How to keep your horses hydrated

You can lead a horse to water… but you can’t make him drink! Follow these tips and tricks to encourage your horses to stay hydrated.

Keeping a horse hydrated is a concern for all seasons, but not all horses cooperate. The average amount consumed is five to ten gallons daily. Drinking too much may be a sign of Cushing’s disease, while not drinking enough can cause dehydration, impaction colic, or organ damage. Needless to say, taking steps to make sure your horses stay properly hydrated is extremely important!

Signs of dehydration

“The pinch test, pulling up a bit of your horse’s skin near the neck and seeing how quickly it smooths out again, two seconds or less, isn’t the best judge of dehydration,” says Dr. Jesslyn Bryk-Lucy, resident veterinarian and professor of equine studies at Centenary University in Hackettstown, New Jersey. “I check my horse’s gums. If they’re sticky to the touch or he’s panting, it’s time for a drink.”

Tricks to get him to drink

Mix it up

“I offer one bucket with apple juice mixed in and one of plain water so the horse has a choice,” says Dr. Jesslyn. “Some horses like water icy cold, while others want tepid water in the winter.” Offer a variety to horses that are reluctant to drink, and be sure to clean the buckets often!

The bottle trick

In cold weather, a plastic bottle that’s two-thirds full of water mixed with a cup or two of salt to keep it from freezing, leaves enough air in the bottle so it will float. While the water in the bucket may freeze over, horses soon learn to poke the bottle to break the surface ice so they can drink. Lining a large bucket with hay as insulation and inserting a slightly smaller bucket for water, also hinders freezing.

Keep it familiar

When traveling, some horses refuse to drink “away water”, so bring “home water” along. Samantha Mirzaee, a horse caretaker in Ottawa, Canada, says, “When we take horses to events, we make frequent stops to offer water. We also carry an electrolyte supplement to mix in the water. It smells like oranges and encourages them to drink.”

Hide it!

“Wet food hides water in the feed,” says Dr. Jesslyn. “It reduces the dust in hay, too. I make it as soupy as my horses will eat it.” Beet pulp, a digestible fiber that can be added to feed, significantly lowers sugar and starches. Available as pellets or shredded, it can be fed dry or soaked in hot water for 30 minutes. Don’t soak overnight as bacteria and mold can grow by morning. Timothy hay cubes, soaked for 15 minutes or up to two hours, are another option with the added benefit of slowing a fast eater.

Keep it clean

“An open trough can quickly fill with leaves, twigs, feathers, bird poop, and the bodies of thirsty bees, mice, or other small creatures, resulting in not only dirty water but possible botulism,” says Dr. Jesslyn. Locating the trough in a shady area cuts down on algae and moss in the summer. Change the water at least twice a week and scrub the trough regularly. During cold weather, move it to a sunnier spot.

What about goldfish?

Devan Catalano, a PhD in animal science at the University of Minnesota in Minneapolis, tested the theory that goldfish could be added to horse troughs to eat the algae. She surveyed those who had tried it, and presented her study results at the 2019 Equine Science Society Symposium in Asheville, North Carolina. She felt the type of trough (plastic or metal) had as much to do with water cleanliness as the goldfish did. She recommends metal, based on her results. A high mortality rate for the fish and the need to heat the water in winter, along with minimal results, led her to conclude the goldfish were not all that helpful.

Add some crunch

Because horses like variety, some texture and flavor in the form of barley, sunflower and flax sprouts makes an appealing addition to dry feed. Horses enjoy the crunch, receive added moisture, and these ingredients can help reduce colic.

Bobbing for apples

Jodie Davis, in Woodstock, Georgia, taught her horses to bob for apples. “I’m not sure they drink much but they have fun!” she says. “It showed me a lot about my two. One pushed the apple down, bit, lifted it and chewed. My mare got frustrated so I helped. The next time she asked for help more quickly, adding to our bond.”  

Overall, making sure your horse gets a healthy amount of water will keep him properly hydrated. Paying close attention can also alert you to health problems more quickly. Most of all, it allows you to spend more time with your horse, a benefit for both of you.