying horsemanship in Darley’s Flying Start program before she became a licensed trainer in 2009.
“It is a major part of the training program for horses in Australia,” says Costigan, whose first starter was Roan Inish, winner of the Princess Elizabeth Stakes at two in 2009. “The horses would train on the track in the morning and swim in the afternoon.”
Costigan had not swam any of her own horses until 2013 when one her stable’s star fillies, Nancy O, a graded stakes-placed daughter of Horse of the Year Arravale, came up with some bone bruising while training for her three-year-old debut.
“At the beginning [of 2013], we ran into a roadblock training her when she had a small amount of bruising in her cannon bones,” remembers Costigan. “She had time off and then came back to train well, but when the bruising returned, I wanted to keep her fit, so I started looking for a pool.”
Costigan and her assistant Jenna Bray found a swimming facility near Fort Erie, Ontario, owned by Tracy Hnatko. It’s one of the first major pools for thoroughbreds in the province.
“We came up with a training regime for Nancy O that would include swimming. It’s a long drive, but she would swim for 16 minutes and then be turned out in a paddock. Sometimes, she would swim twice a day.”
Nancy O would spend a few days at Hnatko’s farm and then return to Woodbine to record a workout before returning to swimming. She was back competing on October 12 and romped in a maiden allowance race.
“I like the use of swimming since it is resistance training and galloping is not. But horses use a different set of muscles for swimming, so you still need track training.”
On the muscle
Much of the discussion about swimming a thoroughbred deals with giving the horse exercise while avoiding the impact of the racetrack.
The movement of a horse paddling in a pool while trying to stay afloat uses different muscles than it would during a regular training run on a track.
“One of the secrets to horse swimming is the strengthening of the pulpultion muscles,” says Jessie Byler of Byler Performance Equine in Bellville, Texas, to Texas Horse Talk e-zine.
“The pulpultion muscles are the muscles on the backside of the bone that makes a horse go forward. If you can isolate those muscles by swimming with zero impact on the joints and zero stress on the horse mentally and physically, then you are going to be much better off in the long run.”
Chest and lung muscles are worked because of the resistance of the water which can offer about 12 times the resistance of air. “The water is putting pressure on the chest cavity of the horse which actually makes the lung work harder in the water than if out in normal atmosphere,” says Byler.
In addition to a handful of training centres in Ontario with the ability to swim horses, there are a number of hydrotherapy facilities in Alberta. Most of them offer training on an underwater treadmill.
FITT Equine in Didsbury, owned by Janice Tokar, states that the facility operates the only equine treadmill pool of its kind in Canada. They note that their equipement allows for longer strides and a greater water depth which allows horses to work at both the walk and trot in water that is deep enough to not only provide resistance training, but also alleviate 40-60 per cent of the weight and strain from the limbs. This method is different than full-out swimming as the horse is still walking on a firm surface.
Equine therapist Kirstin Johnson, owner of KESMARC equine fitness in Lexington, Kentucky, offered thoughts on pools and treadmills on the FITT website.
“[Swimming] is a very good cardiovascular workout: the horse swims really hard or he sinks, so he has to work,” she notes. “But certain injuries don’t do well. The pool isn’t good for a sore-backed horse.”
There is also the thought that swimming a horse in a pool is ‘anti-aerobic’ since the horse is on a vertical plane, trying to stay afloat, rather than horizontal. The attraction with water treadmills is that there is still some concussion on the limbs.
Dr. Peter Vatcher of the Toronto Equine Hospital in Mississauga, Ontario, says swimming is a useful addition to training and the benefits outweigh any drawbacks.
“It can be beneficial for maintaining fitness without putting a lot of load on their legs,” notes Dr. Vatcher.
Dr. Vatcher was not aware of any proof related to swimming-induced colic, the topic of a study done by Liz Walmsley, a clinical tutor and resident in equine surgery at the University of Melbourne Faculty of Veterinary Medicine.
That study concluded that, “swimming exercise infrequently results in colic, yet with high numbers of horses swimming, it is a relatively common reason for racetrack veterinarians to examine a horse for colic.”
Also, Dr. Vatcher does not believe that regular moisture on the horse’s feet would contribute to any issues, citing that horse’s feet are bathed or standing in ice tubs on a regular basis at the track. He also did not believe it added any extra assistance to laminitic horses.
“You can’t do training simply by swimming as you need the track work to strengthen bones and tendons, but it is a good practice for horses with issues like bone bruising.”
There is a dearth of swimming facilities in Ontario, but Kierans, who has started her own swimming business for interested clients, believes there is a growing need for this method of training.
“It’s a great tool to have access to,” says Kierans, who charges $60 for a swim session that also includes turn out. “It’s not for every horse, but certainly good for horses coming off an injury. The key to it is if you want to start working on their fitness without training them on a track for two months, the swimming can get them ready for track training.”
For Parente, who swam five of his horses at a facility close to Calder Racetrack over the winter, a solid swimming game plan is key.
“You have to know what you are doing when it comes to swimming horses. It’s not for every horse, but it can be quite effective.”