Water is essential for all living things and horses are no exception to the rule. In fact, water is the most important nutrient for horses. It is required for all body functions such as digestion, respiration, reproduction and lactation. Therefore, it should be no surprise that horses need to have access to clean water at all times.
Interestingly, the actual daily amount of water that horses require to maintain a healthy body function and remain hydrated is a minimum of 5 to10 gallons per a 1,000-pound horse. The exception to that rule includes situations where horses are working or living in temperate climates. Logically if a horse’s workload or environmental temperatures change and are elevated, then this will increase the need for more water. Additionally lactating mares, and horses with certain medical conditions may also require additional water. In short, factors such as air temperature, workload and type of feed, pregnant and/or nursing mare, size and health are all things that impact a horse’s basic water requirements.
There are many different ways of delivering water to your horses and are dependent on your stable layout and access to electricity. For example, in a stall setup you can have automatic waters or a bucket to hold the water. If you have a bucket system it is good to have at least two buckets on hand to make sure that the horse has enough water to last through evening hours and especially on warmer days. One advantage to a bucket system is that you can more closely monitor how much your horse is drinking.
Horses on turnout may have access to water through outside automatic waters, or even water tanks. If you are using galvanized or heavy-duty plastic tanks, it is best to have a filter to clean the tanks regularly as stagnant water can attract things like insects and is also more likely to grow algae and bacteria. You would not want to drink dirty water and neither does your horse! Similarly, it is important to check for dirt, debris and even manure as these can act as deterrents for horses. Some barn operations find that hanging a scrub brush near the water tank but outside the paddock is convenient and acts as a constant reminder to clean the tanks. It is good practice to empty, scrub and refill during the summer months, and ensure that they are ice-free in the winter. During the winter, snow is not an adequate source of water. It needs to be a reliable, fresh, non-frozen water supply – either a bucket or other type of waterer system.
A horse’s water consumption may decrease if the horse is on a lush, green pasture, as those grasses typically contain 60 to 80% moisture. Likewise, if the horse is kept in a dry lot and fed a dry matter forage such as hay, which typically has a 12 to 15% moisture level, the horse’s time spent at the water trough will likely increase.
The type of forage fed will also affect the horse’s water consumption based upon the feed’s protein content. Protein requires water during the digestive process, and as a result, feeds that are higher in protein will require the horse to consume more water.
Knowing where you are sourcing your water will also help determine your watering system and help you monitor your horse’s health. Experts say that if you get your barn’s water from a well, it is important to test it fairly regularly to make sure it is free from contamination issues that may arise. Testing your well’s water for bacterial contamination on an annual basis is recommended, though if there are noticeable chances in colour, odor or taste, conducting a bacterial test should be done immediately.
Studies have also found that a horse’s consumption of water will be greatly affected by the temperature of the water. The consumption of water appears to be best with a temperature range between 45° to 65° F, with more consumption occurring at warmer temperatures. In fact, when the weather changes suddenly and temperatures drop quickly many horses will reduce their water consumption drastically which can lead to problems such as impaction colic, which requires veterinary attention.
If a horse is not well hydrated it could run into a number of problems like colic (in its various forms) which owners know is a serious condition for horses. Besides making sure that your horse has access to water, there are some other questions to ask yourself, is it the right temperature? Is it fresh? Is it clean? Is it abundant? If you can confidently say “yes” to all of these questions your horse’s water source is in good shape. Ask yourself these questions regularly throughout the seasons.
There is a quick test that you can do to see if your horse is dehydrated called the “pinch test”. This is done by pinching up a fold of the horse’s skin and then releasing it. If the horse is well hydrated the skin should immediately return back into its natural position. If a ridge remains in the skin for two to five seconds it could be a sign of mild dehydration. The longer the skin remains in a ridge can determine the severity of the case. When in doubt consult your veterinarian if you have any doubts about your horse’s health and if the water source or lack of water is the culprit.
Keeping your horses well hydrated throughout the year is an extremely important part of equine care. Remember, water is the most important and overlooked nutrient for horses. It may seem like a simple thing to do, but you might be surprised how many things could go wrong with a water source along the way. The rule is: keep it clean and plenty. The good news is that with the multitude of watering options available, you should be able to find an option that will work best for you and your facility – indoor or outdoor water solutions. A healthy horse is a happy horse.