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Is your horse receiving enough water?

Healthy water intake

Is your horse receiving enough water?
Is your horse receiving enough water?

[dropcap]W[/dropcap]ater is one of the foundations of life and plays a huge role in the wellbeing of our four-hooved friends. Whether a happy hacker or professional athlete, a vitally important factor to consider is hydration. During the winter period, some horses’ water intake becomes much less. This month we look at maintaining your horse’s hydration.


Horses typically require 25ℓ of water per day at mild temperatures (-5 to 10°C), but this can increase with temperature and level of exercise. Keep a record of your horse’s vital signs, such as temperature, pulse and respiratory rates (TPR), and monitor them daily.

  • TPR for a healthy adult horse:
    • Temperature: 37.2 – 38.3°C
    • Pulse: 28 – 44 beats per minute
    • Respiration: 10 – 24 breaths per minute

You’ll be able to pick up quickly if your horse is not feeling well. A dehydrated horse will have an increased pulse, pale gums, sunken eyes, and/or a tucked-up appearance around the belly area. Dehydration can also be identified by the skin pinch test, where you pinch the skin along the neck in front of the shoulder. It should return to normal within two seconds. If it doesn’t, your horse may be dehydrated. If your horse has not drunk any water for two days, it is advisable to seek veterinary attention. Like us, horses are susceptible to dehydration even in winter, as we tend to not drink as much water due to colder weather.

Water intake

As the saying goes, you can take a horse to water but you can’t make him drink. However, there are ways to encourage water intake. Dehydration can generally be solved by offering the horse clean, palatable water to drink. In more severe cases, an electrolyte can be added to the water or concentrates to encourage drinking and replace nutrients that have been lost. In extreme cases, veterinary attention may be required.

Other ways to increase your horse’s water intake is to soak your hay. Your horse will ingest more moisture that way. This is also beneficial in eliminating dust from the hay, which is particularly helpful for horses with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease or recurrent airway obstruction. If the horse receives concentrates, you can also add water to the concentrates, from a just-moist consistency up to a soup-like consistency to increase water intake. Adding salt to the diet in the form of a salt lick and/or salt in the concentrates also helps increase water intake.

Automatic water systems in the stables are useful in that you can be guaranteed your horse is getting a constant supply of fresh water, but it does make it difficult to monitor water intake. You may battle to know exactly how much water the horse has consumed, whereas with a bucket of water filled manually, you’ll be able to see how much has been consumed before filling it again. Another challenge comes in if the horse is turned out individually or in groups or a herd. Monitoring water intake in a group and herd environment is quite difficult, so it is best to monitor an individual horse’s intake when he is stabled. If the horse lives out, check to see that at least some water has been drunk out of the water buckets or troughs, and it will be even more important for you to rely on visual signs of dehydration in the horse and to keep an eye on his TPR rates.

Water while traveling and competing

You should always offer your horse fresh water after travelling. If travelling long distances, it is advisable to stop and provide your horse with water to drink every two to three hours. If you have a particularly fussy horse, you can take water from home. Competition horses should always have access to fresh, clean water, despite the controversy of tapering water intake. Research has shown that horses will not drink more than the capacity of the stomach at any given time and should be allowed to drink whenever they wish.

Hygiene is important when it comes to water troughs
Hygiene is important when it comes to water troughs

Other tips

  • Consider the temperature of the water. A horse will not be likely to drink out of a piping hot metal trough in the sun on a hot summer’s day. Always try to provide water in the shade and in a container or bucket that will keep it cool.
  • Although old bath tubs can hold substantial amounts of water, it may be hazardous with uneven and sharp edges, and the horse could injure himself. Provide your water in a safe and horse-friendly way.
  • Hygiene is very important when it comes to water containers. Water buckets or troughs should be kept clean and refilled with fresh water on a daily basis, even if the horse has not drunk it all. Food bits and dirt fall into the water and can make it unpalatable for the horse to drink.
  • Horses who don’t drink a lot or have undergone strenuous exercise can be offered one bucket of water with salt and one bucket of fresh water.
  • Always hose your horse down with a hosepipe or bucket of water and sponge if he is very sweaty. This helps the body to cool down after strenuous exercise and the body can absorb water this way. It also helps the muscles and tendons to recover.
  • Make sure buckets can’t be knocked over in the paddocks and stables. Placing an old tyre around smaller buckets can help to avoid them being knocked over.

The most effective way to ensure your horse is well hydrated is to offer free access to clean, fresh water in the stable, paddock and when out competing or travelling. Become familiar with the workload your horse can cope with and watch for signs of dehydration. Have some contingency plans in place but always be open to chatting with your vet should you suspect any problems.

Text: Hayley Kruger