Optimization of Your Horse’s Water Intake

Written By Dr. Kris Hiney

Last month we discussed your horse’s water requirements and what factors may influence those requirements. This month we will discuss the best management techniques available to fulfill those water needs. Remember that water needs will vary greatly according to diet, temperature and amount of exercise. But ensuring that the horse consumes adequate water may not be as easy as we think.

First of all, we should consider the manner in which we provide water to the horse. If we remember where a horse naturally would drink water (out of streams, ponds etc), modern management systems are often quite different. Automatic waters may be massive time savers for people, but what do horses actually prefer? Many horseman may acknowledge that horses enjoy drinking from buckets far more than automatic waters. Indeed this has actually been borne out in the scientific literature. Given a choice, horses used buckets over automatic waterers almost exclusively. The type of waterer may also influence horse’s drinking behavior. In a study of horses never exposed to automatic waters, horses preferred float valve waters compared to push valves. Push valve waterers are those in which a horse must use some force of its muzzle against the valve. In fact, in that study, horses never consumed water from the push valves at all. It was believed the larger available reservoir of water in the float waterers encouraged the horses to drink more. In addition, push valves have a somewhat startling effect of the noise of water refilling the waterer. Horses were reluctant to return to the waterer after being startled.

Finally, the normal intake rate of water by a horse actually exceeds the flow rate of most waterers. Therefore a horse would need to drink much more often when using a low flow waterer. This may actually cause the horse to reduce its intake compared to being offered bucketed water. Now, this does not mean that automatic waters are out, but when selecting a waterer, look for one that maintains a larger reservoir of water or has larger surface area. Try to find a quiet waterer as well. Certainly horses can learn to use push valve waters, but during the training period careful observation should be employed to prevent dehydration. It may also be helpful to install a monitoring system in the pipeline feeding the waterer so that water consumption can be monitored.

Traveling with horses is also a key time to closely monitor water intake. Horses may reduce water intake for many reasons when being trailered for long distance. Stress, unfamiliar flavors of water, reduced feed intake and increased water losses may all create a state of dehydration in your horse. Often during travel, horses will reduce their feed intake, which subsequently reduces water intake. Remember that feed intake and water consumption are linked closely together. Reduction of water intake may lead to dehydration as horses typically increase water losses through sweating while trailering. Often we fail to consider how much muscular work a horse must perform to balance on long trips. Reduction of water availability may decrease your horse’s desire to eat as well. Thus, proper water and feed intake are a must for traveling horses. It is important that we try to break this cycle of reduced feed and water intake to ensure a healthy happy horse when it reaches its final destination.

Horses may also be reluctant to consume water which has an unfamiliar flavor. Addition of a flavoring agent may accustom a horse to a unique flavor which can mask new tastes. However, it is important to introduce the flavoring agent at a home. Horses accept a new flavors more readily when they are not stressed and are in their home environment. Use a training period prior to travel so that you do not discourage your horse from drinking. Also, in a test between apple and clover flavors, horses clearly preferred apple flavored water. There are multiple products available, so choose one that your horse likes.

Horses also drink when they eat, thus it is important to offer water simultaneously. Despite the fact that some horses may like to prefer dipping their hay in water, this is a normal behavior and need not be discouraged. While it may be messy, horses may due this to moisten their dry feed and make it easier to chew. In fact, in recent studies, horses consumed their hay much faster when it had been previously soaked. Presumably this was due to the ease of chewing of the soaked hay. This strategy may be helpful for horses which may have dental issues. Others have examined the particle length of forage fed to horses as a way to alter water intake. It has been suggested that chopping hay may encourage water intake or change water dynamics in the hindgut during long term exercise. However, water intake in Arabians fed either long stem hay or chopped hay did not differ, nor did the moisture percentage in the feces. Ultimately the total amount of forage consumed will directly influence water intake.

Horses are also sensitive to the temperature of their water. In horses completing work which created both dehydration and an elevation in temperature, horses initially preferred a saline solution that was 50 F compared to lukewarm or warm water. However, after about 20 minutes, the horses preferred the lukewarm water. Presumably the horses preferred the cooler water in order to help with thermoregulation. Season also affects water consumption. During cold weather horses reduce their water intake compared to more moderate temperatures. Therefore it is much easier for horses to become dehydrated in the winter, especially if their access to water is limited by ice formation. Horses actually prefer to drink water that is luke-warm compared to icy water. Clearly offering only icy water in winter can easily cause dehydration and potentially lead to colic. Therefore providing a tank or bucket heater in the winter is an important step in health management in the winter. Additionally, adding salt to the diet of the horse compared to offering only a free choice salt block may encourage water intake during cold temperatures. Other solutions to encourage water intake during cold weather include adding water to either pelleted feeds or creating bran mashes. In fact, in one study, horses fed a mash actually consumed more water voluntarily then horses fed a dry concentrate.

So, while you may lead the horse to water, and it may not drink; t it helps to have a source of water the horse actually prefers! Following these simple strategies can help ensure that your horse is always well hydrated.

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