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Horse Hydration — Winter 2009 | Out Here Magazine

Keep your horse's digestive system healthy by warming his drinking water in winter

By Heather Smith Thomas 

Horses generally drink less water in cold weather than in summer, partly because they're not sweating and needing to replace that fluid. They also don't feel like drinking when they're cold — especially if the water is cold, chilling them more.

They need a constant and dependable supply of water, however, for good health and proper digestive function. If contents of the gut become too dry, food movement is hindered and the horse becomes impacted.

To ensure that horses drink enough in cold weather, check water sources daily and make sure they don't freeze over. Horses that drink at a pond, stream, or unheated water trough may need ice broken twice daily. Make sure the horse is actually drinking. He may be afraid to step on ice or down a slippery bank to get to the water. Though he may drink cold water from a stream or trough on a sunny day, he may not drink much during the night or a cold, stormy day. It's better to provide him with warmer water, if you can.

A heated water tank in which water never freezes is ideal. If you use a tub or bucket, put insulating material around it to keep the water warmer longer. An old tire filled with straw works well for this. The tub or bucket can be pulled up out of the tire daily to dump out ice or cold water before adding fresh water. There are also commercial bucket holders made of insulating material, similar to a Thermos jug, to keep water warmer longer.

Mature horses need at least 6 to 10 gallons of fresh water per day.

One advantage of a tub or bucket is that you know exactly how much water your horse is drinking. If he consumes less than usual, you are immediately aware there's a problem and can do something to correct it — such as encouraging him to drink more water by offering lukewarm (instead of cold) water — before he suffers impaction.

Signs of impaction include poor appetite and less water consumption. The horse consumes less because his stomach and intestines are already "full." There's not enough fluid to keep food moving through the tract and it builds up. Manure will be scanty; the horse defecates less often and the "piles" are smaller than usual. Fecal balls are small and firm, and may be coated with mucus. If the situation is not relieved, the horse becomes more constipated and may show signs of mild colic. He may be dull, paw, look around at his flank or lie down a lot, and if pain worsens he may roll.

Serious impaction requires veterinary assistance, giving fluid and laxatives (such as mineral oil) via stomach tube. This can be prevented, however, by making sure your horse drinks adequate water during cold weather — and warming the water is the best way to entice him to keep drinking.

Heather Smith Thomas, of Salmon, Idaho, has authored several books on horses and other livestock.