Ask the Expert: Winter Water Needs

Question: I’ve heard that horses need more water in the winter, is that true?

Answer:  During the summer months, pasture contains about 80% moisture and can contribute to your horse’s water requirement if grazing.

In contrast, hay should contain less than 15% moisture, increasing your horse’s need for water during the winter months or when fed a primarily hay diet.

If your horse doesn’t drink enough water during cold weather they may eat less and be more prone to impaction colic and more susceptible to cold weather.

Most 1,000-pound adult, idle horses need at least 10 to 12 gallons of water daily and water is most readily consumed when kept between 45 and 65°F.

Written by Krishona Martinson, PhD, and Marcia Hathaway, PhD, University of Minnesota. This and other horse nutrition articles can be found at http://www.extension.umn.edu/agriculture/horse/nutrition/.

Keep the Mold Away – Tack and Feed Room Ventilation

As we deal with heat and humidity, attention is often appropriately focused on the comfort of our animals.  We sometimes neglect to think about the impact of heat and humidity on our tack and on our feed.  Controlling humidity and temperature in areas where tack and feed are stored is also very important for the success of an equine operation.

Tack that is exposed to high humidity and warm temperatures can mold/mildew very quickly with resulting damage to leather.  The following steps might be useful to consider:

  1. Make certain there is adequate airflow thru the tack room. This may require having windows that allow ventilation or the addition of fans to move air thru the tack room.  Locate the air intake and air exhaust areas so that air flows thru the room, not just at ceiling level.  If you install exhaust fans, consider where the air will be coming in to reduce exposure to dust or contaminants.
  2. Do not store wet saddle pads/blankets in the same area as leather tack. Do not put pads/blankets over the top of saddles on saddle racks.
  3. Make certain there is space between saddle racks to allow airflow between saddles.
  4. Consider using a de-humidifier in the tack room. If possible, install so it drains automatically instead of requiring manual emptying of the water container.
  5. If design and electrical wiring are adequate, consider a window air conditioner for the tack storage area.

Feed room ventilation is also important.  Feed may absorb moisture from the air and mold even if it arrives at the farm at a suitable moisture level from the store or the feed plant.  If possible, store feed out of direct sunlight as moisture migration can take place within feed bags, causing moisture to accumulate in one area of the bag.  This is also a problem when feed is stored in bulk bins.  The feed on the sunny side can heat up and cause moisture migration in the bin.  The bin should be ventilated to allow moisture to escape but must be set up so moisture does not enter when it rains!  Depending on material, bins can be painted with reflective color to help reduce heating.

During warm, humid weather, do not buy large quantities of feed at one time and make certain the feed is rotated properly so that bags are used up and bins are emptied and cleaned/inspected regularly.  If bags are stacked, make certain that they are stacked on pallets or material that prevents moisture contact/accumulation at the bottom of the stack.  Stacking bags directly on top of concrete or dirt floor makes the bottom bags very prone to getting damp and molding.

Pest control is also important for both tack and feed storage areas.  Rodents can quickly damage tack and can contaminate feed.  Keeping the areas clean and using commercial pest control may be one option to consider.

Keeping both tack and feed protected from excess heat and humidity is an important part of barn design and barn management!

Drink Up! Keeping Your Horse Well Hydrated

Many regions of the country have been experiencing high heat and humidity this summer, so naturally, the concern of proper hydration comes to mind. Reduced water consumption in horses may impair performance and increase the risk of impaction colic. Additionally, horses may sweat more profusely, resulting in faster dehydration. So what’s a horse owner to do?

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.

Hazard in the Water – Blue-Green Algae

Current weather and water conditions in many parts of the country have created conditions favorable for the rapid growth of Blue-Green Algae.  These primitive organisms are actually algae-like bacteria instead of being true algae and are also referred to as Cyanobacteria.  They grow rapidly and may produce the pea-soup green color in some bodies of water, along with some foul odors.  These rapid growth periods, called “blooms”, most frequently occur when there is a combination of warm weather, intermittent or limited rainfall and an accumulation of nutrients, particularly phosphorus and nitrogen.  The planktonic groups produce the pea green water while the mat-forming groups produce dark mats that start on the bottom and float to the surface.  The planktonic species (Anabena, Aphanizomenon and Microcystis) are believed to be most likely to produce toxins which can be harmful or fatal to animals when ingested. (Fact Sheet on Toxic Blue-Green Algae, Purdue University, Carole A. Lembi)

The blooms of Cyanobacteria tend to accumulate on the downwind side of pond and may look like swirls of green paint.  The toxins may be ingested when animals drink the water or when they lick their coats after being in the water.  Animals are more likely to consume the water if fresh water supplies are limited from other sources.  Any animals that drink the water during a period when toxins are being produced may be affected, but toxins are not always produced when there is a bloom.

Providing a source of fresh, clean, safe drinking water is the best way to avoid causing animals to consume questionable water.  If pets go swimming, they should be cleaned off before they have a chance to lick their coats.

Toxic symptoms may include vomiting, diarrhea, rash and skin irritation.  There are generally two types of toxins, neurotoxins that affect the central nervous system and hepatotoxins which affect the liver function.

Preventing run-off of nutrients into ponds and lakes is also important to help reduce the risk of these algae blooms.  Prolonged drought conditions in some areas have also increased the concentration of nutrients in the remaining water in ponds and lakes.

While not all “blooms” may produce toxins, avoiding exposure to or consumption of suspect water is recommended.  More information is available from local and state pollution control sites or extension sites.

There is a useful article in Feedstuffs, June 15, 2018 by Dr. A.J. Tarpoff that describes issues and recommends testing procedure if you think that you might have an issue.   Extension Specialists may also have local information and may be able to direct you to testing options in your state.

Winter Care for your Senior Horse

As those who live in true winter geographies know, the cold weather can be brutal for any horse, let alone our aging companions. That is why it’s incredibly important to consider the special needs of your senior horse, as the temperatures drop.  

  • Blanketing – Depending on the extremeness of your temperatures, blanketing your senior horse can be an important consideration of winter care. Try to remember to spread out and look over your blankets before the weather turns bitter cold, to ensure they are in good condition. 
  • Body Condition Score (BCS) – It’s important to understand and evaluate your senior horse’s Body Condition Score before the winter months hit. But if you find yourself in the thick of winter with a senior horse that is rapidly losing weight, then speak to your veterinarian about the best options to add on pounds during the frigid months. 
  • Hydration is Key – The role water plays in the health of your horse is just as important during the cold of winter, as it is the heat of summer. Make sure there is adequate access to fresh water for your senior horse throughout the day. Not only can dehydration lead to impaction colic, but it can decrease feed intake, which is vital for your senior horse during the winter months.  
  • Stay Well-Supplied – Make sure you are prepared for the conditions, which includes sufficient amounts of feed and hay, medications, anti-ice materials, flashlights, light bulbs and other items you may need if a storm hits.  

Winter isn’t an easy season to endure with senior horses, but with planning and preparedness, you and your aging friend will weather the storm.  

What’s Lurking in the Water – Understanding Blue-Green Algae

Weather and water conditions in many parts of the country have created or will create conditions favorable for the rapid growth of blue-green algae. Please be on alert with your horses, other animals and yourselves, and use precaution around water sources.

These single-celled organisms are actually algae-like bacteria instead of being true algae and are also referred to as Cyanobacteria.  They grow rapidly and may produce the pea-soup green color in some bodies of water, along with some foul odors.  The rapid growth periods, called “blooms” most frequently occur when there is a combination of warm weather, intermittent or limited rainfall and an accumulation of nutrients, particularly phosphorus and nitrogen. Blooms can range in color from green, to blue, brown or red. Water sources of fresh, brackish or salt water can all be affected by harmful algal blooms. Most often, slow moving water sources are the most suspect, although harmful algal blooms can occur in any water source with favorable conditions.

The planktonic groups produce the pea green water while the mat-forming groups produce dark mats that start on the bottom and float to the surface.  The planktonic species (Anabena, Aphanizomenon and Microcystis) are believed to be most likely to produce toxins which can be harmful or fatal to animals when ingested. Although, you cannot tell by looking at the bloom whether or not cyanotoxins exist. (Fact Sheet on Toxic Blue-Green Algae, Purdue University, Carole A. Lembi)

Toxins may be ingested when animals drink the water, when they lick their coats after being in the water, or when they inhale water droplets.  Animals are more likely to consume the water if fresh, clean water supplies are limited from other sources. Not all animals are deterred by foul odors that may be produced from the blooms.  Animals that drink or have exposure to the water during a period when cyanotoxins are being produced may be affected, but toxins are not always produced when there is a bloom.

Providing a source of fresh, clean, safe drinking water is the best way to avoid causing animals to consume questionable water.  If animals go swimming, they should be cleaned off before they have a chance to lick their coats, try not to engage in physical exertion near the water supply where inhaling water droplets could occur.

Preventing access to waterways is one way to prevent toxin exposure. Swimming in, contact with, breathing in water droplets or drinking water in ponds/lakes/streams is not recommended during temperatures or conditions that are favorable for blooms to exist. Most often slow moving water or calm water that has a greenish appearance are those most suspect to algal blooms, however they can exist an any water source if the conditions have been favorable. If contact has occurred watch for symptoms and promptly notify your veterinarian. When in doubt keep your animals and yourselves out of the water. Provide access to fresh, clean water at all times for your animals.

Toxic symptoms may include:

  • Diarrhea
  • Vomiting
  • Rash and skin irritation
  • Difficulty breathing
  • Seizure
  • Death

While not all “blooms” may produce toxins, avoiding exposure to or consumption of suspect water is recommended.  Risks of illness after the blooms are gone are low, however some toxins can still remain in the water once the blooms are gone. More information is available from local and state pollution control sites or extension sites. Health Departments recommend, when in doubt, keep out of the water.

Preventing run-off of nutrients into ponds and lakes is also important to help reduce the risk of these algae blooms.  Keeping vegetation around water sources can help naturally filter. Drought conditions in some areas have also increased the concentration of nutrients in the remaining water in ponds, lakes and streams.

Fall Health Concerns for Horses

Fall HorsesFall can be a beautiful time of year for horseback riding. However, falling leaves and frost can negatively impact horse health.
Ingestion of dried or wilted, but not fresh, maple leaves is associated with the toxicosis. Dried leaves are not generally believed to retain toxicity the following spring. Toxicosis normally occurs in the autumn when normal leaf fall occurs. Although studies indicate that leaves collected after September 15 are more toxic, cases of toxicosis in horses due to wilted leaves after summer storms have been observed. Horses are the only species for which maple leaf toxicity has been reported. Horses are often depressed, lethargic, and anorexic with dark red or brown urine after the first day of ingestion. They may progress to going down with labored breathing and increased heart rate before death. Horses should be fenced out of areas where wilted maple leaves are plentiful.
Prunus species (species in the cherry family) contain cyanide and should be removed from horse pastures. Cyanide is released after chewing the plant or seed, or when the plant material wilts (after a frost). Animals are most commonly found dead within minutes to a few hours of ingestion of the plant.
There are no reports of toxicity of horses grazing frost damaged pastures (includes grass and legume species). Frost damaged pastures can have higher concentrations of nonstructural carbohydrates, leading to an increase in potential for founder and colic, especially in horses diagnosed with or prone to obesity, laminitis and Equine Metabolic Syndrome. To reduce the chance of adverse health effects, it is recommended that horse owners wait up to a week before turning horses back onto a pasture after the first killing frost. Subsequent frosts are not a concern as the pasture plants were killed during the first frost.

This article is reprinted with permission from Krishona Martinson, University of Minnesota. This and other horse nutrition articles can be found at http://www.extension.umn.edu/agriculture/horse/nutrition/.

Horses, Heat and Humidity

Water into bucketSummer is in full swing, including the heat and humidity. Horses, similar to humans, may have a difficult time coping and cooling off with the combination of heat and humidity. The added challenge of cooling off partially results from the inability of the sweat to evaporate in humid weather. The combination of sweat and humid weather acts like an insulation, making horses even hotter. Some horses have diagnosed trouble sweating (anhidrosis) during hot and humid weather, which adds other challenge to cool off. Consult Veterinary support if your horse has trouble sweating.

Some ways to help you and your horse cope with hot humid weather is to calculate the temperature-humidity index (THI). Add the air temperature (in degrees Fahrenheit) to the humidity percentage. For example, if it is 80 degrees Fahrenheit and the humidity is 60%, the THI is 140. When the THI reaches 150, horses will have difficulty cooling off, at 180 working a horse can be unsafe to the horse’s health and you should actively help the horse cool off.

Another supportive tool is to take your horse’s temperature. Normal is between 99.5 and 100.5 degrees Fahrenheit at resting, and can range between 103 to 104 degrees during exercise. When a horse’s temperature reaches 105 this is dangerous and the risk of overheating or health damage can occur. Above 105 degrees horses are likely to suffer heatstroke and require immediate Veterinary attention.

Helpful ways to keep horses cool in hot humid weather:

1. Clean and cool water available at all times

Horses prefer fresh, cool water in sufficient amounts when it is hot and humid. Keeping clean and cool water in deep buckets in the shade will help keep water cool. In addition to the automatic waterers (if available) additional deep buckets may be required to allow horses to gulp water versus sip smaller amounts. I often will consume a substantial amount of cool water in one sitting in a light colored container when it is hot and humid.

2. Provide appropriate feed for the horse’s activity

Feeding excess hay in hot humid weather can contribute to added body heat from the digestive process. Feeding smaller amounts more frequently or use of a slow feeding hay bag may be beneficial. Feed a quality balanced feed that is designed for the exercise requirements of the individual horse. If I am a daily jogger, my nutrient requirements vary significantly from a marathon runner in training.

3. Consider individual fitness

Physical fitness and environments vary between individual horses. Research has shown horses well-conditioned and of optimal physical fitness tend to cope with hot humid weather more easily than those who are out of shape. Horses residing in climates with extreme heat and humidity tend to cope better than horses traveling and adjusting to different climates. Although the horses may cope better if they are acclimated to the heat and humidity, it is still important to observe safe exercise and offer healthy ways to help horses keep cool.

Proper Horse Hydration and Electrolyte Use

Although summer officially kicked off just this week, the heat has already been in full force throughout much of the country. Here are some helpful tips to keep your horse safe and hydrated throughout these steamy summer months.

Cold Weather Care and Feeding of Horses

Horse in pasture during snow fall

Cold weather, particularly below freezing temperatures and cold rains, requires that owners pay careful attention to their horses to make certain that the horses maintain weight through the winter months.

First, make certain the horses are at least a body condition score of 5 or 6, meaning that the horses are carrying some fat cover over their ribs. Body condition should be monitored by physical examination at least monthly as long hair can hide weight loss. This is particularly important for older horses. The horses should also be kept up to date on dental care and overall health care, including appropriate deworming. It is a good idea to let horses go barefoot with proper hoof care during the winter.

Second, adequate water, above 40 degrees Fahrenheit, should be available at all times. If water sources freeze, the ice should be broken at least twice per day. Owners should NOT rely on horses eating snow for their water supply. A 1200-pound horse will require 12-15 gallons of water per day during cold weather. Having inadequate water available or water that is too cold for horses to drink comfortably may contribute to impaction colic. A horse that does not have adequate water available will also decrease feed intake, which may lead to loss of body condition. Salt should be available free choice, preferably loose salt rather than a salt block as horses may not lick a cold salt block.

Third, provide shelter from cold rains and wind. Horses remain remarkably comfortable in cold weather if they are dry and have shelter from the wind. Cold rains mat down the hair coat, reducing the insulation value of the hair and causing the horses to lose body heat.

Fourth, feed more! A horse’s digestible energy requirement increases for each degree below the thermal neutral zone. Wind chill increases the energy requirement also. Hay or high fiber products produce more heat during digestion than do grains, so adding extra good quality roughage to the diet is a good option. Grain intake can also be adjusted to maintain the desired body condition, but needs to be adjusted gradually.

  • A 1200 lb. horse at maintenance requires about 17.7 Mcal (17,700 Calories) of DE for maintenance.
  • Each degree C below Lower Critical Temperature (Anywhere from 5 degrees C or 40 degrees F down, depending on what the horse is used to.) increases DE requirement about 2.5%. (NRC, 6th Edition, page 10-11.)
  • Converting to Fahrenheit, each degree drop requires about 1.375%, so if the temperature drops from 10 degrees F to 0 degrees F, the DE requirement may increase 13.75% to 20.13 Mcal or 20,130 Calories.
  • This increase of 2430 Calories would require an additional 2.8 pounds of alfalfa grass hay to maintain body condition.
  • If the horse does NOT get the additional DE, the horse could lose a little over a quarter of a lb. per day.
  • If we have 3 months of cold weather, it is very easy for a horse to drop a full body condition score.

Proper winter care will help assure that your horse is ready for winter activities and is ready for spring when it finally arrives!