All horses, whether they’re in training, competing in events, working on the farm, or hanging out as yard art, need to consume sufficient amounts of water for good health. The importance of proper hydration cannot be overemphasized.
Water benefits your horse’s body in several crucial ways, including:
- serving as a carrier for nourishment to all cells
- aiding in the removal of waste products and toxins
- assisting with temperature regulation
- lubricating joints and eyes
- enabling optimum digestion
“You cannot underestimate your horse’s need for water,” Bill Ormston, DVM, of Jubilee Animal Clinic, urges. “Contact your veterinarian right away if symptoms of dehydration worsen.”
Dehydration is not a sudden occurrence. Some signs, including altered respiration, muscle cramps, excessive sweating or no sweating (a condition known as anhidrosis), may not be apparent until the day after an energetic activity.
Meg Sleeper, VMD, of the University of Pennsylvania School of Veterinary Medicine, explains: “It is often very difficult to recognize dehydration in horses. Even clinical parameters like skin pinch, mucous membrane moisture and color are often not abnormal until a horse is significantly dehydrated.”
Don’t let the old adage “You can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make him drink” discourage your efforts. Tricks that may help encourage horses to drink include:
- “flavoring” their water with apples, peppermint, molasses or commercial products such as Horse Quencher
- offering filtered water to remove odd tastes
- adding salt to feed
- offering or administering electrolytes, such as Electrocharge
“Salt should not be used as a replacement for electrolytes when a horse is exercising,” cautions Dr. Sleeper, “because it would contain only sodium and chloride, not all the electrolytes needed for replacement of sweat losses.”
In addition, Dr. Sleeper notes that “none of the ‘tricks’ is perfect. “If a horse is significantly dehydrated, veterinary treatment is the only effective option. A horse that is significantly dehydrated should have fluid replacement under veterinary supervision. If gastrointestinal function is normal, fluid replacement can be administered by nasogastric intubation. However, if GI function is abnormal or dehydration is severe, intravenous administration of fluids may be necessary.”
A recent eNews from TheHorse.com reports that “a team of Canadian researchers recently revealed that horses tend to prefer water with neutral pH levels rather than low pH levels, meaning your picky drinker’s problem could be due to acidic water's sour taste.”
Test your own water with a simple litmus paper test. “If the water is below 5, then it may affect water intake," Katrina Merkies, PhD, a researcher at the University of Guelph’s Kemptville Campus in Ontario, explains. “You can also use a water hardness test. The harder the water, the more basic it may be; the softer the water the more acidic it will be.” [The study’s abstract, “Discrimination of Water Acidity by Mature Horses,” was published in the May/June 2011 issue of the Journal of Equine Veterinary Science.]
Insufficient water consumption can contribute to ailments ranging from muscle aches and minor fatigue to colic and even death. Continuous access to clean, fresh water is a must for your horse’s good health.