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.

 

How to Feed Electrolytes to Horses

We recently had a horse owner ask about providing electrolytes to her horses all at once, through the watering trough.  While in theory this might work, in practicality, it may cause some issues.

First, it is important to understand what horses need:

  • The key electrolytes are sodium, chloride, potassium and magnesium.
  • Forages and feed normally contain adequate potassium and magnesium to maintain body levels.

Then, we need to understand how a horse consumes & utilizes electrolytes:

  • The best way to add these to a horse’s diet is to provide free choice salt in a loose form at all times, as sodium and chloride are the primary electrolytes lost in sweat.
  • Horses may not consume enough salt if the salt is in block form, particularly during cold weather or hot, humid conditions.
  • Horses cannot store excess electrolytes and will excrete in the urine.

If you have particular events where the horses will be worked hard, particularly in hot, humid conditions, it is recommended to provide the additional electrolytes immediately prior to, during and immediately following a competition.  Maintaining water consumption is key to preventing dehydration and adding electrolytes to the water may not be desired.

Dr. Krishona Martinson at the University of Minnesota recently published a useful newsletter review that suggested that adding supplements to the drinking water for horses can actually decrease water consumption, which is exactly what you would want to avoid doing.

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.

Feeding Electrolytes to Horses

As a follow-up to our recent post on providing adequate water for horses, the following information should be helpful in understanding the use of supplemental electrolytes for horses.  There are a wide range of practices and opinions within this topic, so here are some basic guidelines to keep in mind:

  1. Provide loose salt free choice at all times to all horses.  If loose salt is provided, horses will usually consume the right amount to meet their electrolyte requirements without having to use an additional supplement. 
  2. Horses administered any form of electrolytes need to be consuming adequate water.
  3. Electrolytes should never be force fed to a dehydrated horse, and any horses supplemented with electrolytes should be monitored for dehydration (skin pinch test, mucous membrane color and hydration, capillary refill).
  4. Electrolytes can be used to encourage drinking (e.g. during transport or if horse doesn’t like to drink away from home).  Usually thirst/drinking is stimulated within 3-4 hours after dosing. 
  5. In cases where horses are working extremely hard and losing electrolytes through substantial sweating, a supplemental electrolyte in addition to the salt may be beneficial. 
    1. If heavy sweating due to competition is anticipated, administer electrolytes 1-2 days prior to competition, during the competition and 1-2 days after a competition. 
    2. Doses are usually within the 1 – 4 oz range, depending on sweat loss and the heat and humidity levels. 
    3. A general rule of thumb is usually 30 – 90 g per hour of strenuous work, or follow manufacturer’s instructions if using a commercial product. 
  6. An oral dose (paste/syringe) is recommended over top dress or adding to water, as these methods can create palatability issues and can result in feed/water refusal.
  7. Many commercial products have more sugar that electrolytes in them, so buying a commercial product where sugar is not listed as one of the main ingredients is very important.  Potassium, sodium, chloride, and calcium are the most important electrolytes.

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!