Is it the Feed, or Something Else?

A farm owner recently called me and asked if I could come out and evaluate his feeding program. The farm was experiencing an increase in colic and choke, which the owner felt was feed related.

As we reviewed the horses, their weights and body conditions were good. In fact a few horses appeared to be on the heavy side. The farm was feeding a first cutting hay. It was fair quality, and the horses appeared to find it palatable. Each horse was receiving 1.5 to 2% of their body weight per day in forage.

The concentrate was a high fat, high fiber pellet with mid line fortification of vitamins and minerals. In addition, pasture was available on a daily basis. With the amount of fiber in the horses diet, I found it interesting that the farm was experiencing increased colic.

I started to investigate other management issues.

    • The feeding schedule was two feedings per day, with the a.m. feeding at 7:00 a.m. and 5:00 p.m. I had suggested spreading out the feedings into 3, if possible, with a final offering of hay at closing time in the evening, about 10:00 p.m.
    • Salt blocks were available in each stall.
    • Each horse had two water buckets.

It was then that I noticed the water buckets were very discolored and smelled bad. The owner informed me that he was using water from a pond on the farm. He had the water tested, and felt it came back safe for equine consumption. It quickly became obvious that the horses were not consuming enough water on a daily basis, even though it was available to them. I suggested the owner begin cleaning the water buckets on a daily basis to increase consumption .

When I talked with him last, he was not happy with the added labor, but admitted the horses were consuming more water and he did not have any choke or colic in the past two weeks.

Leading a Horse to Water…

Water is the most essential and important nutrient for you and your horse and should be available to your horse at all times. Good hydration is vital to optimal health and performance. With all of the bad things that can happen if a horse doesn’t drink properly, it’s no wonder horse owners, myself included, get anxious about making sure their horse is consuming adequate amounts of H2O, particularly when we are away from home.

So what is a horse owner to do in these cases? The old adage which says ‘you can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make them drink’ may be true. However, with a little preparation before heading out to hit the trails or this year’s show circuit, most horses can be trained to drink. Providing free choice access to salt, bringing along water from home, using electrolytes, and doing things like soaking feed can all help, and training your horse to drink is one more tool you can add to your box of tricks. Supplies are cheap and easy to obtain. I like to use the smaller 8qt buckets – they are easier to hold, especially if watering in a trailer.

  • To begin, I wanted my gelding to associate the small “water” bucket with a yummy treat. So I started giving him his favorite treat – chopped up carrots, a little unsweetened applesauce, and a small handful beet pulp – in the bucket without water. He quickly learned that that bucket meant something yummy.
  • Once that positive association was made, I started adding just a little water over the treat, just enough to cover the carrot chunks (1 – 2 inches) and get the applesauce in solution so the water was “flavored”. The idea is to get his nose wet to get the treat, and he would be rewarded for slurping everything up through lots of verbal praise and the food treat. There are many things you can flavor water with, its just a matter of finding what your horse finds irresistible:
    • Gatorade, applesauce, commercial water flavors, carrot shreds, small handful of grain concentrate, small dollop of molasses, peppermints, etc.
  • Once he accepted the water addition to his treat, I started giving his “water treat” in different locations around the farm (in the cross-ties, by the horse trailer, in the horse trailer, outside of the arena, in the pasture, etc.) AND as soon as we were done working, just as his caveson or bridle came off after being properly cooled out. After a few days of doing this, he started expecting his “water treat” after work.
  • Now that we had established this behavior, it was time to add more water, filling to ¼ of the bucket and letting him get used to that, then filling to ½ bucket, letting him get used to that, and so on, until he was drinking most of a small bucket when I put it in front of him.
  • After a little time I started backing off of the flavor so the mixture got more diluted, but making sure he still got a treat reward for finishing off the bucket each time. That way if he ever got really stubborn about drinking or if I were masking water that was noticeably different from water at home, I could add more flavor back to entice him to drink.
    • Also, since adding things to water can be a labor intensive (buckets need to be cleaned more frequently), the less you have to add, the more practical it is.
    • Another trick, especially when you get to the full bucket stage, is to let the horse watch you add the treat (carrot/apple chunks) to the water, so they stay engaged and interested. If they back off drinking, then go back to the previous step or the step before that and re-establish the behavior, then move on again.

The idea of adding flavor initially is to develop the consumption behavior through positive association, and then wean them off of it gradually while the behavior is retained. If you regularly offer your horse flavored water, be sure they have access to clean, fresh, un-flavored water as well. Also, take care not to go overboard with sugary flavors in your water to avoid digestive upset. It would be counter-productive for your horse to associate a “tummy-ache” with drinking.

Lastly, don’t forget to keep yourself well hydrated along with your horse. Cheers!