August 2, 2021
Water is just as important as a proper diet and exercise for your horse. A hydrated horse is a healthy horse, but sometimes your horse will need some help keeping their body balanced with fluids and minerals correctly. The first step is knowing if your horse is dehydrated.
Check Your Horse's Hydration Status
It's pretty simple to include checking your horse's hydration status as part of your grooming process. Think of a gum check as measuring vital signs, like temperature, pulse, and respiration.
You can use the skin-tent test at the base of your horse's neck. Pinch some skin and pull it outwards; it should snap back within 2 seconds or so. Dehydrated horses lose elasticity in their skin, and the tent will take longer to return to normal. Older horses also lose elasticity in their skin, making this test less accurate.
Inspecting and feeling your horse's gums gives you more information. Check the color of the gums; pale pink color is normal. Any other color other than your horse's usual shade - red, blue, purple - indicates an emergency.
Add the capillary refill test to your routine. Press your thumb into the gums above the front teeth. Your thumbprint should be white, and the color should return within 2 seconds. Longer times are a clue that something is amiss.
The gums should also feel slippery and slick. Dry gums or sticky gums are another clue that something is wrong. A phone call to your vet is worth the time to check-in and report your findings.
The Signs and Dangers of Dehydration in Horses
A horse without proper hydration is going to give you several clues that something is wrong. Aside from dry skin and sticky gums, the horse in trouble will be tired, unwilling to work, have dry eyes, act dizzy or clumsy, have a higher heart rate, dark urine, and fever. Dehydration is a medical emergency; please call your vet as soon as possible.
Without adequate water and minerals in the body, colic is a risk. Water is needed for digestion and helps keep manure soft and moving. As hydration levels drop, the fecal balls become small, rigid, and stagnant. Impactions are the result.
Water is a necessary fuel to keep organs alive and functioning and your horse at the correct temperature. Thermoregulation suffers during dehydration, and eventually, organ failure sets in.
**Do not automatically give your horse electrolytes if you suspect your horse is dehydrated.**
Unlike human sweat, horse sweat is water and a considerable amount of minerals. Electrolytes are best used before heat and exercise to replace minerals lost with sweating.
Dehydrated horses are already unbalanced in their water and mineral levels; adding electrolytes only shifts this imbalance further.
Call your vet for instructions if your horse is dehydrated. Fluids given by an IV are often needed, along with bloodwork and careful monitoring of vital signs.
Help Your Horse Get Water on a Daily Basis
There are a few things you can do to help your horse keep up with his water intake.
Offer fresh and clean water in clean buckets or tubs at all times. The water and bucket should be clean enough for you to drink. If possible, track your horse's intake by noting how many times you refill the buckets. Some automatic watering systems have gauges to measure drinking.
It's also worth experimenting to find your horse's favorite container - bucket, muck tub, or trough. Some horses show a preference towards blue containers, as well.
Adding water can also be done with your horse's feeds. Making a mush or slurry from feed meals is easy, as is soaking hay. A hay net in a muck tub of water is a tidy way to soak and drain hay. Soaking times in summer are faster than winter to avoid the hay becoming rancid.
If you need to tempt your horse to drink, it's time to experiment. Is there a flavor that your horse would welcome in his water? You could try apple juice, a sports drink, or even tossing some of his grain into the bucket. Typically, less is more. Luckily, your horse will tell you how much flavoring they like. When playing around with this, always have unflavored water available.
Most horses will prefer to drink cold water in the winter, but they will drink more warm water when it's the only choice. Using insulated buckets or heated muck tubs is excellent for just such an occasion.
Extreme weather can be challenging for horses and humans alike, especially when temperatures are out of the norm and nobody is acclimated.
Both extreme hot and cold require pulling out all the stops. Double down on your efforts to include water into your horse's feeds, and use their flavoring of choice to entice drinking. The most important thing you can do is check their vital signs and gum health more frequently to catch problems early.
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Intense winter weather is the perfect time to increase your horse's forage, especially at night when temperatures dip. Slow feeders or round bales are best to deliver some extra hay. The extra forage keeps his body stimulated to drink, and the digestive fermentation warms your horse from the inside out.
Luckily for more horses, life outside prepares them for most circumstances. Help your horse by checking hydration and vitals frequently, and stay in contact with your vet.
Any signs of abnormal behavior or vitals during extreme weather warrant a call to your vet.
Hot weather also calls for monitoring of your horse's sweat and body temperature. Your horse will also need shade, fans, and even hosing down. While sweat is a healthy and normal reaction to heat, a horse that suddenly stops sweating is dangerously overheated and needs the vet.
Cold weather has its own set of challenges with frozen water. Plan ahead and make sure you have a water system to keep water from freezing. You may also be smashing ice regularly. If possible, offer warm water.
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Hydration for Trailering
Traveling with your horse for short or long trips can be challenging in the hydration department. Before you even load up, make sure his water intake and urine output are regular. Checking on those gums is critical, too.
For any length of trip, it's helpful to bring some water from home and a flavoring temptation. At least every two hours on a trip, offer water and let your horse rest.
If you hang a hay net in the trailer, used soaked hay. As a bonus, there will be less dust flying around. Some equestrians find that spilling a few bags of ice from the corner store in the trailer keeps things cooler to reduce sweating.
For longer trips on a commercial truck, box stalls are best; they typically have water buckets at all times and more room to be comfortable. Flying with horses always includes water for the horses.
If you are worried about your horse trailering for a long time, talk to your vet about preventive measures you can take, such as electrolytes.
The best thing you can do for your horse is to know his normals. His temperature, pulse, respirations, and gums are essential to track. Know your horse's normal behaviors and patterns, too. How much they eat and drink, what their manure and urine look like, and their habits are equally important.
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