We all know the importance of good water consumption — to prevent dehydration, choke, constipation, even impaction severe enough to require surgery — but we’re not always sure how to get our horse to drink more during the cold months.
Most horses need to consume about five gallons of water per day for each 22 pounds of feed per day. If the horse is worked, the water requirement is higher. The usual tests of skin elasticity and capillary refill time in the gums still apply for monitoring dehydration, but a more sensitive indicator is the horse’s manure. A drop in volume and change to drier, smaller fecal balls is an early sign of trouble. If the horse is stall-kept, be alert to the amount of urine as well, which shouldn’t change from summer to winter. If it drops, water intake is not adequate.
Many horses just dislike drinking extremely cold water and/or it hurts their teeth. If you can, warm the water with a water heater or by adding warm water to the bucket.
If the horse still refuses to drink enough, try adding 1 to 2 oz. of salt per day to the horse’s grain. Within 24 to 48 hours, water intake should go up noticeably.
Wet feeds also help. Beet pulp or bran can easily absorb two times their weight in water. Pelleted feeds and sweet-feed mixes with pellets also can be soaked. You can also make a good wet mash using hay cubes, if the horse doesn’t get grain.
Many people consider bran and beet pulp laxative, but they aren’t. Beet pulp actually may bind the manure more. Instead, try psyllium.
Psyllium is an inert fiber that won’t add calories and doesn’t require special mineral rebalancing. A horse on a hay-only winter diet gets plenty of insoluble fiber but is likely short on the soluble fibers psyllium provides. Psyllium adds bulk and moisture to the manure, holding water in the gut. We use 2 to 4 oz. of a powdered (not pellets) psyllium per day and expect results in one to two days.
Older horses that can’t chew hay well often lack insoluble fiber, which makes them prone to poor gut function and poor elimination of manure. For these horses, try soaked hay cubes or add a chopped forage, such as Triple Crown’s, to the mix when you make wet meals. A half pound or so a day of finely chopped roughage added to soft meals should get the job done.