Dear Amy:

“How important is water in the winter for horses? My uncle says that horses don’t need water if they can eat snow. Is this true?”

~ Ally M., Kitchener, ON

We’ve all heard that old saying, ‘You can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make him drink,’ and this is particularly true in the winter months. It’s not unusual for horses to reduce their water intake in freezing temperatures, but this can be dangerous. Your horse’s body is made up of 60 per cent water, a portion of which he loses each time he breathes, eliminates waste and sweats. It’s important, therefore, to supply 30-45 litres of fresh water per day in order to meet his needs and avoid potentially fatal complications from dehydration such as colic and kidney damage.

How can I tell if my horse is dehydrated?

There are a few warning signs that your horse is not getting enough to drink. You may notice that he seems tired, or is not eating as much as usual. This could be due to a decrease in saliva production, which is needed to help soften his feed as he chews. Healthy horses produce up to 35 litres of saliva per day to help them swallow coarse hay and grain.

In addition, insufficient water intake can reduce the amount of manure your horse produces, and what he does produce may be drier than usual. This is an early indication that your horse may be headed for a bout of colic, so be sure to alert your vet and double your efforts to provide a suitable water source. Further, a dehydrated horse’s urine is darker than usual – reddish-orange as opposed to the normal yellow colour.

Do a “pinch test” to check if your horse is properly hydrated. Pinch a fold of skin at the base of his neck. If the skin flattens back into place when you let go in less than a second, he’s fine. If it flattens slowly or remains “tented up” it could mean that your horse is dehydrated.

How can I encourage my horse to drink more?

Horses are more likely to drink water if it’s an appealing temperature. Studies have shown that horses prefer water kept at a temperature between seven and 18 degrees Celsius. If you don’t have heated buckets installed in your barn to keep your horse’s water warm in the winter, consider using a tea kettle to add heated water or bringing warm water from the tap to take the chill off.

Another way to encourage your horse to drink is by providing adequate amounts of salt in his diet. You can either add salt daily to his feed ration or provide a salt block. Speak to your vet or an equine nutritionist about what type and amount of salt is best for your horse.

Snow is No Substitute

Some horse owners mistakenly believe that a horse can keep himself hydrated eating snow alone. Although horses will often eat small amounts of snow, it should never be considered an adequate replacement for a regular water source!

For each litre of water your horse’s body requires, he would have to consume more than 12 litres of snow, which would have to be melted and warmed to his body temperature inside his digestive tract, taking much-needed energy away from the task of staying warm.