“Water is life’s matter and matrix, mother and medium. There is no life without water.” Albert Szent-Gyorgyi, M.D., Credited with discovering Vitamin C
Water is a vital source of life for plants and animals. Our four-legged steeds included. For all the emphasis we place on what to feed our horses, we often pay less attention to what they drink.
If your horse does not drink enough water at regular intervals, he or she will suffer ill-effects. Most horse owners are familiar with the classic description of a horse colicing due to dehydration. Yet symptoms of “not having enough water” can be more subtle too.
You may notice that a horse who is sick might change its water consumption. But even a healthy horse’s attempts to drink can be thwarted by many factors. How likely your horse is to drink/how much they drink can be affected by the water’s temperature, taste, cleanliness, freshness, smell and composition. Don’t forget that the condition of the bucket/trough can affect water quality as well.
I am not a horse nutritionist, veterinarian or H2O expert. Instead, I am a backyard horse keeper who has encountered some issues with my horses’ water over the years. I compose the issues in the form of questions below and include links to more expert sources than I for your reference. Hopefully the questions will spur your interest in further exploring these topics.
What exactly is in your horse’s water?
If you keep your horses at home, you might want to have your water tested. If you are aware of its mineral composition, you can use the testing to better inform your feeding program. For example, I live in a high iron area so I try to avoid ration balancers/grain with added iron. I also tend to put out white salt-only blocks instead of the red ones with added iron. See https://thehorse.com/169257/unsafe-water-can-cause-deadly-iron-overload-in-horses/ for one study about the potential dangers of too much iron in a horse’s diet. If you have concerns about your horse regarding this issue, please consult your veterinarian for guidance.
When was the last time you cleaned and/or replaced your horse’s water bucket or trough?
I can’t say for sure that my horses experience a dirty, slimy water trough with the same distain that I do. I do see on a regular basis, when given a choice of more than one water source, my horses will generally prefer to drink from a freshly scrubbed and filled trough over one sitting there with older water.
Remember that most horses don’t have the choice of more than one water source. They are forced to drink if they become thirsty enough, no matter if their water is unappetizing. I don’t know of any studies on this issue. I do suspect horses drink less in those situations than they would if provided with fresh, clean water from a clean container.
To get a really good sense of how clean your buckets and troughs are, do more than just look at the color of the water. Run your hands over the water containers’ sides and bottoms. Often clear slim quickly accumulates. You can’t see it, but you can sure feel it. Dip your fingers into the water to check for problems with the temperature (getting too hot after standing in the Summer sun or maybe electrical shorts caused by water heaters in Winter). Put your face closely over the bucket or trough periodically and notice if it smells putrid.
Remember to clean your water containers on a regular basis and replace them altogether periodically. I prefer some combination of a scrub brush, clean water, vinegar and baking soda to clean the 15 or 20 gallon round rubber tubs I typically use. I personally prefer to employ multiple smaller bins rather than one large trough. This way I waste less water (and create less mud) when they need to be drained/dumped.
How do you provide unfrozen water to your horses during Winter?
For those of us who keep horses in cold climates, a huge issue is dealing with freezing water in Winter. Power outages where water pumps stop working are also challenging. I use an electric bird water-fountain heater in a 15 gallon rubber tank. I run extension cords running from pasture to house as I have no electricity in my barn area.
Word to the wise, budget for increased electricity costs during Winter if you do use a tank heater. And as previously mentioned, dip your finger into the water periodically to check for shorts. Watch your horses when they head over to drink and see if they seem hesitant. Many years ago I noticed my horse, Blue, putting his head down to drink and then jerking back. When I touched the water, I felt a little zap. I would not have caught the issue so quickly had I not noticed Blue’s behavior.
I replaced all the extension cords as well as the tank heater to solve the problem. It is helpful to keep replacements directly on hand. Tank heaters and extension cords can be hard to obtain in the middle of inclement weather or a pandemic lockdown, for example.
Many folks have success using non-electric methods to heat their horse’s water, but I have not. I stick with using a trough heater even though I’d prefer a nonelectrified source to increase safety and decrease expense. Read the following informative article for some additional ideas at https://thehorse.com/137146/keeping-water-troughs-thawed-with-or-without-a-heater/. Perhaps you will find more success than I have in keeping your troughs from freezing over without a heater.
I also try to stay updated on the weather forcast. Severe cold snaps and ice storms have at times knocked out our power. I often choose to fill up a bathtub with water and/or some five gallons jugs ahead of weather events. I will then have a temporary water supply if the outside water pump stops working.
Is your horse able to easily access his water source?
Another issue to consider is the placement of your tanks, especially if you keep your horses outside 24/7 like I do. I never really thought much about this until my horse, Bear, experienced repeated laminitic flares and hoof abscesses several years ago. He was always a sensitive soled horse, but especially after those events, I noticed that if the ground became really hard frozen, he would not leave the area around his run-in-shed. This meant that he was not accessing his water tank located on the other side of his paddock from his shelter.
If we have a cold snap that results in those footing conditions, I have learned to make sure to hand walk a bucket of water out to Bear first thing in the morning and then several times a day. On some occasions, he has whinned at me when he sees me coming with the bucket and then drinks greedily. This confirms my observations that he doesn’t seem to be leaving his shed area to drink during those cold snaps.
Some folks might be able to simply move the tank so the horse could better access it, but the logistics of my set up don’t allow for that during Winter when I need to run electric cords for the tank heater. So I need to put out more physical effort into hauling water to make sure Bear stays drinking during those periods.
Would you like to do further reading on the subject of water and horses?
If so, below are additional resources. Feel free to dive right in. 🙂 Most come from TheHorse.com website, one of the few health resources that my veterinarian’s practice regularly recommends for reliable information. A couple of these are sponsored posts, but I still think they contain sound and helpful material. Here’s to keeping our horses happily hydrated!