Winter can be an extremely challenging season for many horse owners, especially those in the Northern regions. The harsh, cold climate seems to make even the simplest of barn chores drastically more difficult. Ensuring a horse receives adequate water, though seemingly a simple task, can turn into a logistical nightmare when bitterly cold temperatures arrive. Follow the tips below to help all the horses in the barn stay hydrated this winter.
It is important that a horse receives adequate water in the winter to stay hydrated and lessen its chance of developing medical complications. An average horse must drink between 8-12 gallons of water a day in the summer. This amount may be slightly less in the winter due to the horse sweating less. The risk of horses suffering from impaction colic is significantly higher in the winter months than in the summer. Horses, if drinking less water, may not have enough moisture in their bodies to digest food properly after eating. Make sure a horse has ample water during meals, at least two buckets if in a stall and a filled tank if in a pasture. Typically, a horse will drink the most water within 1-3 hours after finishing its grain or hay. In colder temperatures, horses prefer their water to be lukewarm, or between 45-65 degrees Fahrenheit. While a horse will consume water outside these temperatures, it will drink the most if the water’s temperature is within this range. If the water is too cold or frozen, a horse will drink very little, if at all.
So, what are the best ways to ensure a horse has UNFROZEN water to drink during the winter? Many horse owners prefer to use heated water buckets or tank heaters when the temperatures dip below 32 degrees Fahrenheit. These, when set up correctly, are harmless to the horse and warm chilled water to lukewarm temperature. However, if heaters are not available, horse owners should then grab a crowbar (or some other solid item) to break up ice in water tanks at least 2-3 times per day. Buckets of water could also be stored in a heated area (tack room, house, etc.) and transported to the water buckets or tanks. If water hoses connect to a tank or wash rack, make sure to disconnect the hose from the sprout when it is not in use or when the temperatures dip below freezing. Drain all the water out to prevent the hose from freezing. In extremely cold climates, water lines need to be buried below the area’s frost line to lessen freezing and bursting chances. Warm water is especially important for senior horses, as they are more sensitive to colder water (water between 32-38 degrees Fahrenheit) and will most likely drink less if warm water is not provided.
Encourage horses to drink during the winter by adding electrolytes to a horse’s diet. Similar to how electrolytes are given on hot summer days or during heavy work, electrolytes in the winter stimulate thirst and replenish the electrolytes the horse has lost during the day. Electrolyte supplements can be sprinkled over the feed or added to a horse’s water bucket. If added to water, be conscientious that horses do not always like flavored waters and may not drink the water with electrolytes. Have another bucket available without electrolytes so that the horse can drink whichever water it prefers. Horses do not usually pick around electrolytes when added to their grain, making this the preferred method to increase a horse’s electrolyte intake.
Excel Equine Toplyte® is a carrot-based electrolyte supplement that not only encourages drinking, but its sweet carrot mixture doubles as a palatability enhancer and a treat, making it a favorite for many equines. This natural source of electrolytes contains simple ingredients such as dehydrated carrots, molasses, and salt, so horse owners can feel safe about what they put into their horses. Toplyte also contains natural nutrients such as potassium, sodium, chloride, and magnesium, all of which encourage horses to drink. Toplyte can be fed on its own as a treat or used as a top dressing with a horse’s normal grain rations.
Lastly, basic horse hydration management is essential during the winter months. Salt should be given freely in the diet, either through a salt block in the stall/pasture or loose salt sprinkled on top of the grain. A horse should always be allowed to drink freely after exercise; the myth of restricting water access after cardiovascular work to reduce colic onset is untrue – Veterinarians now recommend horses receive as much water as they want after work. If in doubt about whether a horse is hydrated, do the skin pinch test. Pinch a section of the horse’s skin on his neck and release. If the skin snaps back into place, the horse is hydrated. If it stays peaked (as if it is still pinched), the horse is dehydrated.
Winter can be tiring on everyone, horses and owners both. To ensure a stress-free season, horses must have warm lukewarm water during the winter to reduce colic chances. If a horse doesn’t want to drink, increase its electrolytes. Spring will be right around the corner before you know it!