The Importance of Clean Water

Would you drink dirty water? Water that had algae, mud, maybe even feces in it? Would you be able to put it to your mouth and swallow?

I would, if it was a matter of survival. Chances are, if it was a matter of life or death, you would too. If that was the only water available and the choice was to drink that water or die, I am betting there are not many people who wouldn’t take at least a sip. But, would you drink your fill of that dirty, nasty water? Would you drink deeply so that your thirst was satisfied and your body was hydrated, all the way down to a cellular level? Probably not. And neither would your horse.

We all know that water is the most important nutrient that any animal can have. It is essential for almost every function, from digestion and respiration, to reproduction and lactation. But what we may often forget is that even though our animals have access to water, that doesn’t mean they are well hydrated. If their water is teeming with algae or full of mud or excrement, chances are that they are choosing not to drink as much as they could.  In the winter, if it is too cold or even frozen over, horses will have lowered intake as well.

A horse that is not well hydrated can run into a myriad of problems, not the least of which can be impactions that can lead to colic. Veterinarians will tell you that winter is prime-time for colic episodes that are directly related to lack of water. This is why it is important to monitor your horse’s water intake and make sure they are getting their fill on a daily basis.

The bare minimum amount of water that a horse needs on a daily basis is 0.5 to 1 gallon for every 100 lbs. of weight in a maintenance environment with a temperate climate. Add in performance demands, lactation, hot weather, humidity, etc. and the demand for water increases significantly. Your best bet? Keeping free choice clean cool water available at all times.

But how do you know if your water supply is up to snuff? There is a pretty easy test to tell. Ask yourself these questions as you stand at your horses’ pond, water trough or bucket:

  • Is it the right temprature? (between 45 – 65 degrees farenheit is preferred)
  • Is it fresh?
  • Is it clean?
  • Is it abundant?
    Would I want to drink it?

If you can answer “yes” to these questions, then you are providing a good water source that your horse should be happy to drink their fill from.

Take this “water quality quiz” today, and then take it again in the middle of winter, when the way you supply water to your horse may be entirely different. Because no matter what the season, water is key to a healthy, active horse.

 

“It Must Be the Pellets!”

A couple weeks ago, I transitioned a large breeding farm from textured feed to pellets. Despite the farm manager’s reluctance, the feed program was changed. The horses were doing well and everyone seemed pleased.

Late one afternoon I received a frantic call from the farm manager. She said some of the horses were drooling and acting strange. She said they had just been fed an hour earlier and “it must be the pellets”. It sounded like possible choke issues.

I reviewed the feeding procedures with the manager, and she had fed hay prior to the concentrate. I suggested she keep a close watch on the horses and contact their veterinarian. About an hour later the manager called me again and said the choke issues had subsided, but now a few of the horses were presenting colic symptoms. She was awaiting the veterinarian, and again stressed “It must be the pellets”.

The veterinarian treated the horses, questioning water consumption, and feed changes. The manager called me to tell me that all seemed quiet. I encouraged her to keep me advised of any changes. A few hours later I received a call that two horses were on their way to the veterinary hospital. This time the manager did not hold back about her concern with the pellets.

The next morning I called the farm manager to check on the horses. She told me that both mares had colic surgery. I asked if the veterinarian had determined the cause, and was surprised by the answer. For the past few days the horses were not getting turned out due to the cold weather. While inside the horses did not receive any additonal hay to compensate for the round bales they consumed during turnout. With the lack of chew time and boredom, the horses had eaten their pelleted bedding, which had in turn caused the colic.

Today’s lesson: Feeding 1 ½ to 2% of a horses body weight per day in forage really is essential for a healthy horse!

Warm Temps & Water Consumption

The transition in temperature and humidity from cool season to warm season may require an adjustment in watering horses. Reduced water consumption may impair performance and may increase the risk of impaction colic. Also, horses that are not conditioned properly may sweat more profusely than a well-conditioned horse, and thus dehydrate faster. This is particularly important early in the season when temperatures may change suddenly and horses may not yet be in peak condition.

The first key element is to make certain that horses have ready access to clean, palatable, cool water at all times or at very frequent intervals. Horses will normally consume about 1 gallon of water per 100 lbs body weight, so an 1100 lb horse will require a minimum of 11 gallons of water per day. This quantity can increase substantially during periods of exercise, high heat/humidity or for lactating mares.

Some tips to keep in mind to keep water consumption up:

  • Horses do not like to consume warm water in warm temperatures. Automatic waterers or large tanks, located in the shade and cleaned regularly, may be good options. If water is supplied in buckets, they need to be cleaned regularly and re-filled regularly.
  • If you are traveling to a show or other competition, it is essential to monitor water consumption, particularly if temperature conditions change.
  • It is routine in many barns to flavor the water with something like wintergreen or peppermint at home so that you can flavor the water in new facilities to match the home water.  Read here for tips on training your horse to drink water away from home.
  • Do NOT use soft drinks or any material containing caffeine as these can trigger positive drug tests.
  • Taking horses to facilities with chlorinated water can sometimes reduce water consumption without proper precautions.

The second key element is to make certain that salt is offered free choice. Things to keep in mind for salt consumption in horses include:

  • Horses require 1-2 ounces of salt per day, and this can increase to 6 ounces per day with exercise in hot weather conditions.
  • Loose salt is consumed more readily than salt blocks in many cases.
  • When evaluating the total diet for salt consumption, commercial feeds normally contain 0.5-1.0% salt. It is not typically any higher than this, due to problems with palatability.
  • If a horse has been salt deficient or is bored, they may over-consume salt while in a stall.
  • Additional electrolytes, commercial or personal recipe, may be used per directions before, during and following completion, but care must be taken to ensure that the horses are drinking adequate water. Administering electrolytes to a horse that is not drinking properly, or allowing a horse to over consume salt without adequate water, can lead to electrolyte imbalances. If electrolytes are added to the water, plain water should be offered also.

Horses need to be offered water throughout the day at a competition, and should be re-hydrated following exertion. They cannot cool out and recover properly without being re-hydrated. Keeping horses properly hydrated and maintaining electrolyte balance is extremely important in order to make a safe transition from cool temperatures to summer time and competition.

Feeding Schedules for Horses

A few months ago, I received a call from a farm that was experiencing numerous cases of colic. They were concerned that their grain was the cause of the problem and asked me to visit their farm.

When I arrived at 8:30 am, the horses were just being fed. As I walked into the barn I noticed all of the stall fronts and side boards showed signs of chewing. I also noticed that many of the horses had little or no water in their buckets. Each horse received a large scoop of sweet feed and a flake of hay.

I reviewed the horses’ weight and body condition scores with the owner and trainer. Based on that assessment, I suggested they move to feeding hay at a rate of 1.5% of the horses’ body weight, and grain at the rate of 0.5 %. I also suggested going to a pelleted feed, as the horses were passing a lot of undigested grain in their manure. I encouraged the farm to select a pellet high in fiber and fat, and that contained yeast cultures to aid in the digestion process.

I then asked the farm owner to describe the daily routine at the farm. He explained once the horses are fed, they begin a daily work and turnout routine. At about noon, they are given another flake of hay or have round bales in their turnout area. By 3:30, all of the horses are brought in for their evening feeding. The evening feed consisted of a scoop of grain and two flakes of hay. The barn is closed for the day by 4:00 p.m. The horses were receiving all of their daily rations in 3 feedings, but they were within an 8 hour period.

By spanning the daily rations over a 14 hour period, ensuring full water buckets throughout the day, and following the product selection suggestions I had made, the farm has now been colic free for over 6 months!

Colic, Laminitis & Starch Levels in Horse Diets

Many horse owners are concerned about carbohydratelevels in their horses diet, particularly if the horse is prone to colic or laminitis.  Often, the owner will look to simply feed a product with a lower starch or NSC percentage.  But that’s often not the best, or only, solution, particularly if elevated levels of performance are expected of the horse, because the percent of starch in the feed isn’t what matters to a horse’s digestive system – what truly matters is the total amount of starch that enters the digestive system per meal

When a horse consumes too much NSC in one meal, the starches and sugars may not be completely broken down and absorbed in the small intestine.  Undigested starch getting to the hindgut may cause rapid fermentation by the microbes (gut bugs) that live in the cecum and large intestine, which  results in gas production & lactic acid buildup.  The gas buildup can result in colic, while the lactic acid accumulation drops the pH of the gut, starting a chain of events that may compromise the blood supply to the hoof, resulting in laminitis.

Here’s the catch: all horses need some NSC in the diet to live and work for you – it is a simple biological need.  Hard working horses need higher, but still controlled, intakes of starches and sugars to provide readily available energy for work and to replace the glycogen (stored energy) that may have been used up during intense exercise.  NSC intake is important for horses to recover from hard work. 

If higher total intakes of starch and sugar are required to maintain energy levels, but the potential for digestive upset or laminitic episodes is a primary concern, the horse may benefit from more frequent but smaller meals during periods when extra calories are needed to recover from hard work.  The higher daily intake, using more frequent feedings, will provide additional starch and sugar, as well as other nutrients your horse needs, while helping reduce the risk of digestive disturbances related to higher starch intake in a single meal.

Fiber in Horse Feeds

In our previous post, we learned what fiber is and how a horse digests it,and we also learned that a horse consuming 1-1.5% of it’s bodyweight in quality roughage will satisfy its daily fiber requirements.

When it comes to any grain sources that may be added to your horses diet, fiber plays a much smaller role since the amount of fiber that is added by grains is relatively little, but the effect and digestive process is similar. 

When feeding the grain portion of the diet, ensure that your horse is not receiving high quantities of grain meals all at once – typically no more than 5-6 pounds of grain per meal at most. Because grains tend to be higher in starch than roughage, feeding too much at once can overwhelm the small size and quick rate of passage of food through the stomach and small intestine, and allow starches to pass undigested to the hindgut. Digestion of starches in the hindgut releases lactic acids that are toxic to the fiber-digesting microorganisms, which can result in a gas colic episode or laminitis.

Generally speaking, when you look at a the tag from a basic equine ration, the higher the crude fiber level listed, the lower the energy content of the feed.  Of course, there are other factors that must be looked at, such as the fat level, and also possibly the sources of fiber. 

Beet pulp, for example, is often referred to as a “super-fiber” due to the high level of fiber it provides while also providing roughly the same energy level as oats.  While soy hulls and dehydrated alfalfa are common ingredients used to increase fiber levels, a performance horse ration with a higher fiber level may make use of beet pulp to achieve both increased energy and increased fiber levels.

Water-The Most Important Nutrient for Horses

Water is the most important nutrient that we provide for horses on a year around basis. Horses need 2 to 3 times more water than other feedstuffs. An 1100 lb horse on a dry forage diet at an average temperature of 68 degrees Fahrenheit will need a minimum of 6-7 gallons of water per day or 48-56 lbs of water, and many horses will drink more water than the minimum. We all appreciate that the water requirement may double at high temperatures, but may not realize that at -4 degrees Fahrenheit; the quantity required is about 10-12 gallons per day, or actually higher than at moderate temperature. The onset of cold weather can actually increase the requirement for water because there is no fresh grass and the air is very dry.

There is a misconception that domestic horses can easily eat enough snow to survive. While horses in the wild do adapt to lower water intakes, partially because food intake is also frequently reduced, horses can survive longer without food than they can without water. Reduced water intake can also impair digestion and potentially contribute to the incidence of impaction colic.

It also requires a great deal of energy to eat snow, melt the snow in the body and raise the fluid temperature to normal body temperature of 99.5- 100.5. Increasing the temperature of 10 gallons of water from 32 degrees to 100 degrees takes about 1372 Calories or about the amount of digestible energy in a pound of feed. Melting the snow to get to water will take a great deal more energy and the horses will not readily eat a pile of snow the size of 20 five gallon buckets. It takes about 10 inches of snow to have one inch of water.

Providing horses with fresh clean water at an appropriate temperature all year around is a great management tool to reduce the risk of colic, maintain healthy digestion, maintain body condition and even save a bit of money on feed cost!

Management Practices: Reducing the Risk of Colic

Colic is one of the leading health problems facing horse owners. According to the USDA’s National Health Monitoring System (NAHMS) Equine Study 1998, about 4% of the horse population experiences colic each year. Colic rated second only to old age as the cause of death in equines. The same study indicated that horse owners most commonly identified “unknown” causes for colic, followed by gas colic and feed related.

Feeding management and non-feeding-related management practices can all have an impact on reducing the risk of colic.

The following management practices can aid in reducing the risk of colic:

  1. Parasite Control: Includes proper sanitation and regular deworming per program.
  2. Dental Care: Be sure to schedule regular dental exams as needed.
  3. Fresh Clean Water: A lack of water in both cold and warm weather may increase risk of colic.
  4. Consistent Diet: Avoiding sudden changes in either hay or grain may help reduce risk.  A survey by Dr. Noah Cohen et al in Texas indicated forage changes are associated with colic more frequently than changes in the grain portion of the diet.
  5. Avoid Starch Overload. Starch overload, or allowing undigested starch to get to the hindgut, is a major cause of gas colic.  Limiting meal size, maintaining equal feeding intervals, and selecting controlled starch feed products for a feeding program, may help reduce the risk of starch overload. 
  6. Feed Additives. Some feed additives, such as direct fed microbials and yeast culture, may also be beneficial in improving forage utilization and digestion.

Colic prevention—rather than colic treatment—is clearly much better for both the horse and the horse owner.