Water Quality for Horses

While all the other nutrients, like protein, fat, vitamins, and minerals, get much attention, water is often an afterthought. Yet, it can be argued that water is the most important ‘nutrient’ a horse gets each and every day. In fact, horses ingest more weight in water per day than their feed. It is important that horses have continual access to good quality water to ensure they stay healthy and happy.

The Right Water Quality for Horses

When it comes to the best water quality for your horse, would you drink it? In other words, is the quality of water safe for human consumption? If you can answer yes to this, then that is the optimal water quality for a horse.

Now, this does not mean that horses can’t safely drink lower quality water. They do and remain healthy. This just means the optimal water quality, like that drawn from a tap for human consumption, is best for horses. Thus, filling up water buckets and/or troughs with water that you would drink from your own source (i.e., tap), is perfectly fine for a horse.

Where water quality gets tricky is for horses housed outside and their water, for example, is in a large trough exposed to the elements. Likewise, many horses may drink from a natural water source, like from a pond or stream. Thus, any good quality water sources for a horse should be:

  • Horses should have access to water all day and all night.
  • Water troughs should be emptied, cleaned, and refilled often. This is important to reduce contaminants, like bacteria or algae.
  • Water for horses should be free of contaminants, like dirt, sand, or even extremes, like insect larvae (mosquitoes) or dead animals.
  • Palatable. Horses can taste differences in their water. Any water that has too many chemicals in it, or has an imbalance of minerals like salt, may prove to be unpalatable.
  • The Right Temperature. The optimal temperature for drinking water for horses ranges from a low of 45°F (7°C) to 65°F (18°C). Any water that is colder or warmer than this may discourage horses from drinking.

Should I Test My Water on My Farm for My Horses?

Natural water sources, like ponds or streams, are used as a water source for horses, but are at much higher risk of contamination from runoff, animal waste or dead animals. Natural water sources would not be considered an optimal water source. If using a natural water source, it would be wise to test often for contaminants. This will also help you decide if you need to either treat your water or use a filtration system.  

Where to get a water quality test will depend on where you live. In the United States, the US Environmental Protection Agency website has information on where you can get a water quality test near you. A water quality test will help detect:

  • Bacteria. Fecal contamination can be a problem for natural water sources. A test can help identify any bacteria like coli, which can cause digestive upset in horses.
  • Hardness. Water can become ‘hard,’ meaning it has a high mineral content and may be unpalatable to a horse.
  • High levels of nitrates in water can be toxic to horses. While usually associated with weeds or recently fertilized fields, high levels of nitrates can be very harmful to horses and can even lead to death.
  • pH levels. Another factor in determining palatability. If the pH levels are too high or too low, they can impact palatability and even the horses’ health.
  • Total Dissolves Solids (TDS). One of the major measures of water quality for horses. TDS measures the inorganic salts (calcium, magnesium, sodium, and others). Levels that are too high or low can induce a bitter or salty taste.

Water quality testing is a big step in ensuring your water source is safe for your horses. If the water source is too poor or not safe to drink, it will allow you to take corrective measures or find alternative water sources for your animals. At minimum, if using a natural water source, it is recommended to test your horse’s water at least annually.

How Much Water Do Horses Need in a Day?

We know that horses need water every day. On average, an 1100-pound horse will consume a minimum of 7 gallons (or 58 pounds) of water per day. There are many factors that will impact just how much a horse will drink each day, including:

  • Diet. Horses that consume hay will drink more water compared to those grazing on pasture. This is primarily due to the higher moisture content of pasture plants.
  • Temperature and Humidity. In hot weather with high humidity, horses will produce more sweat and lose more water to evaporation. Thus, they will drink more.
  • Exercise. Horses will lose water through sweat and evaporative cooling. Thus, they will drink more.
  • Health. Certain disorders may cause horses to drink more (i.e., Cushing’s disease). Additionally, if a horse has diarrhea, they will drink more water to replace their fluids.

The other factor that can impact how much a horse drinks is water quality. Poor quality water will cause horses to drink less. This can lead to dehydration and, in extreme circumstances, even death.  There are multiple methods to determine if a horse is dehydrated. It is now recommended that to check the hydration status of a horse, owners choose more than one method:

  • Skin pinch test. This checks hydration status by evaluating the pliability of the skin. This involves pinching together (not too hard) of a horse’s skin and observe how long it takes the skin to return to normal. Hydrated horses skin returns quickly, within 2 seconds. If it remains “tented” for more than 2 seconds, they may be dehydrated.
  • Capillary refill time. Press a finger against your horse’s gums. In hydrated horses, the color (blanch white) returns quickly.
  • Mucous membranes. The horse’s gums and inside their nostrils should be moist. If dry, it may indicate dehydration.
  • Urine color. Less frequent urination and darker urine generally means a horse may be dehydrated.

If you suspect your horse is dehydrated, ensure they have access to water and check your water quality. You may also want to monitor their water intake. If your water quality is good, then it is always worthwhile to contact your veterinarian for any advice, as dehydration may be caused by an underlying health issue. Your veterinarian may even be required to administer intravenous fluids to rehydrate your horse.

Finally, when using automatic waterers, it is important to remember to check them daily to ensure they are working properly. Also ensure your horse’s buckets and/or troughs are full of fresh, clean water.

Take Home Message

Water is one of the most important considerations when it comes to feeding horses. Your water quality needs to be high to ensure your horses stay hydrated and healthy. If you have any concern about the water quality on your property, you can get a water quality test and advice from your local officials. If you have any other questions or concerns about your horse’s diet or water quality and need advice, please feel free contact us.

Article By: Chris Mortensen, Ph.D.
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