The proverb, “you can lead a horse to water but can’t make them drink,” is as famous as they come. In reality, getting a horse to drink is a real concern with owners. A horse’s refusal to drink can happen when they are in unfamiliar environment or even stressed. The good news is there are strategies that can help encourage your horses to drink water and stay hydrated. 

What Happens When a Horse Does Not Drink Enough Water?
    
Water can be argued to be the most important “nutrient” in a horse’s diet. While some may not consider water a nutrient like we do with vitamins, minerals, or others, it is in fact considered a nutrient. Water is actually the most critical nutrient in a horse’s diet and is needed for every day biological function. Thus, when a horse does not drink enough water, they are not optimizing their bodily functions and become dehydrated.  

Dehydration is a serious concern for any horse. This can lead to poor performance and is a real concern for those who are at competitions and their horse’s water intake drops considerably. Dehydration can also decrease a horse’s organs to function properly, even decreasing their ability to digest their feed, and is one of the leading causes of impaction colic. The bottom line is dehydration can be serious and deadly in the horse is left untreated. 

The skin pinch test is the gold standard for determining if a horse is dehydrated. This simple test is done by pinching skin along the neck of a horse. If a horse is dehydrated, the skin will “tent” and then slowly go back to normal over 3 to 4 seconds. If a horse is hydrated, the skin will be pliable and bounce right back within 1 to 2 seconds. While still useful as a measure, studies have shown that a horse could still have pliable skin but be dehydrated. Thus, other signs to monitor for dehydration include:
 

  • Capillary refill time of the gums. Gums should be pink and moist. Push your finger against the gums and the yellowish color should go pink within 1 to 2 seconds if the horse is hydrated. In dehydrated horses the refill time will be longer than 3 seconds. 

 

  • Red mucous membranes. Along with the capillary refill time, a dehydrated horse’s gums will be dry and appear red or even purple and may be a sign of severe dehydration. 

 

  • Dark urine. A dehydrated horse may either not urinate often or their urine will be dark (brownish) and more pungent than normal. 

 

  • Eyes. In a hydrated horse the eyes appear bright and moist. In a dehydrated horse, their eyes may appear dull and dry. 

 

  • Lethargic. Dehydrated horses will be lethargic and often appear stiff. 

 

  • High resting heart rate. For most adult horses, their resting heart rate is 25 to 40 beats per minute. A heart rate above 60 beats per minute could indicate dehydration. 

 

  • High respiratory rate. The normal respiratory rate for adult horses at rest is about 8 to 12 breaths per minute. A respiratory rate of above 20 with quick shallow breaths may be indicative a horse is dehydrated. 

As with any concerns with the health of your horse, if you suspect your horse is dehydrated, it is always recommended to consult with your veterinarian. If the case is severe enough, they will have to treat the horse with IV fluids and provide other treatments. Also, our article Is your horse drinking enough water is worth a review for more information. 

What Are Some Strategies That Encourage Horses to Drink?
    
Under normal circumstances, the amount of hay (or fiber) in a horse’s diet usually would determine how much water they drink daily. Meaning, the more hay they consume, means the more water they would drink. This would translate into an average daily consumption of water for a horse to about 8 to 12 gallons per day. However, in hot and humid environments, horses may consume much more water per day, often over 20 gallons. Thus, it is always recommended that horses always have access to as much clean and fresh water as they can drink any time of year. 

Where it can be frustrating for owners is when horses have access to water, their horse refuses to drink.  The first thing an owner should do is check the water and make sure it is fresh and clean. Are the buckets or troughs dirty and slimy, or does the water look tainted? If using a fresh water source like a pond, does it look clean? With any natural water source like a pond or lake, it is always advisable to have the water tested often. You can consult with your local extension office for assistance. 

The second thing an owner can do to help encourage their horses to drink is to ensure their diets have enough electrolytes. These are important minerals found in a horse’s blood, urine and sweat and are critical for their health. Electrolytes also help by encouraging thirst and thus, drinking. By feeding high quality concentrates with a proper balance of electrolytes, while also providing a salt and mineral block can help encourage a horse to drink. Additionally, just adding salt, top dressed at 1 tablespoon per 500 lbs. of body weight, can add some extra electrolytes and encourage drinking. 

There are other steps owners can take to encourage their horses to drink and include:
 

  • Flavor the water. There are many additives that can encourage a horse to drink, like adding a few tablespoons of a flavored sports drink or powder. Others suggest just adding apple juice, flavored beet juice, molasses or even dissolving some peppermint candies. 

 

  • Warm the water. Ensure water temperature is above 68 °F (20 °C). Some suggest even warming the water to be closer to 80 °F (27 °C). 

 

  • Wet the feed. Adding water to a concentrate to make a mash can help add some water to their diet. Likewise, soaking hay can help increase their moisture intake. 

Again, consultation with your veterinarian is always advisable if you suspect your horse is dehydrated. If you have any concerns about your diet or how you are feeding your horse, please feel free to contact us for a free consultation. 

References 

Pritchard, J.C. et al. (2008). Validity of indicates of dehydration in working horses: A longitudinal study of changes in skin tent duration, mucous membrane dryness and drinking behavior. Equine Vet. J. 40:558-64. 
 

CHRIS J. MORTENSEN, PH.D.