After the fear of injury, the number one thing horse owners tell me that they worry about with their horse is making sure they are drinking enough water.
It’s a valid concern when you think about how important water is to equine well-being. Horses can go 25 days without food but only 5 days without water before it begins to affect their health.
In horses, water facilitates digestion and helps the absorption of nutrients. Water is an essential factor in breaking down the food a horse ingests. It is also regulates equine body temperature.
Horses ingest water and loose water throughout the day. Fluid exits the horse via feces, urine, sweat and water vapor in exhaled air. Dehydration occurs when loss of fluids exceeds fluid intake from food and water.
Every horse owner should be aware of the consequences of dehydration in horses. Lack of water can contribute to impaction colic, choke, inability to metabolize nutrients and even heat stroke.
It’s important to understand what is normal in your horse including his manure. Daily observation of the moisture in the manure is important. Dryer than normal feces may signal early signs of dehydration and also the danger of colic. Manure that is too loose can lead to excessive loss of fluids and cause dehydration.
With that in mind here are 10 ways to help your horse get enough water:
1. Make sure buckets and tanks are clean– This sounds like an obvious tip but you’d be amazed at how many people never clean their tanks or buckets. Many just top off the buckets daily never dumping them and scrubbing. Horses drag their hay and feed, they defecate and they play in their water.
Buckets should be emptied every day and scrubbed weekly. If carrying a bucket out to empty is too heavy, put extra buckets in the stall and only fill half way. Tanks should be cleaned on a weekly basis.
2. Correct temperature- Studies have shown that horses prefer drinking water that is around 50°F. So if it’s too hot or too cold it will reduce consumption. Keep your trough and bucket out of the blazing sun in the summer and warm up the water in the winter.
3. Auto water – If you can afford to install these systems I think they are great. They keep the water cooler in the summer and prevent freezing in the winter. They even have monitors now so you know how much your horse has consumed.
4. Heated water bucket or tank de-icer- A horse will not eat ice for hydration therefore it must have access to liquid water. Most feed stores sell tank de-icers as well as individual buckets with heating mechanisms.
The heating unit is built into the walls of the bucket so it never needs cleaning, and the cord is housed in a flexible metal sheath. You can buy a 5 gallon flat back bucket for a stall or a 15 to 16 gallon bucket for more an area such as in a run in shelter.
Stock tank de-icers can float on top or be exchanged with the plug on the bottom. As long as you run the cords safely these can be life savers in the winter.
5. Covering up most of the water tank– There are some situations where there is not a power source to use a tank heater or heated bucket. If you are using a stock tank under these circumstances you can surround the tank with straw bales for insulation and you can put a cover over the tank to reduce freezing. By leaving just enough room for the horses to drink you will help slow down ice formation. Whatever you use to cover up the tank, be sure it is something that you can securely attach so your horse doesn’t get hurt on it.
If you are using water buckets and do not have access to electricity you can pour hot water into the buckets throughout the day to help keep the water a palatable temperature.
6. Bring your own bucket when traveling– This is really important if your horse won’t drink in new places. To travel with water you can buy 5 gallon buckets with lids or even portable water buckets to carry the water. Bringing your horse’s own bucket and water from home will reduce the risk of him not drinking while traveling.
I kind of love the H2O to go bucket that you can use in your barn or at shows. It’s under $20 and designed for equine use.
7. Soaking chopped forage, cubes and beet pulp– This is a personal favorite of mine. All three are easy to find at your feed store. Most horses will eat all three readily. By adding this to a daily ration you can be assured you are increasing water intake. Be sure to start with a small amount (like a cup) and increase over a 7 day period to avoid gastric upset. Eventually you can feed a full bucket full of soaked forage daily or mix it with your horse’s regular ration. I mix a 2:1 ratio, 2 water to 1 forage and let it soak for at least 30 minutes.
8. Bran mash– There is controversy with feeding bran and I tend to lean on this side of not feeding them as an occasional bran mash. A mash only once a week could cause the stomach issues that seem to be the concern of those against their use. What you see as a “laxative effect” I see as a horse with diarrhea from a sudden change in diet. Also with the low feeding rate of once a week bran mashes won’t really add much water to the diet. If you want to feed bran, feed a small amount of it of your horse’s everyday ration. Make it like soup if you are trying to get water in your horse. That way his digestive tract will get used to it and not cause upset. Go slow at first though as with any feed addition or change!
9. Spike the water– I’ve heard all sorts of ideas on what to use to flavor the water. From electrolytes, apple juice, kool aid, apple cider vinegar to orange-flavored Gatorade powder. I say whatever they like, to make it taste and smell good is best. Most people start with a small amount and get their horses accustom to the taste. This is especially true if you plan to use this technique at shows or while traveling.
10. Salt- In animals, salt plays a vital role in water retention and muscle contraction. Salt contains nutrients and minerals that are vital to digestive health. Since horses are generally very good about monitoring their own salt intake, you don’t want to force too much salt on them. You can top dress their feed with granulated salt every day. Plain table salt is fine; kosher salt, with its coarser texture, is even better. If your horse is getting any commercial feed or a vitamin/mineral supplement, skip the iodized salt as they are already getting enough iodine.) Provide two to four level tablespoons of salt per day. Start with small amounts and build gradually to a full dose to allow you horse to get used to the new taste. Monitor their water intake and urine output. If they still need to drink more, add a little more to their ration. Never add the salt to his water.
With proper attention to water intake and manure consistency horses owners should be able to tell if they need to implement any of the ideas in this post. Remember to take climate, health and work load into consideration in determining your horse’s water needs.
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Til we meet again…..
II Images used in this post: Adams Horse Supply, Cowgirl Diary, Haiku Farm, Horse and Man, Koehn Marketing, Nelson Manufacturing, Omega Feeds, Ritchie