Prevention of Dehydration in All Seasons

Adequate water consumption isn?t only a concern during the summer; dehydration can occur at any time of the year. Here?s what you can do to encourage your horse to drink enough to stay healthy this winter.
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Adequate water consumption isn?t only a concern during the summer; dehydration can occur at any time of the year. Here?s what you can do to encourage your horse to drink enough to stay healthy this winter.

l.Make sure your horse has access to clean, fresh water at all times. This essential rule of horsekeeping is surprisingly easy to let lapse. Water supplies, both in the field and in the stall, need to be checked daily. Top off buckets and troughs every day at a minimum, twice daily if necessary, and scrub them regularly to prevent a build-up of algae and other contaminants.

Horses drinking

Automatic waterers are convenient but aren?t fail-proof; check these systems daily to ensure they are working properly. Also consider keeping water in a bucket nearby, in case a failure occurs hours before you can get to it.

In addition, devise a backup plan for acquiring water in the event of a water main break, well-pump failure, blizzard, or natural disaster.

Finally, evaluate your herd?s dynamics, making sure that dominant horses aren?t keeping others in the pasture from accessing water.

2. Monitor intake. If your horse drinks from buckets and troughs, make note of how often you are refilling them. Marking a ?fill line? on the inside of the vessel can help illustrate just how much water your horse has consumed since the last top-off.

If you use an autopmatic watering system, invest in a meter that will tell you how much a horse is drinking. If you notice a significant decrease in your horse's intake over a 48-hour period, perform a skin-pinch test to check for dehydration.

3. Encourage water consumption. One simple method for enticing a horse to drink more is to add a bit of flavoring, such as apple juice or peppermint, to his water. Of course, you'll need to add a flavor your horse enjoys, so monitor his reaction to his ?mixed drink? carefully.

Another option comes from researchrs who discovered that offering a horse slightly salty water immediately after work triggered a strong thirst response that led him to drink more plain water over the following hour than he normally would have. You can replicate this by offering your horse salted water (approximately one tablespoon per gallon) immediately after exercise and then plain water 20 minutes later when is is cooled out.

4. Keep your water pleasantly cool. Research has also shown that when horses are offered water at various temperatures, they drink the most when it is 68 degrees, roughly the temperature of cold water from a hose. Colder or warmer water results in lower intake. In the winter months, you may need to use heaters to keep ice from forming in water troughs, but make sure the water doesn't become too warm.

5. Be suspicious of dry stalls. A dehydrated horse urinates less frequently and with less output than normal. As you clean your horse's stall, be alert for strangely dry bedding.

A simple test for dehydration: A dehydrated horse is more than just thirsty. A lack of fluid in his system can be a sign of illness and may cause serious health problems, such as impaction colic. That's why hydration status is one of the first things a veterinarian checks when examining a sick horse, and it's something you'll want to learn to do yourself.

The quickest and easiest way to see whether a horse is dehydrated is the skin-pinch test: Grab a fold of skin on the point of the shoulder (not the neck) and pull it away from the horse. Let the skin go and count the seconds until it snaps back flat again. In an adequately hydrated horse, it will return in one to two seconds. Any longer indicates some level of dehydration, with six to 10 seconds signaling a critical situation. Call your veterinarian if you suspect our horse is dehydrated, even in the absence of other signs of illness.

This article first appeared in the December 2010 EQUUS magazine.