Avoid Cold Weather Dehydration In Your Horse This Winter – Warning Signs & What You Can Do

by Lisa Carter on January 3, 2013

Horses shelter from the snowThe onset of cold winter weather brings many changes in the way we must manage our horse care practices.  We bring out the winter blankets, tweek their diets to account for seasonal availability of forage, changing metabolic needs, and winterize our tack and barn equipment.  Along with these changes, one very important aspect of horse management that is sometimes forgotten is to make sure that your horse drinks enough water.  When the temperature of the water sources available to your horse drops, so does their desire to drink it.  It's hard to know how much water your horse is drinking when you have large tanks or stock ponds as your sole water source.  According to the Michigan State University College of Veterinary Medicine, the average 1000 pound horse in regular maintenance needs to intake approximately 10-12 gallons of water a day.  

Symptoms/Consequences Of Dehydration In Horses

Dehydration can have serious consequences for your horse.  Impaction colic, weight loss, and in the most severe cases, death can occur from dehydration.  Some of the symptoms to look for in your horse are:

  • Decreased appetite
  • Decreased manure production
  • Decrease in moisture content of manure
  • Lethargic

How Do I Know If My Horse Is Dehydrated?

Know some of the early warning signs of dehydration before it becomes a much bigger problem.  There are several things you can do to find out if your horse is in the early stages of dehydration:

  • Perform a pinch test on the horse's neck to check for skin elasticity – A normally hydrated horse's skin should return to normal position within approximately 2 seconds.  
  • Check capillary refill time – Press your thumb firmly into the horse's gums, causing the gums to turn whitish under the thumb.  The gums should return to normal pink color within approximately 2 seconds.  
  • Check for dry gums/teeth.  The moisture content of the horse's mouth will decrease with the onset of dehydration.  
  • Dull and/or sunken looking eyes.  

How Can I Make Sure My Horse Drinks Enough Water?

There are several things you can do to help ensure that your horse drinks enough water this winter.  If you are using a water trough or stock tank, there are many varieties of tank heaters available to meet your needs.  These help keep the tank free of ice and save you from having to break ice several times a day in freezing weather.  As an added benefit, If you have fish in your tank, I've found that using the tank heater keeps the water warm enough for them to survive the winter cold, which also helps keep my tank cleaner in the winter months.  

You can also hand water your horses daily using a couple of 5-gallon buckets filled with warm water or use a heated water bucket.  This method allows you to closely monitor your horse's intake, as well as being able to add things to the water to make it more palatable such as a small amount of molasses or an electrolyte supplement.  Providing salt in the form of a salt block or loose salt near the water source can also increase your horse's desire to drink.  

Electric Tank Heater          5-gallon water bucket and Himalayan salt lick

Whatever method you choose, it is important to remain just as vigilant for signs of dehydration as we would during the hot months of summer.  Do you have a winter weather tip you'd like to share?  I would love to hear from you in the comment section below. 


Lisa Carter, Certified Equine Massage Therapist, with her Arabian mare Siofhice.  www.heavenlygaitsequinemassage.com.

Lisa Carter is a Certified Equine Massage Therapist (CEMT), with multiple certifications from several different equine bodywork schools.  She incorporates her knowledge and experience with Parelli Natural Horsemanship, equine bodywork and as a veterinary technician to provide her clients with the resources they need to make informed decisions for their horses.  She encourages and facilitates network building between equine health care professionals, working together to find the best combination of therapies to meet the needs of the "whole horse".  

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Lisa February 28, 2015 at 9:22 am

I keep a mineral/salt block in each horses feed tub, so that when they eat they will be forced to eat/lick salt while finishing their grain=need for water!

Lisa Carter March 1, 2015 at 5:01 am

Great tip Lisa!  Thanks for sharing that with us 🙂

Blessings,

Lisa

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