Like any domesticated animal, providing good food and water for your horse is a baseline of care. Some horses can be surprisingly finicky about their water. What’s more, the level of exercise required of show and event horses places unique demands on their metabolism for processing their water intake.
The key is not the water, but the minerals associated with the water. Horses rely on essential minerals including potassium, calcium and magnesium for proper metabolic functions. The most crucial of these electrolytes are the elements of salt: sodium and chloride. These are also the ingredients in common table salt.
Salt helps the horse metabolize the water, distributing the fluid and the electrolytes throughout the horse’s body. In this way, it also regulates the horse’s thirst. So the key to regulating a horse’s fluid levels is making sure it has adequate salt.
Often, providing a salt lick is enough for your horse to see to its needs. If, for some reason, the horse cannot have access to a salt lick or refuses to use it sufficiently, try adding salt to its feed. To do this, dissolve the salt in water and soak or dampen the feed so it is evenly distributed and sticks to the solids.
If necessary or when intense exercise has been performed, you may want to add electrolytes directly to the drinking water. This is where things get tricky. As mentioned above, some horses can be finicky about their water. Most prefer to only drink familiar water. To help counter the issue, some electrolyte replacements have flavorings designed to be palatable. These flavorings assist by enticing the horse to drink. If your replacement is not flavored you can add a small amount of apple juice. By using a correct electrolyte replacement and following the recommended dosage, this will ensure any cell imbalance is corrected in the right way, which may not be achieved with salt on its own.
Horses with access to familiar-tasting water are generally good at self-regulating their intake. The only other consideration beyond water quality is its temperature. Horses tend to prefer water that is slightly lukewarm: 20°C or 68°F. This may be hard to maintain in the hotter or colder months. During these times, the water may need to be changed out more frequently to stay near the optimal temperature.
Drinking water is not horses’ only source of hydration. They can also metabolize the water from food sources such as grass, carrots and apples. Water should be added to hard feed not only to prevent choke but also will increase hydration. If your horse is healthy and its electrolytes are in-range, your horse will see that it gets sufficient water from the various sources. Make sure the drinking water doesn’t stand for too long, and that troughs and buckets are routinely cleaned of sediments and build-up on the sides and bottom.
As you might expect, a horse’s water requirements vary according to external temperatures and its exercise levels. They are not so different from a person in this respect. The warmer the weather and the more they work, the more water they require and electrolytes they must replace.
The most common cause of increased water consumption is dry feed (hay). So long as your horse has access to the water it needs, it will adjust its intake accordingly. If your horse suffers diarrhea, that will lead to fluid loss. Assure yourself of the cause, and allow for increased water intake. Other conditions that can increase water consumption are pregnancy or lactation. Less common are horses with uncontrolled glucose/insulin that will also cause them to urinate more.
To assist with water consumption when traveling, you might want to bring a supply of your horse’s familiar water. Another technique is to add slices of apple (or a small portion of apple juice) to their regular water. Once they are comfortable with it, this same “flavoring” can be added to fresh, clean water at your destination.
For all this detail, proper hydration is easy to achieve. By knowing what your horse is looking for, you can more readily recognize when its requirements change. To update the old saying, “You can lead a horse to water…” but it will only drink if it needs to.