How Much Drinking Water Does Your Horse Need?

Posted: July 7, 2012

Temperatures are soaring in many parts of the country, it's important to remember how crucial water is to keeping horses healthy. Always ensure your horses have access to fresh, clean water at an appropriate temperature, and ensure they're drinking the fluids provided.

Have you ever been frustrated by a horse that refuses to drink water? A metaphoric idiom that dates from the 12th century and was in the proverb collection of John Heywood in the year 1546 states: “You can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make them drink.” The idiom can be interpreted to mean you can provide someone an opportunity to do something, but you cannot force them to actually do it; or people, like horses, will only do what they have a mind to do. Horse owners may think of this saying when experiencing a horse that refuses to drink. The comparison could be more than a message, for the lack of intake by a horse is an immense concern. Water consumption is extremely important in the digestive process to avoid colic impaction, dehydration and other life threatening ailments.

How much water does a horse consume in a day? The average horse will intake 5 to 10 gallons of fresh water per day. Just like humans different horses crave or need different water amount intakes. A horse deprived of feed, but supplied drinking water, is capable of surviving 20 to 25 days. A horse deprived of water may only live up to 3 or 6 days. After lacking water intake for two days a horse may refuse to eat and exhibit signs of colic and other life-threatening ailments. Just like humans, in the heat of summer, a horse will enjoy cool, fresh water, but in cold winter situations, difficulties arise in providing water that is too cold or in a semi-frozen state. Humans enjoy a cup of hot tea, coffee or chocolate to warm their internal system and needs in the winter. Horse owners have discovered that warming the drinking water for their horse during the winter will lead to the horse consuming more water.

Domestic horses depend on the consumption of forage consisting of a variety of grasses and grass type feeds. In the summer if the horse has the advantage of daily grazing on fresh pasture grasses they will be able to consume water through the intake of grasses, which contain large amounts of water. This could reduce the desire of the horse of obtaining water through drinking. In the winter the horse depends upon the forage of dried grasses or hay, which has a lower amount of concentration of water. Therefore, a horse may need an increase of offered water in the winter months, more so than in the grazing periods.

Just like the availability of water during the different temperatures of the seasons, the usage of a horse by humans is reflected by the seasonal weather conditions. Horse owners do not tend to ride or use their horses often during cold winter months. When spring arrives and progresses into the summer months, the horse has more activity by the use of pleasure riding, trail riding, showing, farm and ranch work. Lack of water consumption by the horse during this time of usage could lead to dehydration.

Dehydration in horses is an extremely serious situation and can occur during strenuous exercise, stressful situations, or in cases of bouts of diarrhea. The lack of water can include the lack of electrolytes. Electrolytes include th minerals sodium, chloride and potassium and the lack of electrolytes can lead to kidney failure in the horse, if the horse is not rehydrated quickly.

Horse owners can suspect dehydration in their horse by recognizing the signs: sunken eye or dullness, lethargy, dry skin and mouth, drawn up flanks, depression or excessive thick saliva. Another sign of dehydration is a high level of protein in the blood, which can be determined by a blood sample. The horse many exhibit one or a combination of these signs.

A simple, but not always accurate way to judge dehydration in horses is to conduct a simple skin pinching test. Pinch up a fold of the horse’s skin and then release it. Skin should immediately return back into its natural position. If the skin remains in a ridge from two to five seconds this could be a sign of mild dehydration. The longer the skin remains in a ridge can determine the severity of the lack of water in the horse’s system. Skin that remains in a ridge appearance for ten to fifteen seconds is the alert for immediate veterinary assistance, for the skin is demonstrating severe dehydration signs.

Offer the horse cool fresh water often during strenuous activities. If the horse is at a location where the drinking water does not have the same taste as the home water the horse may refuse to drink. Before going to an event try flavoring the home drinking water for a few days prior to the journey with Gatorade or apple juice to accustom the horse to the flavor. For the convenience of the horse owner prepared powdered electrolyte packets, flavored or unflavored, can be adding to drinking water to replenish necessary items.

Simple management practices by the horse owner during stressful events can prevent the horse from dehydration effects. Know your horse and look for the signs of dehydration and conduct the “pinch test” frequently. Provide adequate fresh, clean water often and if there is any doubt of the possibility of the severity of the situation contact a veterinarian immediately. The rule of thumb is, if at the event you are consuming and desiring water intake, then the chances are the horse is also having the same desires. Riding horses is great exercise for the rider and also an additional strain on the horse’s metabolism. Be safe and smart and keep the horse hydrated!

Some Water Requirements for Equine

The amount of water a horse requires can vary depending upon several factors (Referenced from: June 2012):

The feed consumed can determine the amount of water required:

  • Fresh pasture has between 60-80% moisture and can provide a large amount of the horse's water requirements when grazing.
  • Hay and grain are very low in moisture, causing horses to drink more water.
  • Higher levels of protein and sodium in the diet also increase the horse's water requirement as urinary volume increases.

Temperature and humidity

Ambient temperatures above 85°F will increase a horse's drinking frequency and volume. Colder temperatures (below 45°F) can reduce a horse's water consumption

Health status

Horses with excessive water losses from diarrhea require more water per day.

Physiological stage

Type of physical activity performed can affect the amount of water a horse needs.

Performance horses should be allowed to drink water prior to and during prolonged activity. Horses should be cooled down adequately prior to being allowed to drink free-choice after exercise.

Lactating mares require between 50-80% more water per day for milk production compared to horses at maintenance.