Winterize Your Horse: Preventing Dehydration
“You can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make it drink.” This may be true, but there are things you can do to encourage your horse to drink. Read what veterinarian Joyce Harman has to say on the topic.
By Joyce Harman, DVM, MRCVS
We’ve all heard the old saying, “you can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make him drink.” Well, that’s true. Low grade dehydration is definitely a problem in the winter. In fact, keeping your horse hydrated in the winter months is as important as during the summer.
On average, a horse drinks five to 10 gallons of fresh water per day, and like humans, the need for water varies. But regular water consumption is extremely important, especially to digest hay or dried forage in the winter that have lower amounts of water content, less than 20 percent. This is as opposed to the grasses and pastures horses graze in the warmer months that have naturally higher levels, about 75 percent or more.
With dehydration, you will notice dry manure. Dehydration can significantly increase the chance of impaction colic and other serious problems. The best way to determine if your horse is dehydrated is to do a skin pinch test on the side of the horse’s neck. In a well- hydrated horse the skin should be elastic and immediately snap back to flat skin. If it stays puckered up, you probably have dehydration. Older horses may have lost their skin elasticity, so you may want to consult with your veterinarian. Also, take a look at your horse’s eyes, nostrils and gums. They should be moist and pink. If not, you may have dehydration problems.
Your Horse’s Water in Winter – Consistency is Key
Some horses will drink more if the water is warm; however, encourage them to drink cool water. The problem with warm water is that when it cools down, the horse won’t drink the cold water. They will want warm water. It’s not necessarily the best thing unless you’re committed to warming the water routinely. You can use warm water as a treat on a cold windy damp day. To encourage drinking, you can add some salts and electrolytes or add flavorings, but make sure they are drinking it. Again, they may get used to the additives and refuse to drink plain water. So keep it to a minimum unless you’re committed to warming water or adding electrolytes or flavorings every time.
Also keep watch on the water buckets. Prevent the water from freezing. If ice forms on the top, a horse will probably not break the ice to get to the water. Frozen water or eating snow will not accomplish the same level of hydration as plentiful, fresh water. Another way to increase water intake is soaking food, including hay, in water. A wet mash adds a few quarts to food.
Winter Weight Loss
If your horse loses weight in the winter don’t worry. It’s actually a natural thing. Horses like cold weather. Horses that live in the wild often live in colder regions where there is not much food in the winter. They naturally lose weight. When springtime comes and the spring grasses, your horse can eat the spring grass without worry about weight. It’s far more difficult to manage overweight horses, especially in the spring. Winter weight loss between 25 to 50 pounds is usually fine throughout the winter. Your horse will be ready for spring grass with a much safer and natural metabolism.
You should watch your older horse’s weight. Use your weight tape. Make sure to use it regularly, especially for horses that wear blankets frequently. If you are your horse’s sole caretaker, sometimes we don’t “see” the weight loss, so it’s best to use a weight tape on a regular basis. This will help you judge the food intake or to add extra calories if needed.
Enjoying Your Horse in Wintertime
It is important to establish a winterization plan to keep your horse healthy and avoid injuries throughout the cold months. Low grade dehydration is a problem for many horses in the winter. Try to encourage your horse to drink cool water so you are not committed to constantly warming water or adding flavorings or electrolytes. Add water to food for extra hydration. Your horse may lose weight in the winter, but this is natural. Your horse will be ready to consume spring grasses and maintain a healthy weight after the winter.
Adapt to your horse’s individual needs – not just the temperature outside or your perceptions about the horse based on your own needs. Let horses be horses in the winter and enjoy the colder months with them!
Portions of this article are from a live webinar featuring Dr. Joyce Harman, DVM. Watch the full presentation here: