The temperatures are brutally cold throughout most of the East Coast right now, with the mercury dropping even lower after today’s storm blows through the Northeast. Keeping your horse hydrated in winter is important, and with even colder weather on the way, we wanted to share some more information on how to ensure your horse is getting enough fluids, and helping you understand the risks if they don’t.

Why Hydration Is Important for Horses

Horses on average drink about 5 – 10 gallons of water per day, even in winter. While it’s true that when they sweat or in the heat of summer they can go through more, in winter in many cases horses actually need more water because they need increased hay intake to generate heat and hay requires water to digest.

Without water, horses are more prone to colic, especially impactions, due to limited gut motility. According to Equus Magazine, “When ingested feed stops moving through the horse’s gut efficiently, the material can accumulate and form a blockage. Feed and gas then back up behind the blockage, causing distention of the intestine and associated pain. Impactions are often found in an area called the “pelvic flexure,” a hairpin turn the large colon makes back on itself, but can also occur in other locations.”

While impactions are relatively easy to diagnose, depending on their severity, as with any colic, they still can be life threatening. Rehydration through IV fluids can help, and your veterinarian can work with you to determine an appropriate treatment plan should your horse have an issue. However, it’s always better to prevent the situation wherever you can, so let’s talk about keeping your horse hydrated in winter next.

Access to Water

First, and most importantly, access to water is key. You need to have fresh, defrosted water for your horses to drink at all times, as many horses won’t work to break through ice in a trough to get to water. Some horses will eat snow when available, but that still doesn’t provide nearly enough water for their needs. Bear in mind that as per NOAA, it takes nearly 13″ of rain to equal just one inch of water so your horse would have to eat a LOT of snow to stay properly hydrated! Snow alone is not enough. 

There’s a multitude of ways you can keep your water troughs free of ice, from stock tank de-icers to salt water jugs bobbing to keep the water moving, to even insulated bucket and trough options. Whatever you choose, make sure that it’s working and that your horse has access 24/7. It’s a myth that horses only drink during the day, so don’t unplug those trough heaters at night!

winter horse farm hacks

Maryland based trainer Julia Jesu of Close Up Show Stables shared this great tip about using salt water jugs to keep troughs from freezing. See her full winter barn hack on the CSS Facebook page.

Salt and Electrolyte Intake

Many people believe that horses only need salt and/or electrolytes in the summer or when they are in heavy work, but that couldn’t be farther from the truth. In colder weather, increased turnout is important to keep horses moving and warm (and you’ll find most horses actually do better with turnout as compared to being stall bound even on the coldest of days), but they also need salt or electrolytes to keep their system balanced. 

We’ve already discussed keeping your horse hydrated in winter through plenty of access to water, so let’s talk about how salt and electrolytes figure in. Martha Mallicote, DVM, a large animal internal medicine specialist at the University of Florida in Gainesville was interviewed for this article by Farnam about the use of electrolytes in keeping your horse hydrated in winter and says,

“Adding the electrolytes to feed ensures that most horses will eat them,” Mallicote notes. “If electrolytes are added to water or offered as a free-choice supplement, horses will usually choose to eat/drink them when the normal physiologic mechanism for decreased electrolyte concentrations kicks in.”

For pasture kept horses, free choice mineral blocks can work best as horses usually will utilize them in their field when they are low on salt. Placing the salt or mineral blocks in the general vicinity of water troughs can also help ensure that horses are getting both salt + water to stay hydrated and keep their systems healthy.

Soaked Feeds and Mash

Another way to ensure your horse gets enough water to keep hydrated in winter is to feed wet or soaked feeds. Soaked alfalfa cubes, bran mash, and even wet down grain can help increase water intake for horses that aren’t drinking enough or are prone to dehydration and impaction colic episodes. When it’s cold out, make sure to use warm water as many horses won’t eat their mash otherwise. And if you have a picky eater, it may take a little trial and error to figure out what they like. Not all horses like bran mash, as plain it’s quite bland. You can try mixing in a little molasses, cut up apples and carrots, and even some alfalfa pellets or cubes.

Keeping Your Horse Hydrated in Winter

When the temperature drops, water for horses is incredibly important. Keeping your horse hydrated in winter can mean the difference between a few chilly days and added hay and layered blankets to weather out a storm and an emergency call to your veterinarian for a colicky horse. There’s a ton of great blogs and tips about preparing for winter, so that you don’t have to deal with frozen buckets, sledgehammers to iced over troughs, and more. Here’s a few more for additional reading that we love:

AAEP’s Winter Horse Care Tips for Owners

Horse Nation’s Barn From the Ground Up Series: A Little Winter Prep Goes a Long Way!

Equus Magazine’s Four Simple Rules for Preventing Winter Colic

Stay warm and hydrated, and of course if you suspect your horses may be colicking, call your veterinarian right away. For anyone in the Sussex County area, Dr. Spinks does provide equine services and you can book your appointment today.

keeping your horse hydrated in winter

Eating snow isn’t enough for keeping horses hydrated in winter.