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!

15 Replies to “Leading a Horse to Water…”

  1. I guess I am lucky since I never had any problems that one of my horses did not want to drink.

    However. An international famous dressage rider in the Netherlands always gave her horse apple juice in his water, otherwise he did not drink.
    She has been all over the world with her horses so maybe it is a good tip.

    Bless you all, happy trails.

  2. Wonderful article!
    I chanced upon a fantastic product a few years ago. It was called EquiTea and it looked like my horse had pooped in his bucket when it’s all mixed (it had an alfalfa base to it). However, that product is no longer available and I don’t know why, it worked great! So well, that some of the vets at MSU started using it after I introduced it to them during a surgery recovery of one of my older geldings.
    I’m currently using a different product, which works well enough, but am excited to try this new trick.
    Thank you!

  3. You got your horse to drink, but why didn’t he want to drink?
    When athletic teams go on the road, they carry their own water with them. The reason is because a change in drinking water has a negative effect on people. It can make them sluggish and even have more severe effects. The water may smell or appear the same as the “home” water, but the horse may detect the differance and reject it. When traveling with your horse, take your “home” water with you.

    1. Hi Paul, Thanks for the comment. Of course, bringing water from home would be ideal. However, length of the trip, the distance being travelled, the number of horses being hauled, and availability of the type of equipment needed to transport large quantities of water often make it difficult to bring it along. So, we’ve found it best to be prepared for any scenario! Thanks ~ Emily L.

      1. I thought your article was about a single horse. So my response was about one or two horses. In your response, you raise an interesting point. How do you provide healthy water for several horses when you are away from home? I came up with two posiblities: 1) Get a bigger truck [joke] and 2) Take a portable water purifier with you. The size and cost depends on need.

  4. How do I get 60 wild horses to a trough full of water, 100 m from a dry dam that they won’t leave as it has muddy water

    1. Hello Michael,

      Thank you for contacting us! This is a tough scenario, but we have some suggestions for you. First, you are going to need several troughs (10 gal/day/horse x 60 = 600 gallons per day). Second, if the terrain is safe, getting herds to move usually involves driving them across the water by horseback or other truck/ATV. It will require help from several experienced horsemen to drive a whole herd safely. Third, we would recommend contacting the Assateague Island National Seashore conservatory, which is where they do the wild pony herd swim every year. They might have some useful insight into the logistics of this unique situation. You can visit their website: http://www.assateagueisland.com/island_info/assateague_info.htm or email them at info@assateagueisland.com.

      Good luck with your herd! Thank you ~ Emily L.

  5. Wow all of this info is amazing 🙂
    I have a mare who is very picky about cold water and I have had a tough time with colic this Winter and her drinking the right amount of water we live in a warm southern state but this year it has been insanely cold pretty much what it came down to was the vet telling me how ever I can get fluids in to her just do it so I’m willing to try anything at this point lol

    1. This past winter we didn’t have enough cold weather to count as winter, but being cold one day and hot the next seemed to confuse the horses on how much water they needed. So to a 3 gallon bucket, I would add about an 1/8th of a cup of molasses. Apparently it’s an old horseman’s trick. It worked like a charm and they would suck that buck of water down, like they had never seen water. Their trough was always plain fresh water.

  6. Mainly, get to know your horse! Listen to what other owners have tried. Older show geldings get very set in there ways. They even like certain a color of bucket. I always used blue for water and red for grain. I also like small buckets because you can lift the bucket of water up to the horse. Remember horses in the wild usually walk out into the water to drink; probably because it is easier for them to drink! :o)

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