BY DEBORAH JANE NICHOLAS
My mother walked into the living room to find out why her 9 year old daughter was crying. The child was curled up on the sofa clutching her knees to her chest. The cushion with the green velvet cover that was probably bought from Oxfam for 20p was being used to absorb ample amounts of bodily fluids that consisted of tears and snot. My mother’s eyes darted to the tv and she sighed, marched over to the box of doom and switched it off. She asked her child Why do you do this to yourself?
Yes, Lassie was lost. It was raining and he hadn’t eaten for a week, to get home his malnourished body had to cross an angry swirling grey river, and he barely made it. The poor animal dragged himself up the opposite bank, then collapsed from exhaustion. I’m sure Lassie made it home, I have some vague memory of him running across a corn field in slow motion, with his boy-owner running to embrace him.
So why do I do this to myself?
I don’t anymore if I can help it. Videos, films or books depicting animals suffering are avoided. Even the Budweiser commercials leave me crying for ten minutes, hey but the donkey dreamt big, and succeeded!
War Horse, no. Free Willy, no. Homeward Bound, no. Not even Lion King? No. Black Beauty? Yes, but never again, I’m still scarred.
Recently however I forced myself to watch a video knowing it would upset me. I felt it was necessary. There has been a growing trend on social media involving owners taking their horses to a body of water, either the sea or a lake in order to swim. Owners may be encouraged to try the same when they see videos of successful swims, it looked fun and everything went swimmingly.
What about the videos they aren’t seeing?
We hear of dogs drowning in the ocean, they swim far out and can’t get back. Some explanations I have heard is that they were caught in the current, they grew tired and they sank. It’s possible a rogue wave swept them off a rock and took them out to sea, that happens to people also.
I believe the main reason is because they become disorientated. They look for land and choose a direction, the wrong one. Horse or dog, they have no experience of the sea. They didn’t sit in geography lessons and look at maps and learn how big oceans are. They continue to swim trying to find ground beneath paw or hoof. Take your horse into the sea to let it swim and you are risking its life.
But the video I watched didn’t involve a horse becoming disorientated, it didn’t even involve the sea. It was a warm peaceful evening, and this small lake was without a ripple. Perhaps the owner had taken his horse swimming here before, and without incident. Yet the horse drowned.
The owner’s mistake?
His horse was wearing a bridle and martingale.
Once a horse loses ground beneath his hooves, he doggy paddles. The front hooves come up high much like a dog swims.
Amongst all the splashing, I really couldn’t tell whether that horse had his hoof caught in the reins or the martingale, or both. But with every attempt of a downward paddle a powerful equine leg pulled on the horses bit, dragging his head downward. Unfortunately it’s entirely possible to ascertain the separate moments of when the horse tried to swim, couldn’t swim, sheer panic, then the death throws. Within a few short minutes the lake was once again without a ripple, and the Universe had lost an innocent soul.
Why am I being so graphic?
I don’t want anyone to kill their horse. Don’t dream of beaches and calm lakes swimming with your equine friend. I wouldn’t even risk using a head collar and lead rope. The video was upsetting but it also needs to be considered that the horse didn’t want to go in the water. The owner had to boot the horses sides to force it to get in. The horse was unsure, and for good reason.
Trainers will use swimming for fitness, therapeutic and rehabilitation purposes at professional yards, but there will be 2 ropes used, one each side of the head. The ropes are kept out of the water, and no-where near the front of the horse. No-one else should be encouraging their equine friend into a body of water unless it’s within a controlled environment with knowledgeable people.
I fear cases of drowning are not talked about, no-one will want to admit hooves were tangled in tack. I also fear they won’t even realise hooves were tangled in tack, the owner may just think the horse couldn’t swim. People will share their swimming videos on social media, more people will be encouraged to try the same. More horses will drown.
Stay on the sand, or better still stubble fields and bridle-ways.
Deborah Jane Nicholas has been around horses for nearly 40 years and has worked within the horse industry in a number of roles. Deborah’s other passions are her 2 dogs, countryside walks and writing, which she does here.