How Much Water Should My Horse Drink During Winter?

Richard G. Godbee, Ph.D., PAS, Dipl. ACAS-Nutrition

It's the summer time, warm days, plenty of time in the saddle, horses dripping wet with sweat. Every horse owner can envision those times and easily remember how much water both the rider and horse consumed every day. In another scenario, the horse is on lush green pasture and "drinks" from the trough or creek very little. Fast forward to winter when the horse is not dripping wet, the grass is dried- up and dead, and the trough or creek is frozen. Horses in both of these seasons require the same amount of water per day for maintenance. An 1100 lb horse needs about 10 gallons of water per day to ensure proper hydration and minimize digestion upsets. In the first scenario, that horse may require two or three times the amount of water required for maintenance.

Generally speaking, we see more digestive concerns during the winter months than during any other time of year. This is related to a decrease in water intake whether it is caused by a lack of supply, e.g. frozen water; cold water decreasing intake, or just not enough water being provided to the horse. Another factor can be the horse that was eating the lush pasture which may contain 75% water is now eating hay which contains 10% water. The horse still requires at least 10 gallons of water but is now relying on us to supply it. Older horses and those with dental issues may not drink very cold water, again adding to the problem of insufficient water intake.

The question becomes how we insure our horses are drinking enough water to meet their needs during the winter. During the summer, electrolytes were fed to encourage the horse to drink. We often feed them when traveling to get out horses to drink more. This same concept should be used in winter; judicious use of a quality electrolyte often helps in maintaining proper hydration in the horse. Other ideas include insuring the horse has access to water at all times. Use heaters in water troughs where freezing is an issue, check the water supply daily, make sure the water is free flowing; for older or debilitated horses heated buckets can warm the water to an acceptable temperature.

In summary:

  • Ensure access to free flowing water at all times.
  • Use water heaters as required.
  • Measure water consumption if you have any doubts. This can be using a bucket, installing a flow meter on automatic waters, or just being observant.
  • Know the signs of dehydration in the horse.
  • Know how to do a skin pinch or test on the mucous membranes i.e. the gums. Understand both tests should return to normal in a few seconds in a properly hydrated horse.
  • Use quality electrolytes to help ensure proper water intake.

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