Horse Hydration: Winter Health Concerns
Horses drink an average of 10-12 gallons of water per day. In some areas of the country, winter means below-freezing temperatures around the clock. This means that water available for horses to drink can often freeze solid.
If horses don’t have access to fresh water, they can quickly succumb to health hazards including dehydration and colic. Keep your horse hydrated despite the cold with these expert tips.
Signs a Horse is Dehydrated
If a horse goes off feed, check his water. Horses will not eat if they are thirsty. Signs of dehydration in horses include:
- Decreased appetite
- Sudden weight loss
- Dry gums
- Positive skin tent – meaning the skin doesn’t snap back to its normal flat position after being gently pinched together and pulled away from the body.
Can horses eat snow instead of drinking water?
- A horse can’t survive by eating snow or ice. They can’t eat enough snow to meet their hydration requirements. Ingesting snow cools their body temperature too much because there isn’t a lot of actual water in snow, so they have to eat a large quantity.
- Dehydration and hypothermia are risks. Horses will eat snow if they have to, but ultimately, eating snow will result in dehydration or hypothermia.
- Horse should have access to fresh water at a temperature above 40 degrees to keep them drinking enough to help prevent digestive issues. Horses in winter may need to consume more water due to the drier climate and increase in dried forage consumption.
How to Make a Horse Drink Water
While you can't lead a horse to water and make him drink, you can try these tricks to encourage water consumption.
- Sprinkle plain white salt over your horses’ feed to encourage the horse to drink more water. All horses should be provided free choice salt in every paddock in either block or loose form.
- Offering water in containers larger than a 5-gallon bucket will ensure that your horse has plenty to drink, without creating mountains of work for you to constantly refill that container.
- Monitor consumption. Pay attention to your horse's water consumption. If you notice your horse isn’t drinking, try adding electrolytes, Gatorade to some water to encourage drinking.
Combatting Freezing Horse Water
First things first, aside from the frustration of breaking ice daily or multiple times per day, frozen horse water can pose several threats:
- Sharp ice: Sometimes a water tank can get overfilled, or water can spill around the tank when it’s being filled. This can cause sheets of ice to form around the water container, creating hazards for horses trying to access water.
- Impaction colic: No matter the method you use to provide water to your horse, keep an eye on the containers to make sure the heater hasn’t malfunctioned – leading to decreased water supply, dehydration and impaction colic.
How to Keep Horse Water From Freezing
Tank heaters and automatic waterers: Obviously, tank heaters are the most convenient way to keep water from freezing. Automatic waters can also be a helpful tool to keeping water moving to avoid freezing. However, it is a common occurrence for automatic waterers to freeze altogether without frequent monitoring.
- Insulating horse water tanks and buckets: One trick for large water sources is to insulate the tank with spray foam, finished with a tough Rhino lining to protect the insulation. Top the tanks with large pieces of plywood with holes cut into them to allow the horses to get to the water. The wood holds in more of the heat to reduce surface freezing. For keeping water buckets thawed, try this DIY insulated water bucket warmer.
Safety Tips for Horse Water Tank Heaters
While convenient, tank heaters are still susceptible to electrical shorts and your horse could get shocked when it tries to drink water.
John Stallone, a professor at Texas A&M University’s College of Veterinary Medicine, is a lifelong horse owner and shares his knowledge about submersible water heaters to educate horse owners about the potential dangers of incorrectly installed heaters.
He notes that aside from using cages around heaters in plastic troughs, it’s also important to use ground wires with tank heaters to prevent electric shock.
How to Ground Metal Tanks for Heaters
- Attach a 12- to 14-gauge copper wire to the tank and to a nearby ground rod, similar to what you would use for a fence charger.
- If the tank heater develops a short, any electrical current in the water is safely conducted to the ground, preventing a potentially lethal electric shock to your horse when he attempts to drink.
- If you use a plastic water tank, you can insert a length of ¼-inch-diameter copper tubing into the water.
- Secure it to the edge of the tank and connect the tubing to the 12- to 14-gauge copper wire.
- The other end of the wire is then connected to a ground rod, as described above for the metal water tanks.
Water Tank Heater Maintenance
John is also quick to point out that these are not always seasonal problems.
- Develop a system to keep electrical equipment up to date year round.
- Have a preventive plan.
- Understand the equipment you are using and know the risks.
- Take the time to check equipment often for potential problems.