You can lead a horse to water, but can you make him drink?Water is necessary for all life on earth. With the exception of air, its absence leads to negative health effects faster than the elimination of any other nutrient.
Insufficient water intake by our horses can result in maladies ranging from minor fatigue and muscle aches to severe colic and even death.
An average healthy horse consumes approximately 10 gallons of water each day. Pound-for-pound, that’s nearly four times the amount of food required on a daily basis for optimal health.
How do we ensure our horses are drinking enough to stay sufficiently hydrated?
KNOW THE SIGNS OF DEHYDRATION
Dehydration does not suddenly occur; it is a gradual process. After an active day of riding or training -- particularly during hot, humid weather -- symptoms of dehydration (including muscle cramps, rapid heart rate, panting-like respiration, excessive sweating or no sweating) may not appear until the next day.
Simple tests for dehydration include:
- Pinch the skin on your horse’s neck or shoulder. The longer the skin stays elevated after you release it, the more dehydrated your horse is.
- Look at your horse’s gums and nostrils. Dark or reddish mucous membranes indicate dehydration.
- Check for capillary refill. Press on your horse’s gum just above the front teeth. Once your finger is removed, the spot will be white. If normal color does not return within a few seconds, your horse is likely dehydrated.
- Take your horse’s temperature. An elevated temperature (more than 102F) that doesn’t decrease after exercise may indicate dehydration.
If you suspect your horse may be dehydrated because of excessive heat, immediately move him to a cool area and offer unlimited access to water.
“You cannot underestimate your horse’s need for water,” says Bill Ormston, DVM, of Jubilee Animal Clinic. “If symptoms of heat stroke and dehydration continue to worsen, contact your veterinarian right away.”
ARE ELECTROLYTES THE ANSWER?
Excessive fluid loss may require the administration of electrolytes. Horses in competition during the warm summer months are prime candidates for electrolyte supplementation. Mike Uckele, President and CEO of Uckele Health & Nutrition, notes: “Performance horses, horses on diuretic medications, horses living in hot/humid weather, and horses experiencing diarrhea often need well-balanced electrolyte supplements to maintain proper fluid balance and prevent dehydration.”
Uckele encourages the inclusion of betaine (also known as trimethylglycine or TMG), in a horse’s diet. “Betaine is a compound found in beet roots, broccoli, spinach, fresh legumes, eggs, fish and liver,” he says. “Beets are the richest, most concentrated source.” In the horse, Uckele explains, betaine attracts water and protects the cells of the body from environmental stresses and dehydration. The accumulation of betaine in the horse’s cells permits cellular water retention and protects from the possibility of dehydration.
According to Jim Helfter of Advanced Biological Concepts, the horse’s digestive tract must be healthy and his diet must be balanced for the proper absorption of electrolytes. “Electrolyte demand is dependent on a number of factors, including riding conditions, temperature, humidity, elevation and the condition of the horse,” Helfter explains. “The required quantity of electrolytes is often misunderstood. A horse should be observed when he’s being given electrolytes. If he is constantly rejecting an electrolyte product, [that product] should be appraised again.”
ENCOURAGING WATER CONSUMPTION
Free access to a clean water source cannot be over-emphasized. Slime-free water tanks and scrubbed buckets, appropriately positioned (i.e., far from the manure pile) are much more inviting than dirty troughs with floating debris.
Some horses are averse to drinking water that’s not familiar to them. Plan ahead when traveling with your horse, hauling water from home. “Disguise” foreign water with flavorful additives such as peppermints, apple juice, or other fruity drinks.
Dr. Ormston suggests filtering water to remove odd tastes from various water sources, and encourages the use of drinking water hoses (as opposed to garden hoses) when filling your horse’s water trough.
A small portion of a horse’s daily water intake is ingested through his feed. Soaked hay, for example, can provide your horse with as much as 2 gallons of water. Salt blocks or free choice sea salt may encourage your horse to drink more, with the added benefit of providing the sodium necessary to help control body fluid.
It’s helpful to know that horses get the thirst signal more slowly than humans. According to the “Ask the Doctor” page at Tufts Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine, “this is because in humans, Na+ is less concentrated in sweat, so sodium becomes more concentrated in the blood, and the thirst signal goes out quickly. In horses, the sweat glands are very poor at conserving Na+ so even though the horse has lost a large amount of water and Na+, the signal does not go out for the horse to drink until a serious drop in blood volume occurs due to dehydration. Consequently, even though your horse is clearly dehydrated, when you lead him to water you can’t make him drink! He’s not stubborn -- his body is just not giving him an early enough warning signal.”
So, be patient after your ride, remain vigilant during all weather conditions, and know the signs and symptoms of equine dehydration.
A water test by an Environmental Lab can provide insight into your water’s potential health benefits and, conversely, its possible toxic elements. Read about an extreme case of fluoride poisoning in horses (a result of drinking from the municipal water supply): “Strange Illnesses Lead Horse Breeder to Challenge Fluoridation of Water” by Cathy Justus.
Ellen Haight, Editor of Holistic Horse, enjoys recreational rides with her 23-year-old large pony in the Rocky Mountains of south-central Colorado.