Hydration is of dire importance with horses. There are many reasons this is true, including the most basic. Along with minerals, fat, vitamins, protein, and carbohydrates; water is the most important of the six basic nutrient categories that must be met for horses to live. Without water, horses would survive less than a couple of days. Without feed (and access to clean water) they would survive four to five times longer.
Keeping Your Horse Hydrated In the Heat
Water plays a critical role in a horse’s digestive health and ability. Their high fiber diet consisting heavily of hay, grains, grass, etc requires lots of water to continuously help all the fiber work its way through a horse’s digestive tract.
Physically keeping cool (thermoregulation) is one of the biggest and most important reasons horses need so much water. Horses are members of a distinct group of mammals that sweat when it’s hot to cool down. This requires tremendous amounts of water given the size of horses.
Following are some things to keep in mind, guidelines, best practices, and tips in regard to keeping your horses hydrated in the summer months.
Important Facts to Keep In Mind
In the back of our mind we all understand the importance of water. However, it’s easy to get caught in the daily bustle of farm maintenance. Hydration is arguably the most important factor in equine health and wellness. Unfortunately, it’s also one of the easiest and most often overlooked. Below are some facts about horses and hydration that are good to be aware of as we make our way through the heat of summer.
- Horses consume less water if the water is hot.
- Algae growth can lead to foul tasting water. This will decrease consumption.
- The average 1,000 lb. horse will drink around 10 gallons of water per day. This water intake requirement can double during extreme conditions. The hotter the climate, higher the humidity, and the harder the horse is working the more this applies.
- When humidity is over 75% sweating as a cooling mechanism is considerably less effective. This is because at this high humidity, sweat no longer evaporates off a horse, thereby providing a cooling effect. Above 75% humidity, sweat has a tendency to simply bead up and run off a horse without evaporating (cooling down the horse).
- Horses that have limited access to water, or only have access to lower or poor quality water, are at a higher risk for impaction colic, kidney failure, or any host of other dehydration related ailments.
- Providing fresh, clean, cool water at all times is the easiest way to encourage and promote optimum water consumption
- While eating dry hay and grains horses will consume more water than they would when feeding on a green pasture.
- Water needs to be kept clean to prevent further complications. Left unchecked, dirty water can breed disease causing parasites like Leptospirosis bacteria and pinworms.
- Use shade to help keep water cool in the summer. Any standing water you’re able to get into the shade, even if only for part of the day, will help keep standing water cooler. This could mean strategically placing your buckets or troughs next to buildings, under overhangs, trees, or any other safe source of shade.
- Salt loss occurs with sweating. Severe sweating can lead to severe electrolyte loss. Left unchecked this can cause muscle cramping, fatigue, colic, and more. If exercising your horse in the heat, you may consider utilizing an electrolyte supplement to help combat salt loss that will inevitably accompany heavy sweating.
Keep it Cool!
- Freezing blocks of ice and placing them in a water trough can help keep water cooler than it would be otherwise.
- If all else fails, or it’s your only option, frequently cycling out stagnant or warm water in your buckets, troughs, and automatic waterers with fresh cool water will go a long ways to improving water quality and thereby water consumption.
- Just because you visually see water, it’s best to physically touch it as well. This will help identify if the water has become too warm for consumption, or in the case of some electric automatic waterers, if it is malfunctioning and the water has an electric charge.
Common Watering Options
Buckets are cheap, quick, and easy to implement. It doesn’t get much simpler. Unfortunately, due to the small container size, they are the quickest to heat up. This means if you’re watering with buckets during hot summer months be sure to check and most likely expect to change water at minimum of two to three times per day.
Trough’s have some upside over buckets. Specifically because the container is larger, it takes more time and heat to overheat the water. Of course it also takes time to cool off, time to scrub the algae out of them, and more time to fill them afterwards. While it’s unlikely we have any groundbreaking information on the traditional water trough, you can consider this a friendly reminder to keep em’ clean and cool ;)
Automatic Float Waterers
This is by far the most common automatic waterer. There are hundreds of brands of this type of waterer (chances are you own one) and by definition they all share a couple things in common. First, they operate using what is called a ‘float valve’. This is because there is a component inside the waterer that floats in the water (like in the back of your toilet). As animals consume water and the water level decreases, the float moves up and down with the water level. The float moving down opens a valve that automatically fills the bowl with fresh water.
The other common attribute to this type of waterer is standing water. Depending on the brand of automatic waterer many attributes can vary. These attributes include: the size and color of the waterer, the amount of standing water and its exposure to or insulation from the elements, whether is it a permanently installed unit, or one that connects to a garden hose and hangs on a fence line, the number of head the unit can service, and the variations go on and on. However, in the middle of the day, they all have one thing in common, standing water.
While automatic waterers are an incredible convenience, owning one does not mean you can mark this chore as complete and ignore it. Using this type of automatic waterer in hot summer months means you will need to be vigilant to ensure the container remains free of algae, rodents, feces, and other contaminants that discourage water intake; and most importantly you will want to monitor the water to make sure it does not get so hot your animals won’t drink it.
Frost Free Automatic Waterers
One waterer that that’s a bit different is the frost free automatic waterer that brings water up from below ground with each use. Instead of using a float valve, they operate more similar to a yard hydrant. There is never any standing water above ground. When the valve is activated by depressing a paddle, fresh, clean, cool water comes up from below ground. If you’re unfamiliar with this style of waterer you can check out Drinking Post as an example.
The main drawback to this watering option is that it is a permanently installed unit, so it does require digging down to and connecting directly to your water supply line. However, once these units are installed, your animals have permanent, year-round access to fresh, clean, cool water at all times.
Know the Warning Signs of Dehydration
Clearly the best course of action is to prevent dehydration. However, things do not always go as planned. As a reasonable safety precaution, everyone should be aware of how to identify the signs of dehydration and perform a few quick field tests.
The Beginning Signs
The first indications of dehydration may be physical. If you notice your horse seems slow, tired, depressed, or possibly a little bit less coordinated than usual, be alert! These can all be physical signs of dehydration. The visual cues to be cognizant of include: sunken or dull eyes, excessively thick saliva, dry skin, dry mouth, and/or drawn up flanks. Any or all of these signs may be exhibited, which is why it’s important to keep an eye out for any of these telltale signs when working with or caring for your horses in the heat.
The Skin Pinch Test
This is the most common and well know test. To perform, pinch up a fold of the horse’s skin and then let go. With a fully hydrated horse, the skin will immediately return back to its natural position. The more dehydrated a horse is, the longer this pinch of skin will remain in a ridge after pinching. A pinch that remains for 2 to 5 seconds may indicate mild dehydration. A pinch that remains a ridge for 10 to 15 seconds is a sign of severe dehydration. If you ever experience this, immediate heat relief, hydration efforts, and medical attention should be sought immediately. This can be a life threatening situation.
The normal color of horses gums are bubblegum pink. If you notice their gums change color and are not moist as they usually are, this is a warning sign. You can also watch for an elevated pulse or heart rate. The normal heart rate for an adult horse is roughly 28 to 40 beats per minute.
While no field test is ever able to provide 100% accuracy, these tests are certainly good indicators and tools that, when used properly, and in conjunction with other visual and physical cues, should allow you identify dehydration signs at their onset. Identifying dehydration early (especially in the summer heat) will go a long way in helping you prevent more serious heat related health concerns.
If you are concerned that your horse may be experiencing the beginning symptoms of dehydration, thankfully this can usually be corrected by offering clean, fresh, palatable water. If your diagnosis is correct, symptoms should begin to improve within a few minutes. If symptoms worsen, or do not improve, you should seek professional medical assistance. It is always best to err on the side of caution when confronted with serious medical issues such as dehydration and the potential of heat stroke.
There is nothing more important to a horse’s health than staying hydrated and promoting maximum water intake during the hot summer months. The most important factor in proper hydration is ensuring ample supply to fresh, clean, cool water.
All things considered, it’s a great convenience and often a huge improvement to utilize a frost free style waterer, such as the Drinking Post, that provides fresh, cool water from below ground with each use.
However, if you don’t find yourself in a position to do this, there is no need to fear! Just be cautious, use common sense, and remember to provide ample fresh, clean water when temperatures spike.