Not surprisingly, when winter hits, your horse doesn't feel much like drinking ice water either. In fact, the closer your horse's water is to freezing temperature, the less he will be inclined to drink it. Yet it's essential to keep your horse well hydrated during winter. Having your horse's body fluids at optimum levels will be his best defense against the cold-and colic. Adequate water in your horse's system allows him to efficiently digest feed and convert food calories into body heat.
A horse's drive to drink is dictated by his thirst. The problem, of course, is that the colder it gets, the less your horse will feel like drinking-even when his body really needs fluid. We've all heard the adage, "You can lead a horse to water…"
But what can we really do to encourage him to drink?
The most important thing is to make sure his water supply is a comfortable drinking temperature. Studies show that horses consume more water when it's tepid-in other words, cool but not cold. So you won't need to bring him that steaming cup of Chai, but you do need to take the chill off his beverage. If you want to be more precise, think temperatures in the mid 60-degree Fahrenheit range.
If your barn or run-in sheds have electrical outlets, buckets with built-in electric heaters provide an economical way to raise the water temperature. Of course, you'll have to be prepared to refill those buckets twice daily or more, since an average horse will drink approximately 6 to 8 gallons each day. A standard bucket holds approximately 5 gallons, although some bucket manufacturers also make heated 16-gallon and larger sizes. If your horse is consistently draining his bucket dry between refills, you'll need to add a second, or invest in a bigger one. Water is one essential nutrient you never want to skimp on.
One advantage to using a heated bucket is you'll have a fairly good idea how much your horse is actually drinking. And you'll be supplying fresh water with every refill, which may encourage your horse to drink more than he might from a large tank that gets cleaned and refilled less frequently-especially during extreme cold snaps when that chore is especially loathsome. Also it takes less energy to heat a 5-gallon bucket than it does a 100-gallon stock tank. Consider that most 5-gallon heated buckets use 120 to 130 watts of power, whereas most standard stock tank heaters use between 1000 to 1500 watts. In a 100-gallon tank, that heater is likely doing overtime to maintain the temperature of 20 times the volume of water than is contained in a 5-gallon bucket.
Take Off the Chill
- Even when it's cold, your horse should be drinking 6 to 8 gallons of fresh water each day.
- Chipping ice off water troughs is better than nothing, but not much better. A heated water source is a better option.
- Horses drink more when water is tepid, not freezing cold-think temperatures in the mid 60-degree Fahrenheit range.
- Position buckets, stock tanks, or automatic waterers in sheltered locations to help keep the chill off.
- Check water supplies daily and make sure heaters are in good working order.
- Disconnect and drain hoses after you're done filling buckets and tanks to prevent damage to hoses and plumbing
Of course, the actual amount of water your horse will drink will vary, depending on his diet, his individual metabolism, the weather, and how much exercise he's getting. Since your pasture has likely gone dormant, your horse is probably eating more dry matter in the form of hay and grain. He's getting less H2O from his feed, so his water requirement in liquid form has likely increased. Keep your eye on his piles. If your horse's manure seems dry, or he's passing piles less frequently, he's likely not drinking enough. Impaction could be a concern. If you're conscientiously supplying plenty of clean, tepid water, you may want to add a tablespoon of salt to his daily ration. The salt should help stimulate his thirst.
A Cozy Location
In herd situations, heated automatic waterers, or stock tanks with heaters, might be the most practical way to keep enough water at a drinkable temperature for the entire group. Situate tanks and waterers in a sheltered area out of the wind. Set them up so heater cords and electrical connections are out of harm's way. Sinking tank heaters, versus floating units, might be less of a temptation for playful horses to pull from the tanks. You may also need to put a covering over a portion of the tank to discourage heater removal. If you're using a plastic or fiberglass stock tank, you'll also want to use a safety cage around the heating element to protect the tank from melting.
Be sure to check your tank heaters daily to make sure they're working and that nothing has gone awry. Check your electrical breakers, too. If your tank heater has blown a fuse, it's a warning sign that something is amiss. Remove and/or replace the unit before resetting the circuit. You don't want to risk being shocked.
If you're running hoses from hydrants to stalls, paddocks, or runs, be sure to disconnect and drain them after each use. That way they'll be ready to go the next time tanks and buckets need refilling. This precaution will also help prevent plumbing from being damaged during a deep freeze. Also, be careful not to overflow tanks when filling, so you don't create a hazardous ice rink around your horse's water source. A timing device on the spigot may help prevent spillovers.
It may take a little extra preparation to ensure that your horse's water supply doesn't run dry this winter, but it will certainly pay off. So cheers! Drink to your horse's good health.