“You can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make him drink.”
That old familiar says certainly comes to mind when the sun’s boiling down, the horse is sweating profusely, and the owner brings a bucket of fresh water from the city hydrant.
Well, many horseshow and rodeo horse haulers handle it simply, at least solve the problem, by hauling tanks filled with water that their mounts are used to drinking at home.
But, there are other solutions to the water consumption problem.
Water is the fuel that keeps all living creatures’ bodies functioning.
“In horses, it’s a crucial nutrient for digestion and keeping body temperature steady regardless of changes in environment,” according to Kristen Janicki, equine nutritionist..
“A horse’s thirst is triggered by an increase in the sodium concentration of the blood,” according to Shannon Phillips, horse dietician.
“Because horses lose a great deal of sodium in their sweat, they may also lose some of their trigger for thirst,” Phillips said.
“Offering electrolytes will help stabilize the horse’s blood electrolyte levels and should help encourage the horse to drink,” Phillips advised.
“Sometimes masking the water with flavoring agents such as ‘Kool-Aid’ helps make finicky horses drink when they really do need to,” Phillips continued. “Water can even be mixed in with hay, hay cubes, or other feeds to increase intake.
“Just make sure the horse always has access to fresh, clean water at all times, and most of them will drink when they get thirsty enough out in the sun,” Phillips insisted.
“Frequently checking, scrubbing, and refilling water troughs and buckets is part of the nitty-gritty of horse keeping,” added Mary Gordon, equine nutrition researcher.
Other ways to up horse’s intake include providing salt via salt blocks, loose salt top-dressing on feed, or a salt supplement. “Correct sodium balance in the horse is necessary for proper thirst response and body water equilibrium,” Gordon explained.
Although horses’ bodies can tolerate a lack of water for extended periods, dehydration from water restriction can quickly become fatal “After three to four days, the horse’s organs will begin to shut down, which can result in irreversible organ and tissue damage,” Janicki explained.
Water intake, however, is not just about drinking “While horses on pasture with high content don’t drink much, the more dry feed a horse east, the more water they will drink,” Gordon said.
Horses also naturally generate “metabolic” water as a result of breaking down protein, carbohydrates, and fat. “This does not provide a large amount of water, but does contribute to the horse’s daily balance,” Janicki said.
Although some owners have reservations about giving a horse free access to water before he “cools down,” Gordon said horses generally don’t drink beyond their stomach capacity in the first few minutes following intense exercise.
“Water does not need to be withheld,” Gordon said. “Use ‘hose-cold’ water, and train horses to drink salt water after intense exercise to help replenish water and electrolyte requirements. Also provide clean water at the same time.”
Still, a horse can, in fact, drink too much water, especially if they’re hot, and/or been without water for extended time. This could cause laminitis, also known as founder, and other long term ailments.
Diet can also affect water consumption. “High levels of hay, salt, potassium, and protein in the diet can cause excessive water intake,” Gordon said.
“Excessive water intake can cause stress on the kidneys as they eliminate the excess water and can also dilute the electrolytes in the horse’s body, decreasing its ability to regulate temperature,” Janicki explained.
“Typically, a 1,100-pound horse would consume about 6 1/2 gallons of water per day,” Gordon said.
“How long it takes for a horse to become dehydrated depends on many individual factors affecting hydration status in hot weather, such as diet, work, pregnancy, lactation, and age,” Phillips informed.
Frequent stops about every two to three hours to offer a horse water when traveling was advised. “This will help him not only stay hydrated but also tolerate traveling for long periods of time,” Janicki concluded.