This week’s front of bitter cold arctic air sweeping the middle and eastern United States is making many pull the horse blankets out of storage and finally accept that winter is here. With the change of season comes the resurgence of winter problems. Pesky ailments like rain rot and thrush are among them, but they pale in comparison to the big guys - like colic- an issue that commonly occurs when temperatures abruptly plummet. Why?
Because horses have trouble drinking cold water and often “give up” a few sips in. Consequently, they can gradually become dehydrated to the point where their digesta impacts in the tortuous curvatures of the intestine or colon. Healthy drinking can head colic, as well as several other problems off at the pass.
Here are some tips to increase your horse’s water intake this winter:
1. Check water to make sure pipes aren’t frozen/ ice sheet hasn’t formed.
This tip goes without saying- but it is so easy to forget to check your horse’s water source daily (especially when the roaring fire and cup of apple cider await you back in the house!). Horses can only last for a matter of hours without water before they begin to be dehydrated. To avoid the vet’s colic tube, check those water sources! Make sure that they have adequate and accessible water, and also routinely test that they are filling in a timely manner if they are automatic. See Solar Tanks.
2. Heat water with an electric bucket warmer.
There are all sorts of bucket heaters available on the market ranging from handheld submersible warmers to buckets with permanent heating coils built in. In the case of the handhelds, most people just submerse them in the water bucket while they are cleaning the stall each day. The water doesn’t necessarily get warm, but it is heated enough to bring the temperature into a more tolerable range to encourage drinking.
The advantage of a hand held warmer is that it works relatively quickly (a 20 gallon bucket can be heated up by 10 degrees in about 15 minutes). The disadvantage is that they are labor intensive.
Buckets with permanent heaters are great because you just have to plug them in. But therein lies a weakness since the cord must be kept out of reach of the horse. Additionally, the heating implements are not known for their longevity and so these types of buckets may only last a season or two.
3. Feed a warm bran mash a couple of times per week.
The high fiber content of bran along with the warm water used to make it into a mash can provide a bit more water content in the diet. The average bran mash combines between 5 and 8 cups of bran with enough water to make it stick together in clumps when handled. Be careful about feeding bran too often- it can lead to a calcium/ phosphorous imbalance which could result in serious problems! Truth be told, most horse owners use bran mashes as a vehicle to deliver salt into the horse’s system, but we will get to that in a moment.
4. Make sure your horse is current on dental care.
If a horse unevenly wears his teeth, excessive pressure on some of the teeth can result in gingival (gum) recession and subsequent root sensitivity. We all know what ice cold water feels like when it touches the nerves in our teeth. Horses feel no different. They will be deterred from drinking frigid water if they have dental issues. Because routine dental care enables us to balance the occlusal surfaces in the horse’s mouth, gingival recession is minimized, thus reducing tooth root nerve sensitivity.
5. Feed salt.
What is the best way to make a horse drink? Make him thirsty! What is a cheap and easy way to induce thirst? Feed salt! A couple of tablespoons of salt or electrolytes can go a long way when you “lead a horse to water.” Remember- the goal is to make him drink. Be careful though- from time to time horse owners will decide to put electrolytes in the horse’s water. But that is not what electrolytes were designed for - and drinking salt water is not going to result in a favorable outcome! Just feed some salt or electrolytes every day, and it will help with water intake. See Supplementing Salt.
With these tips in practice, you will keep your horse happier at the water trough. Happy horses make for happy owners so enjoy the fire and the cider, and rest assured that your horse is getting enough to drink.